There has been a lot of social media stuff about suicide and depression in the wake of Robin Williams’ passing. Some of it is good or interesting, but most of it is just dumb.
I feel compelled to weigh in, as someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts for more than 30 years. I want you to note that I wrote “experienced,” not “has had.” I don’t “have” these thoughts, I don’t sit down and say “I’m going to think about suicide now!” They come unbidden, they whisper, they cajole, they seduce–sometimes they storm chaotically. It’s not a choice to have these thoughts and impulses, it’s a malfunction of some kind.
When I was a teen the thoughts came occasionally, and usually were couched in pathetic revenge fantasies. “I’ll show Mom to treat me that way. I’ll kill myself and then she’ll realize what she did.” And those thoughts would lead to images or visions of my funeral. These suicidal thoughts were mostly self-indulgent, almost pleasant narratives, a form of imaginative thinking, of experimentation, of self-reflection. I never once considered actually committing suicide at that time.
Deep into my twenties the thoughts got stronger, more insistent. I was worthless, hopeless…a drain on my loved ones and friends. I was a waste of resources on planet Earth. Everyone would be better off without me around. I did a lot of meditating in my twenties, and practiced watching thoughts and their mysterious origins, and letting them go. I got pretty good at letting most thoughts go, but the suicidal thoughts were pernicious, like work or stress thoughts that keep you awake at night. But again I recognized these thoughts as originating elsewhere–some inexplicable source sent them my way, I never had any intention of acting on them. They just occurred, and like other thoughts could be allowed to drift away. These thoughts were wholly unpleasant–and involved detailed reasons why it was appropriate and necessary to end it all. Repressed feelings, ancient actions, character flaws–all was dredged up and carefully presented in a devastating case that it was time to end it. Again, I never came close to acting on these thoughts, but I started really paying attention to them, because when they came they could truly disable me. I started drinking as a teen but my drinking and pot smoking hit new levels in my 20s as I’d try to numb these thoughts. Rationally I had a pretty good life working–successful in college, did really well in grad school, I was traveling a lot, I was married to an amazing woman, we had a lovely little home. I was teaching part-time at a university across the street from my house, I was managing a huge Borders superstore and rather liking it, etc. And yet monthly I was arguing with myself about suicide. I started to think it was some narcissistic form of mental masturbation, that I was thinking these thoughts for pleasure. But I was wrong.
Into my 30s the thoughts became more common and deeper. Instead of trying to let the thoughts go–which never worked–I started to use my writerly imagination to flesh them out. I constructed elaborate suicide scenarios, detailed scenes, including the post-mortem responses of loved ones. In this manner I withstood the thoughts without really giving into them. I told myself repeatedly that I had a lot going for me, there was no reason to feel this way, I was just indulging in a bit of fun, I would never really DO it. And then I realized what I was actually doing was planning in detail how I WAS going to do it. That was quite a realization, and I began thinking hard about the manic depression in my family, the alcoholism, the insomnia, the religious fanaticism. How many of my relatives had suffered through this? What was going on? When I was 38 I finally checked the box on the form my doc gave me for annual checkups that said “Thoughts of suicide.” We talked about it, and he told me I was too smart to really do that, but he didn’t seem to think it was serious. And that right there is one of the major ways depression or suicidal thinking is misunderstood in America.
Early in my 40s the episodes became vicious and insistent, and they came slightly more than monthly. I was not merely a waste of resources, I was the cause of misery and despair for everyone I knew. I was ruining everything. I was a failure at work, I was a miserable excuse for a human being, I was amoral and repugnant. Nothing I did was of any value whatsoever, my family, my wife, my friends, would not only be better off without me, they would quickly see that I had needed to die. These thoughts are not rational, but they come with insanely detailed arguments, and they often sneak in after a substantial success at work or financially. I could rationally think about a gazillion reasons not to commit suicide, but rationality had nothing to do with it. When the episodes hit it wouldn’t matter if I was elected leader of every team at work, if I’d had all superior performance ratings, if I had four academic degrees, all summa cum laude including one 4.0 GPA in a Master’s degree, if I’d traveled the world and had more I needed to see, if I loved my wife passionately–nothing could convince me life was worth living. In these states I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to play guitar, I couldn’t write, read, watch films–even listening to beloved music was a noisome chore. The activities I love, the things which define me, became hateful sources of embarrassment and misery–obviously acts to cover the worthlessness inside. I would sit in a stupor and beat the shit out of myself, all the while knowing it was bullshit and not originating in any sane or rational place, desperately smoking tons of weed or drinking whisky trying to escape the truth about myself. Try thinking rationally when you are 100% overwhelmed by these crazy self-destructive ideas. And I could be in one of these states and NOBODY AROUND ME WOULD HAVE THE SLIGHTEST IDEA. I could function as always, filing paperwork, doing parent conferences at school, meeting with my boss, leading a planning session–all the while planning where I would park my car before leaping off some famous landmark. And the people I interacted with would all be talking about how funny, charming, intelligent, and necessary I was–while internally I knew they were just trying to protect me from the truth, that I was awful and despicable and beneath contempt. Imagine that–the highly functioning person you love at work might be planning to kill himself while you are putting together a spreadsheet or a business plan or a proposal and you are marveling at his brilliance and productivity.
And what help can you seek in these situations? Take a pharmaceutical that makes you impotent, gives you internal bleeding, numbs your mind and creativity into a dreary mush? Hell, no. So I always fight my ass off when the thoughts come. I tell myself that I will walk through this valley of shadow. The valleys can last two hours or four days, one never knows. I have been fighting them for three decades. Robin Williams fought them for five or more. I am not surprised he killed himself, I am rather amazed he succeeded for so long!
The strangest thing about these episodes is how beautiful and sad the world is when you return from them. When I emerge successfully from one of these states I can happily stare at a leaf for an hour, weeping at its amazing complexity. I can see and respond to the suffering of others in astonishing ways. I can think vividly and clearly and can draw, write, imagine, create, laugh, and improvise mad blues scales like a fiend. A dog or a bird becomes the most amazing and absorbing thing on Earth.
I have no intention of killing myself. I would never do that. I have too much to live for. Look at my Flickr or Facebook or Instagram–I lead a rich, rewarding, and very successful life. I live in a fucking 19th century Victorian rowhome that kicks ass. I’m healthy as an ox at 45 despite years of self-medication.
I remain committed to life, to draining every sensation and experience out of my precious, rare human existence.
But I am not always in control of me. When I get into the darkness I am like Odysseus tied to the mast, striving to answer the Sirens’ sweet singing. But I am also the one who does the tying. And I am not always reliable.
Styron wrote about it really well. I wonder if there’s an evolutionary reason or advantage to suicidal thoughts? Why did this trait evolve? What keeps it going? There ARE too many humans, but that doesn’t feel like the right answer…