Reflections on the Death of Robin Williams

I am not a person who pays attention to celebrity news. Partially that is because I have two small children and never get to watch movies, and partially it is because I’m just not that interested. Now and again some tragic something flies through my Facebook feed in a flurry of heartfelt and emotive reactions, but I usually just tune them out.

Not so with the recent suicide death of Robin Williams.

williams

Even though it has been a week, I have not been able to shake a feeling of sadness. In some ways, this seems silly, as this is not a person who I really know. True, as a 36 year old, I grew up with his movies, a number of which I’d list as among my favorites. Like many others, I can’t help but find his spasmodic humor and warmth compelling. He was a great entertainer, and seemed to be  a genuinely kind person.

But the death of Robin Williams isn’t what I’ve found so impactful. It is the suicide of Robin Williams that carries such an emotional weight. That is because, simply, suicide is so very, very sad. Everything about it drips with sadness. I am a counselor, and among other things, part of my job is to be with people who are, to varying degrees, contemplating suicide. The pain and suffering that precede the act itself can only really be described as a sort of internal torture. The late David Foster Wallace, celebrated author of “Infinite Jest” and victim of suicide was quoted as saying the following:

“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.”

This may or may not be a universal feeling for people who attempt or complete suicide; my experience tells me that different people have different reasons, different “flames” and differing levels of fear of falling to the sidewalk. Why I quote this passage here is that I think it conveys the desperation of the act.

Coverage of William’s death has included a great deal of discussion of depression, mental illness and compassion for those who are suffering from all sorts of mental anguish. This is very good. It also causes us to look back over his life, view the instances of drug abuse and depression and assume that those things finally killed him. It is almost as if his life now takes a dramatic arc: his genius mixed with suffering, compounded over time with mental illness and fatigue, culminating in the finality of self-inflicted death. We may look at his laughter as a mask that was covering an abyss all along, one that finally caught up with him. This narrative suggests that his suicide was inevitable, that the entirety of his lived experience led up to an inescapable conclusion.

But suicide is never inevitable. It is not so tidy as to fit a narrative. It is far more capricious and volatile than that. Another very important aspect of suicide is the impulsiveness of it. Details from the scene of William’s death appear to convey a sense of impulsiveness. The ad hoc, improvised nature of the the scene doesn’t suggest a great deal of premeditation. I am speculating, of course, but while it doesn’t seem premeditated, it does sounds desperate and impulsive.

We also now know, via his widow, that he was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s. She also maintains that he had remained clean and sober in the time leading up to his death. His death, his motives and his actions are very hard to explain. Impossible, actually, as we will never know his experience of those last moments. Was he freighted by a long history of depression, of a life filled with emotional hardship? Was he afraid of what was to come from his disease? Did he find himself lost in a moment of overwhelm and misery, betrayed by his own mind and a victim of an impulsive choice? All of the above? None of the above?

The saddest thing is that, had he not completed the act, he would have likely felt better at some point. He may have made more movies. He would likely have experienced joy. He would, given his history, have gone beneath the surface again, but, again given his history, he would have likely resurfaced. When he was down, he was under the illusion that this was it, that it would never quit. In other moments of his life, it probably looked very different.

In order to stave off suicide, you don’t have to reverse a lifetime of painful struggle, or solve the deepest, darkest questions in your psyche. You don’t even necessarily need hope, as counter-intuitive as that may sound. You simply need to make it through this moment right now.

I use the word simple very intentionally. In the depths of suicidal feelings, nothing seems simple- thought and emotion weave together a complex tapestry of internal torture. You cannot think your way out of it. Every thought has a counter-thought, every hope has a reason to be snuffed out. It’s a rigged game, and the harder you fight, the more tightly you are trapped. But you don’t need to win the struggle. You simply need to stay alive, today, right now.  And that probably means reaching out to another person- a friend, family member, a clinical professional, or a helpline operator which, by the way, you can reach at 1-800-235-8255.

This video is one I remember coming across a few months ago. It is a brief statement by Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of the book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against it, and it’s the best plea for staying alive that I’ve seen:

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