I don’t know if you have noticed, but ever since Robin Williams died, I have removed the filter from my writing that keeps me safe of jaw dropping, disappointing head gestures, and all kinds of judgments that authentic writing invites. I just really don’t care anymore what people think because lives are at stake. If this brutal beast of an illness is strong enough to kill someone with the passion, determination, and genius of Robin Williams, than we must do everything we can to protect those who are more fragile. That means being brave and writing as honestly as I can, on a taboo subject so few people understand, even if it means getting disapproving stares from other parents at my kids’ school.
When I first heard about Robin’s death, my first reaction was this: “The poor guy sneezed.” I know that probably doesn’t make sense to anyone who has never experienced severe depression. But if I can, let me try to translate the urgency to take one’s life into language you might grasp. Suicidal depression is like having to sneeze. The impulse can be so strong, that you simply follow your body’s command without thinking too much of it. You don’t think about your family or the reasons not to do it. All you’re feeling is an incredible itch to sneeze, and you’re certain that anything short of sneezing wouldn’t relieve you of the sensation.
American novelist David Foster Wallace gives us a better analogy:The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
I was talking about suicide with my mom the other day. Her younger sister (my aunt and godmother), at age 43, took her life. “I was never sad when she died,” my mom said, “because I saw the torment she was experiencing throughout so much of her life. If anything, I was happy that she was, at last, free.” I recently attended a funeral of the wife of my former running partner. (He was 85, which gives you some indication of how slow I run.) I had a difficult time with it, but not for the reasons you would suspect.
I wasn’t sad that she had died. I was sad that I hadn’t died. I was jealous of her, the one in the casket, who had lived a full and beautiful life and could now rest. That, then, brought to surface feelings of shame for having those thoughts. Before too long, I was crying — from all the self-bashing and in longing to be on the other side. But a funeral is a perfect place to break down.
I was disturbed by my thoughts because they are so opposite of what is presented in pop culture. When I confided in my online depression community, I learned many of them had the same thoughts, sometimes elicited at funerals. I was consoled, especially, by what my friend Melissa wrote:
In your words, I see the acceptance of death … this imaginary foe we are taught to fight. We hide the signs of aging. We wear sunscreen in our 20s to prevent wrinkles years down the line. We play computer games to increase neuroplasticity. All in this vain and futile attempt to delay the inevitable. Some day we all will die. And that fear of death that ironically propels most to live does not serve the same function for those with mood disorder plus suicidal ideation. And because of that, we have to find something to live for. That we enjoy. That we can sit with and be present in that very moment. Peach nectar sweet and sticky on fingers. The purple ember in a bonfire. The nuzzle of a furry friend. The words that show acknowledgement and being heard. Because we accept death and at times welcome it, or live with thoughts of death as a comfort, we have the unique ability to hold steadfastly to a moment, study it, replay it, before letting it go.
It’s so true. People who are depressed don’t fear death, and because of that we have to be proactive in compiling reasons to stick around, especially when we are hit with the urge to sneeze. I know that this statement will make absolutely no sense to someone who has never been depressed but I am going to say it anyway and risk feeling uncomfortable when I run into to someone here who has read this blog: The most difficult thing I will ever do in my lifetime is to not take my life. I have swam across the Chesapeake Bay, given a talk to 3,500 people, and stayed sober for 25 years. None of that is as hard as making a decision to stay alive, feeling that overpowering desire to sneeze, and not giving in to it.
This article first appeared in Psych Central, 19 January 2015.