On Depression and Suicide…

Like most of the world I was stunned to learn of the death of Robin Williams last August. I grew up watching this man and his hilarious body of work. He was the man with that whipped cream-covered face ever-present in my childhood—and he was a face, I assumed, would entertain my own children. Unfortunately, that will not come to be.

Not only was I stunned to hear of his death, and the circumstances—suicide—I was surprised how much it affected me. It hit me, hard. I saw myself in his actions, and it scared me.

On the day of his death, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

Depression is real. It is a brutal, paralyzing, and nondiscriminatory disease. It doesn’t show up on CAT scans or a blood panel but that does not make it any less dangerous. Robin Williams passing has reminded me of my own struggles, and reminded me how silent and secretive I have always been on the matter—ashamed in a way no one would be of cancer, diabetes, or high cholesterol.

Depression is an illness. Depression is real.

This may spark debate, and that is not my intention, but there is so much more to suicide (and suicide attempts) than “cowardness” or “selfishness.” If you haven’t been there it is impossible to explain, but I ask that you consider there are two sides to every coin. Do not judge those suffering; support them—even if you, and they, do not know how. It is hard to suspend judgement in times like these, it is hard to understand why someone who appeared “so happy” or “had it all” would do this. But that is the bitch about severe depression, and suicide: Things do not destroy the disease. People and even love do not destroy the disease. In fact, I will go so far as to say nothing truly destroys this disease. One can only treat the disease, and hope—like with any other treatment—for the best outcome.

I send love today to all those suffering, and all those whom have suffered. I know events like this are triggering. If you need any support I am a phone call or email away—and I’m sure there are many other people there for you too.

You are not alone.

I needed to let others know they can help, even when they don’t know how or think they can. I needed to say “you are not alone” to remind everyone suffering they are not. I needed to say this to remind myself.

…I still do.

I have had dark days. I have had suicidal thoughts. It is not something I am proud of, or something I willingly shared (at least until now). The shame kept my secret as did the fear of being found out; the fear of being stopped or saved. That is how sick those suffering from depression are; that is how sick I was and, truth be told, always will be. (Sure, I have my good days—hell, I even have great days—but depression is a lifelong battle. It is an illness I will struggle with every day.)

So why do I bring up Robin Williams, again?

Just after his passing an article was written by Katie Hurley entitled “There’s Nothing Selfish About Suicide.” How this piece missed my reading list, and Facebook feed, for so long astounds me but it just crossed my path last week—three whole months later. In it Hurley says something so simple and powerful, something I have always wished I could say, “Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them. Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness…[u]ntil you’ve stared down that level of depression, until you’ve lost your soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness… you don’t get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your own feelings, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won’t help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt others.”

Robin Williams, the funny little alien who stood on his head instead of sitting on the sofa, has done something that so many others could not: He started a conversation about suffering—true suffering—depression and suicide. In the wake of his death, articles were written and dialogues were started between friends, family members, teachers, students, colleagues and peers around the world. Was that his intention, his grand plan? No. Is it something I will forever be grateful for; yes.

I still mourn for Robin, and for all of those who have lost their battle. Robin will always be remembered as an amazing comedian—perhaps one of the greatest comedic talents of my time—but, above all, he was a man. As superhuman as he appeared, no one is immune to, or safe from, this illness. That doesn’t mean we are hopeless, it simply means we need support. We need to stop being silent and ashamed, stop being to afraid to ask for help, and remember we are not alone. You are not alone. And we need our friends and family, and society, to know that while they cannot cure us they can help us—even if it is only for a few minutes.

Author Katie Hurley offers the following suggestions:

  • Know the warning signs for suicide. 50-75% of people who attempt suicide will tell someone about their intention. Listen when people talk. Make eye contact. Convey empathy. And for the love of people everywhere, put down that ridiculous not-so-SmartPhone and be human.
  • Check in on friends struggling with depression. Even if they don’t answer the phone or come to the door, make an effort to let them know that you are there. Friendship isn’t about saving lost souls; friendship is about listening and being present.
  • Reach out to survivors of suicide. Practice using the words “suicide” and “depression” so that they roll off the tongue as easily as “unicorns” and “bubble gum.” Listen as they tell their stories. Hold their hands. Be kind with their hearts. And hug them every single time.

If you are in need of immediate help, or are in crisis, contact Lifeline.

Robin Williams “No matter what people tell you words and ideas can change the world.” – Robin Williams
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