A Little Compassion

“The mentally ill do not “commit” suicide. It makes it sound like they did it on purpose or that they had a say in the matter. But they don’t, really. Their illnesses were in control.

The entire concept of “committing” suicide, as it relates to mental illness, is nothing short of tragedy. Your son died by suicide. More specifically, he died from his mental illness, which caused him so much torment and suffering that he ultimately succumbed to it. It was not his fault, nor was it his desire. Most importantly, it wasn’t his choice.

Your son didn’t kill himself; the illness killed him.” – Gabe Howard

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about suicide and mental illness. While the death of Robin Williams is nothing less than tragic, the discussion is one that we, as a society, need to have. One we have needed to have for a long time. Sadly, we always seem to wait for a tragedy before we talk about the taboo.

It is apparent that few people truly understand what depression is and how it affects someone’s life. I have seen a lot of commentary along the lines of, “He should have gotten help.” After all, Mr. Williams was privileged, had access to the best healthcare system in the world…so why didn’t it work? Coming from our society I find this ironic. We shame those in death for not getting help just as we shame those in life for daring to seek it.

Truth is, mental illness is something that we do NOT speak of. A dark and dirty secret that needs to be stomped out and forgotten. We sit upon our high thrones and pass judgement upon those who take their lives just as we do for those who try to prevent it.

Those who loose the battle are characterized as weak, selfish, cowardly. And yet, how many times we all had this conversation:

    “Did you hear? Lala is going to therapy.”

    “Figures, I always knew she was crazy.”

Mental illness is not seen as a disease, and it is not treated as a disease by far too many in the medical community.

It is a weakness, a choice, an exaggeration, done only for attention, an excuse. We treat mental illness with such stigma and dirision, then we act surprised when someone succumbs to it. Imagine if we treated cancer with the same lack of depression and disbelief.

Truth is, mental illness is real, and it is just as deadly as cancer. Suicide is merely a symptom of a much larger problem. A problem that is highly underestimated. After all, Mr. Williams had everything, what did he have to be depressed about? Or like this moronic comment: “most of us have suffered from severe depression in our lives. We need to stop making this a mental illness conversation and make it a “everyone has the capability of getting really, really, really sad for an extended period of time. I mean, there are only about 10,000 books written about how to get out of an emotional slump. But no, apparently everyone individually thinks they are part of some suicidal expert club because their depression was somehow deeper and more meaningful than everyone else who disagrees with them. Ridiculous.”

 

Statements like this are a giant neon sign flashing that the speaker has no idea what he is talking about. I blame this on the fact that there are two types of depression…and the human ego. So, let’s talk about depression. First, there is depression with a specific cause. The death of a loved one, loss of a job, stress, exhaustion. These can all cause a person to feel depressed. An emotion, really. This type of depression is felt by nearly everyone. It is temporary and usually resolves itself with time or the elimination of the trigger. And, naturally, because everyone experiences this from time to time, many assume that this is what we are talking about when it comes to depression. That if a,b,c was true for them then it must be true for everyone. Ah, the glories of human self-importance.

 

However, there is a deeper, darker version. One with no external cause. One that doesn’t simply pass with time. It is not something that you can just ‘get over.’ It is not an ’emotional slump.’ Not something that you can talk your way out of. Nor can you just ‘decide to be happy’ any more than you can decide NOT to have cancer. It permeates everything, diminishes everything. It is something that those who have not experienced it can ever, truly, understand.

 

The real bitch is, those of us with clinical depression are still prone, like all human beings, to situational depression. In this case, it serves to make a bad situation worse and can be the tipping point that leads to suicide. I find it oddly humorous that we praise those with terminal illness for stopping treatment, leaving the hospital, and choosing to die at home. We praise them for their strength, for fighting so hard, for so long. We cast no blame or shame upon theme for choosing to stop fighting. The same does not hold true for those battling severe, chronic depression. If they stop fighting; if they can no longer stand the pain. They are weak, selfish, and cowardly. Not worthy of our empathy and sorrow.

 

Is suicide a selfish act? Perhaps, on some level, and it certainly appears that way to those on the outside. But what many seem to overlook is that depression twists a person’s thoughts so much they often think those they love are better off without them. To a severely depressed person, suicide may actually seem like the most selfless thing they can do. If you think that sounds completely irrational, you’re absolutely right. But the fallacy at work here is the assumption that the person is capable of rational thought. Think about this for a moment, we blame those who commit/attempt/contemplate suicide for making ‘poor choices.’ But one of the first thing that is done when an attempted suicide arrives at the ER is begin the process of having them declared legally incapable of making their own decisions. On the one hand we criticize their decision making process, while at the same time, working to have them declared mentally incompetent. Care to explain to me that little bit of cognitive dissonance?

 

Is suicide a ‘permanent solution to a temporary problem?’ Not really. Another logical fallacy, for suicide is neither a solution, nor is the problem temporary. Is suicide a tragedy? Always. The problem, is the thought that the person you knew and loved chose to die. This is an assumption based on the premise that the rational mind was in control. It’s not. It never is in the face of suicide. (I will pause here, briefly, to state that we are talking about suicide as part of a severe depressive disorder. Like many things, not all suicides are created equal. For example, murder-suicide or mass suicides, are entirely different monsters.)

 

All humans have two voices inside their heads. The one that holds your true self, the rational self. The one that is positive (generally) and tells you that you can achieve anything. Then there is that other one. The little voice at the back of your head. The one filled with doubt. The one that tells you, ‘you can’t.’ For persons with a depressive disorder, that ‘little voice’ is actually a roaring, raging, controlling demon. (I am being metaphorical people, I am not saying that persons with depressive disorders (or any mental illness) are possessed by demons. Though, sadly, I have the feeling that I would have a greater chance of convincing the majority of Americans of that idea then I do of convincing them that depression is actually a disease.)

 

The demon is always there. Raking, clawing, rending. Constantly pulling you toward the jagged abyss. The rational self, clings to the walls, fighting. The rational self knows the demon lies. The rational self knows that death is not the answer. The rational self knows that you, the REAL you, doesn’t think that way, feel that way. But as the disease of depression worsens, the demon becomes stronger. Battering, cloaking, masking the rational self, sometimes manifesting in very real, physical pain sometimes eliminating all feeling at all. The demon continues to tear you away from your rational self. The rational voice becomes quieter and quieter…until it disappears all together.

 

I know. I have stared into the abyss. A terrifying, swirling blackness of pain and anguish. If you haven’t, you are so truly blessed because you cannot possibly understand that level of pain. Physical, mental, emotional. I wish that kind of pain upon no man. The kind of pain that eliminates hope and covers the world in a thick blanket of darkness. I have felt myself fall, only to be pulled back at the last second. This doesn’t make me somehow stronger, braver, better than those who do fall any more than the cancer survivor is somehow superior to the cancer victim. It just makes me lucky.

 

I haven’t won my battle, because my battle is never-ending. And I am keenly aware that the next fall could be my last. As for now, I am lucky that we have been having success with medication. Because after 16 years, I can finally admit that I need to continuously be on medication to control my condition. And that does not make me weak. I have a condition that requires medication to treat. The same as those with diabetes, heart disease, asthma, or any other chronic condition. And like any other condition, a failure in treatment can prove fatal. The only difference is the way my condition is perceived.

 

Many people with a major depressive disorder often become addicts. The reason is simple, we self-medicate (in part because a bottle of whiskey is more socially acceptable than an SSRI). We turn to drugs and alcohol because, for a brief moment they give us an enormous high or make us feel nothing (depending upon the manifestations of our depression and the drug of choice to combat them). Mr. Williams also suffered from addiction and was recently in rehab. Unfortunately, society has the same problem with addiction as it does with depression. It doesn’t understand it. The typical rehab facility treats all addiction as equal. It treats addiction as a disease, in and of itself (and sometimes it is). Or worse yet, a product of poor decision making. But not as the symptom of something more serious. Very rarely does rehab ever treat the actual ’cause’ of addiction. That’s the reason that rehab fails so very often.

 

Some medicate to feel. Something, anything. Sometimes the cloak of depression is so heavy that the body is constantly in a state of horrifying numbness. As though the entire world is cloaked in a fog. Sometimes this sensation is so great and persists for so long that the person will begin to cut themselves. The intent is not to harm themselves but simply to feel something. The fog is so pervasive that even pain is preferable to nothing. It is not that the person, necessarily, likes pain. But, more often than not, pain is the only thing that can break through the fog. It should be pretty easy to surmise that this type of behavior could very easily be taken too far. A cut too deep because it took that long to feel something. This is not a choice, this is the disease.

 

Sometimes, ironically, the pain is so great that feeling nothing is preferable, despite the inherent risks. Sometimes we cave the nothingness. We yearn for oblivion, even for only a short time, because the pain is just too great. You need that relief or the pain itself will kill you…or so you think. I have been there. I have been racked with pain so great that I prayed for it to end, not caring how that ending came.

 

The pain blinds you. Nothing else exists but the pain…and the pain is never-ending. You hear, but you don’t hear. You see, but you don’t see. You may be vaguely aware that other people are present, but feel entirely alone. Even if people are trying to help you, your perception is that they are there only to watch you suffer. To allow you to suffer. Had I been able to move (google: dystonic storm) I would have done ANYTHING to make it stop. I can easily see myself having taken the entire bottle of Valium had I, rather than my husband, been in control of my medication in that moment. But my goal would have been to stop the pain, not death. Death is rarely the goal of suicide, but more of a side effect of ending the pain.

 

I believe in God, believe in heaven (hold on, this is important). I believe that this life is temporary and the next life will be far, far better than anything I can imagine. Therefore, in my rational state I do not fear death. However, neither do I welcome it. In the words of Tyrion Lannister, “I like living.” A better world may await me but I truly love this one. I am nowhere near ready for it to end. (Note: Faith is great, it can be a light in the darkness of depression. But, it is also not a cure. It’s not a magic bullet. Faith can also be the enemy. The demon, (remember metaphorical) can use that against you just as it uses anything against you. Nothing and no one is immune to the disease.) I am happy and yet I am severely not happy. If that is confusing to you, then imagine living with it.

 

It’s like those old cartoons, with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. The angel tells the truth, is the moral compass, then the devil comes along and beats up the angel. So the only voice is the devil’s…and it lies. Yeah, it’s kind of like that. It is confusing, because sometimes reality fades so much that you are not sure which voice is which. It is annoying. It is frustrating. And in its worst moments can make you feel as though you are going ‘mad.’

 

And you are NOT supposed to talk about it, ever. After all, “It’s all in your head.” Not a single line, in all human language, infuriates me more. Most of the things I have to say about that are not suitable for print. This is ‘victim blaming’ in its highest form. No one ever tells the diabetic, “It’s all in your pancreas.” I don’t want this, no one wants this. It is not a choice we made. Depression is a cruel bitch that can either make you feel nothing or it can twist you up in so much pain you can’t think straight.

 

Like all disease we have good days and bad days. Sometimes we can even find something akin to remission. But the possibility of the next fall is always, always at the back of our minds. The demon waiting in the shadows. Make no mistake, Mr. Williams has not become some ‘hero’ to the depressed community. But rather, just another tragic victim. His death, perhaps, affects us so deeply because, for many of us, his comedy helped us through some of our depressive states. Laughter really is an awesome medication, a fantastic high. Perhaps it is the best medication because unlike the others it has no side effects. Comedy can be the thing that shakes awake the rational self. Allowing it to rise up, kick the demon in the ass, and say, “Screw you, that’s funny. I’m going to laugh.” Comedy can become a tether to reality. But, sadly, like all medications and treatments it doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes, even the laughter isn’t enough to beat back the darkness. Sometimes nothing is.

 

If you think that you are stronger than that, would be stronger than that, then you understand nothing. The human body can only withstand so much pain before it begins to shut down (we call this shock). Likewise, so too, does the human mind have its breaking point. No one, anywhere is immune to that. You can break, and if put under the right pressures for long enough, you will break. Depression doesn’t see race, culture, gender, religion, socio-economic background. It exists across every culture. So too, does cancer. Every year billions are spent on cancer research, looking for a cure, a cause, a better treatment. We have awareness ribbons, months, campaigns, runs, walks, fundraisers. Yet, we have none of these things for depression. Even though it is just as pervasive, just as deadly. But, to this day, mental illness, for some illogical reason, is something that we still can’t talk about. Well, we are talking now.

 

I do not presume to know what Mr. Williams was thinking at the time of his death. But I do know that within him raged a battle of epic literary proportions. Coming back from a fall is like climbing out of a deep dark hole. It’s exhausting. It hurts. You desperately cling to the walls, dodging the things that would knock you back down. Pushing yourself ever higher, begging your body to hold out. Then, your arms give way. You don’t want to let go, but you just can’t hang on anymore. You fall. Sometimes, something catches you. And sometimes you slip through its grasp. Sometimes, the demon wins. And it is always, always tragic. But it is never a choice. It is a deadly symptom of a very fierce battle raging quietly within.

 

 

“There is nothing selfish about suicide. What is selfish is those of us who are left behind thinking that our loved one, who experienced such debilitating pain, somehow owed it to US to live.”—comment on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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