After a Long Illness

TW: Suicide, Mental Illness, Addiction

One afternoon during the last month of my senior year in high school, the dean of students called me into his office. I wasn’t in trouble, he assured me. He just wanted to talk to me. I was the goofy, loud, weird kind of kid who carried around crayons and coloring books in her backpack. I wore a ratty brown sweater every day. Sometimes I wore a princess hat, the cone-shaped kind with the little gauze streamer down the top. I was in drama club. I MCed the school talent show. I tried with all my heart to be funny and strange and to make people laugh. Beneath, I was as insecure as every other teenager, but I was so sure that if I covered it up with humor, nobody would comment on it.

The dean of students knew someone just like me, he explained. This kid had been everything I was: dramatic, silly, shooting out manic intensity all over the place. And during the last week of high school, that kid killed himself.

At the time, and for a long time after, I thought it was a funny story. Not the part where the guy committed suicide, but the fact that the dean of students thought he needed to confront me over the possibility that I would. I wasn’t going to kill myself. Couldn’t he see how happy I was? Sure, I was routinely self-harming and having uncontrollable manic episodes that often ended in panic attacks or broken furniture. But I was really good at covering that up, wasn’t I?

It took me ten more years to understand the difference between being happy and being “on.” I’m a pro at being “on.” I love being around people. If you’ve ever met me in person, you know this, because I probably asked you ninety thousand questions about where you live and what you do. But I can do that on days when I’m feeling my lowest. I can do that on days when the only thing that gets me out of bed is my obligation to others. I can do that on days where I’m actively getting through it while promising that I don’t have to do it again. Get through this day, Jenny, and I promise you can kill yourself tomorrow. I do it because it’s what I’m driven to do, through some deeply strange part of me that feels that if I’m not putting on a show, I’m disappointing others. Every person in the world is an audience that I have to prove my sanity to, and every day I’m giving the performance of a lifetime.

When I heard about Robin Williams’s suicide, my first reaction was that visceral shock you get when someone who seems like they’re going to be around forever is suddenly gone. My second was, “Well, it makes sense.” He’d long been open about his struggles with addiction and mental illness, but the initial moment of surprise was, to me, an indication that even facing mental illness issues of my own I do not associate the words “mental illness” with “suicide.”

There’s a mechanism in us that separates suicide and suffering. It’s what makes people say things like, “suicide doesn’t solve anything,” and  “suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do.” I’ve long contended that the most selfish thing a person can do is critique another person’s reasons for taking their own life, but that’s a rant, and this week I just don’t have the energy for one. I don’t have the energy for anything. I feel… numb.

I could go on and on about how Robin Williams was a great performer, and he touched my life through his movies, but it wouldn’t be honest. I wasn’t a fan in the sense that if he was in a movie, I had to rush out and see it. My husband loved his stand-up, but I found it obnoxious. I don’t have any personal ties or particularly great memories associated with his work, aside from the dope as hell rainbow suspenders my mom got me so I could pretend to be Mork. But now I feel, as I’m sure many people struggling with mental illness do, a kinship with him. He’s been where we have been; he just couldn’t come back.

The press has reported lurid details about Williams’s suicide that I won’t reprint here. When someone kills themselves, the spectacle of the method sometimes overshadows the tragedy of the act itself. Certainly, it overshadows the connection between mental illness and suicide. We talk about suicide like it’s a choice. Suicide is never a choice. Suicide is a terminal illness hijacking the brain and torturing the victim to death.

If we’re going to throw out platitudes like, “Suicide never solves anything,” or “if he had only waited a day, things might have gotten better,” when someone dies from suicide, then we need to say the same things about people who die from other diseases. “He shouldn’t have died from heart disease. If he’d waited a day, things might have gotten better.” “Having a stroke never solves anything.” “Dying from cancer is the most selfish thing a person can do.” We often blame patients for their illnesses, especially in cases where addiction, obesity, or sexuality is a factor, but somehow it strikes me as especially cruel in a case where the criticism is echoing the very thing that killed the patient in the first place. People who have committed suicide already believe themselves selfish, weak, and cowardly. Rarely does a person succumb to Leukemia specifically because they feel bad about what a Leukemia-having person they secretly are at heart.

Robin Williams will join the ranks of the “sad clown” comedians whose lives were taken by the self-destructive impulses of mental illness and/or addiction (which are often co-morbid): Belushi, Farley, Jeni, Hedberg. And after each of those deaths, we’d say to ourselves, “Well, we always knew it would happen this way.” Because in hindsight, everyone can see the warning signs. Everyone can look back and say, “No one would put up that big of a front if something wasn’t wrong. No one would joke about that subject, or act so crazy. It was so obvious.” But those of us who’ve been there could see it coming; we saw it coming with Farley. We saw it coming with Hedberg. I know that I’d often seen Williams in an interview or stand-up special and thought, “That guy’s head has to be pretty dark, that all of this is working so hard to cover it up.” Yet each time, the death has come as a shock, because we don’t want to admit that we’ve been enjoying a persona that smothered a suffering person’s pain like a blanket.

As the public mourning for Williams rolls on, we’ll hear more and more about what he “should” have done. He “should” have gotten help (never mind that a man in Williams’s tax bracket could easily have as many therapists and drugs and hospitalizations as necessary if it truly were that simple). He “should” have called a crisis line (people tend to forget that a crisis line is for a crisis, not a long term fix, and that those in the midst of a suicidal depression may not realize that they’re in a crisis situation in the first place). He “should” have “counted his blessings” and “realized how important he was to everyone,” (somehow, the latter is not considered a selfish position in the dialogue of the selfishness of suicide). But what we won’t hear is that we should view depression and mental illness as possibly fatal diseases. We won’t hear the truth: that it’s as possible to positive-think your way out of depression as it is to positive-think a failed organ into working again.

That’s why the dean of students called me into his office that day. He’d seen the glitter-throwing, the invisible-partner tango dancing in the hall. He knew that the veneer of weirdness would eventually wear down, because he’d seen it before. He knew that the difference between quirky and clinically manic is always clear, even to the people around us. He didn’t romanticize it as artistic genius or an adorable personality quirk. He knew that no matter how much help I might receive, no matter what kind of support system I had among family and friends, I was isolated by mental illness. And while I saw his concern as a joke, he saw me the way mental illness never lets any of us see ourselves: as the inevitable suicide that we could all still be.

We’re not fooling ourselves. We want to keep up our performance, our make-’em-laugh mental illness vaudeville routine with a side of slight-of-hand magic and a big applause sign that lights up to read, “Ignore Everything But This Because We’re All Totally Fine,” never realizing that none of us are in a comedy.  If anyone’s death could pull back the curtain and reveal the tragedy behind it, it would be Williams’s. Why would a famous man with famous friends and a loving family, with success in his past and his present and presumably ahead of him, as well, kill himself?

Because he didn’t. Robin Williams did not kill himself. Mental illness killed Robin Williams.

49 thoughts on “After a Long Illness

  1. Thank you for posting this. I never realized how difficult it is to get help for someone who is contemplating suicide until someone I knew was on the edge. Even mental health professionals are limited in what they can do. Unless the person who is suffering wants to voluntarily go, everyone else’s hands are tied. That combined with denial and not getting/taking medications-it’s a wonder more people don’t commit suicide. We need better understanding and care for those who deal with mental illness. I’m glad to hear that you had someone who understood what you were going through. Hang in there, you’re worth it! (((Hugs!)))

  2. I wasn’t surprised either. Just sad. Even if we all see it coming, there’s no plausible course of action to take. A dean may speak to a student, but what can you say to a celebrity? They chose a career that further isolates them in a way that makes them nearly untouchable.

    Suicide doesn’t solve anything, but for the most part, the suicidal aren’t thinking of solving anything anyway. They are being driven.

    “Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

    This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”

    - David Foster Wallace

  3. This was beautifully written. Thank you, for all of us who couldn’t have said this even though we wanted to, the words would not have come out right. And thank you, for continuing to be honest about your own struggles.

  4. Thank you so so much for this post! I know I’ve seen plenty of them since we first learned of Robin Williams’ death, but somehow yours said exactly how I’ve been feeling. He didn’t kill himself because he was selfish, or having money trouble (I’ve actually seen that suggestion), or for any other ridiculous reason – he suffered from an illness for a long time, and it took his life.

    I also can’t stand when people say “well he should have asked for help.” Yet when people do, all you hear is “well they’re just looking for attention. If they were REALLY depressed they wouldn’t say anything.” A friend of mine dealt with it freshman year of college, and when she came to us for help her roommate’s only response was “well she’s not REALLY depressed. When my brother was depressed he didn’t tell anyone.” As though that’s supposed to mean that nobody should ever tell anyone or it’s all a ruse.

  5. My father knew Robin Williams. One thing he noticed was that Robin was always “on” as you put it. Part of him really enjoyed making people laugh but there was that desire to hide his pain and do what was expected of him. Throw in a dual diagnosis of substance abuse and a mood disorder, you have one tortured soul. He’ll be greatly missed.

    Great post, as always. I really commend you for being so open about your own battle with mental illness. I’ve battled it myself and now I help treat it in others. I feel like you’re wrestling a depression demon from someone’s soul. It’s long past time that we stop the stigma and recognize mental illness as the disease(s) it is.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. I had actually not heard that Richard Jeni died. I loved him in the late 90′s and have often wondered what happened to him. When I heard that Robin Williams killed himself, I was very sad but also thought to myself, “Ah.” That which brought everyone else so much joy was covering something much darker up.

  7. So much this–and what Kiersten said earlier about “s/he’s just trying to call attention to her/himself.” When I was a teen back in the ’60s, I knew two girls whose anxiety disorders led to ulcerative colitis. Their parents didn’t get awfully excited because it was “all in their head.” I struggled with depression, and when I finally got the nerve to tell my mother about it (but not about my persistent suicidal thoughts), she just blew up and made it all about her–how much worse her life was than mine, how “everybody always blames the mother.”

    Even with fully supportive parents, kids can die of depression. My friends did everything possible to help their son, but the disease still compelled him to go hide in the woods and hang himself.

    My depression is not as severe. I am not afraid to go on Facebook and say, “Having a bad depression day”–the same way I’d say “Damn bronchitis” or “Frickin’ heel spur”–because I have the kind of friends and family who will come forth and offer help.

    I have the “chronic sinus allergy” brand of depression. Poor Robin Williams (who was HYSTERICAL and a GENIUS, so Jenny u r RONG OMFG) had the “terminal viral pneumonia” brand of depression. Requiescas in pace, brah.

  8. Thank you. I haven’t been able to find the words to express what I think in a simple sentence, but you did it here for me. “Robin Williams did not kill himself. Mental illness killed Robin Williams.”

    When I spoke to my mother about it, her only comment was that he must have been incredibly strong to cope as long as he did. And that’s why I love my mum.

  9. I hated seeing interviews with Robin Williams because of the covering up thing. I am also someone who recognized the behaviour because it’s one I do too.

    So many people have come forward saying he helped them through depression, I really hope there were people like that for him.

    And you’ve made me cry. First time I have since he died.

  10. That dean sounds like a wonderful, insightful man. I hope he served for many more years trying to help people like he did you. He might have saved someone in the end.

    There’s not just funny as a wall, though. I’m one of the “overachiever” type depressed – I always try and be smarter, know everything, be able to do everything, because that’s the sort of thing that will make other people think I have worth, and someone has to think that if I don’t. People look at the shooting stars like me (not trying to have an ego here, just trying to make a point) and wonder how someone who does so well and is so smart and has such a good job etc etc could be unhappy and it’s like, I’m just using those to justify sticking around. The worst point for me was when I was briefly underemployed – not even unemployed, still making money and paying the bills, but I knew I “should” have a better job because I was overqualified, and to me that felt like failure. And telling me I was so lucky compared to others, and lots of people had it worse off, that was terrible to hear, because it just got twisted in my mind into another reason to hate myself – not only was I a failure, I was ungrateful too, and I should just get rid of myself. It’s… weird, I guess. I don’t explain as well as you do, I think.

  11. Thank you again, Jenny, for putting so brilliantly into words something I’ve wanted to myself but could never quite manage to articulate it.

    When I was 20, I attempted suicide twice. One of those attempts, an overdose of many medicines (most of which I had no business taking at all) put me in hospital. The doctors estimated that I had a 30% chance of survival. They didn’t tell me that, but they did tell my parents over the phone. I remember my mother – who didn’t trouble herself to actually visit me – calling the ward, and the nurse telling me that she was demanding to speak to me. I didn’t want to, but I felt it was my duty. I remember the nurse telling me that because I was brought in in such a rush (minutes later, I was told, my liver would have failed), the electronic drip mechanism I was using was one that hadn’t had its back-up battery charged, so I would have to be very quick on the phone because if the drip stopped working, I would die. I remember dragging myself and my drip over to the phone and I remember telling my mother I didn’t have long because of the drip, and I remember her demanding to know why I had done such a terrible thing, why I hadn’t thought of anyone but myself and why I hadn’t stopped to consider the people I would have left behind. I remember her going on and on and on about how selfish and stupid I was, and I remember the nurses gesturing to get off the phone before the battery died and I remember telling my mother over and over that I had to go or I would die and it would be her fault and not mine and I remember her saying “how dare you talk to me like that” and I remember going back to bed feeling more utterly alone and desperate than I had done the moment I made up my mind to swallow 45 pills and get the hell out of this world. On top of that, I felt like a failure and a horrible person and like nobody, not even my own mother, gave a shit about how *I* was feeling in all this.

    I realise this makes my mother sound kind of like a bitch. Well, we didn’t get on, it’s true. But she isn’t a malicious person. She was just in shock, and unable to comprehend what was going on. She just didn’t understand the whole concept of suicide and why it happens. She just thought I wasn’t having a good time so I decided to take an “easy” or “cowardly” way out. She didn’t know that trying to take your own life is about the hardest thing you can do, that takes more courage than anything. So I am going to share this article with her. Not this comment – she never reads the bottom half of the internet (sensible woman). I fear she still won’t get it and she won’t agree with a lot of the statements in it but at least she will see that it isn’t just me who has a different perspective and maybe it will make her think.

    I’m also going to share it with a friend of mine. Every time a famous person he admires dies from suicide, he posts on Facebook about how tragic it all is and implores anyone who has suicidal thoughts or suffers from depression to “talk to someone” or “get help.” He posted one of those this morning. 100% well-meaning and his intentions are all very noble but as I gently reminded him this morning, the onus to take action should never be placed on a person who already has the burden of the world on their shoulders and might not be in a place where they are even capable of talking about their feelings.

  12. Beautiful. I don’t know why I’m so shocked by Robin’s death because his clownishness mirrors my own when I’m in a crowd and I’m a fucking mess inside, even though I know I have so much to be grateful for. Mental illness is such a mind-fuck.

  13. Thank you for this post. This needs to be in the public dialogue about suicide. I think a big factor in the “suicide is selfish”, “this is what should have been done” arguments is that the alternative is coming to terms with the heartbreaking realisation that mental illness could destroy the people you care about, not because they’re weak, but because depression and any number of psychological struggles can consume anybody. The deeper awareness that this stuff can always lie underneath the surface is scary, and has no obvious or easy solutions, and people aren’t equipped to face things that are so utterly senseless, and so there’s a real need to have some way to interpret these tragedies, a narrative with good guys and bad guys and right steps and wrong steps.

    But we need a better cultural understanding of mental illness and suicide. We need to try to understand the real nature of it and confront how scary and painful it is that there are no easy answers, and stop projecting our fears and anger onto the victims of suicidal depression.

    I have a best friend who’s suffered with severe depression and struggled with suicidal ideation for almost as long as I’ve known him, and it terrifies me that any day he could be overwhelmed by his illness and I and the world could lose him forever. But no amount of commonsense platitudes is going to help him. He doesn’t have a lot of resources to draw on; the public services available to him don’t have a policy of treating him unless he’s at the point of extreme crisis with a knife to his throat, or similar; and every day his psychological struggle is compounded by several health problems, family problems, lack of money, social anxiety, and the inability to work or study.

    It’s really hard not knowing what to do or to suggest when we know someone who’s losing the will to live. But we have to be strong and not isolate them further by pretending to know what’s best for them.

    1. Yes! I definitely think we have the tendency to try and paint complicated problems as black and white. We don’t like grey, because grey doesn’t have easy solutions. Grey is painful. It’s a hell of a lot easier to think that if people just ‘get help’ everything will be okay. (I feel that some people do the same thing with rape. ‘Well, if women would just not wear short skirts then everything would be alright!’)
      Unfortunately, by doing away with the nuances important things are lost and we just sort of muddle on not grasping the underlying issues and being (mostly well-meaning) assholes because we don’t know what’s really going on. Everybody should make an effort to understand.

  14. I want to point out and applaud Robin Williams for all the years he did succeed in his battle with addiction and depression.

    Part of the trouble with expecting depressed people to get help is that the disease often makes you not want help. When I had my first major depression as a teenager part of the disease was being convinced that I didn’t have a disease, that it was the “real me”. I resisted help at first, and it is only because of the persistence of others that I finally went on the right medication that my brain needed. If being depressed is like having your mind held hostage then sometimes you get stockholm syndrome and it becomes impossible for you to get out without others forcing you to.

  15. Everything in your post is spot-on.

    Ever since I learned that Robin Williams struggled with depression, I’ve identified with him to a degree – I don’t have a fraction of his amazing, luminous talent, but I have spent my life trying to find the humor in everything, trying to make myself and the people around me laugh, because as long as I’m laughing I’m not crying, at least for that moment. I’ve seen that same impulse in him for as long as I’ve watched his work, that need to be silly to keep himself sane, and felt glad, in a way, knowing that it wasn’t just me, and that someone could turn that need to beat back the darkness with laughter into a good and successful life, even if the depression still ate at them. I’ve dealt with severe depression for pretty much as long as I can remember, and the last couple of years have seen my life increasingly fall apart. I’ve been having suicidal thoughts every day for the past few months, and struggling to make myself keep slogging along – I go to therapy, I take my meds, and I decide, every day, that I can stay alive at least until tomorrow.

    So when I heard the news that Robin Williams had died, my very first reaction was, “Oh no. Oh please, let it have been a heart attack.” Because then he would have won. He would have beaten the depression and died of unrelated causes, and even though I’d still be deeply sad that one of my favorite comedians had died too young, I could still look at him and see someone like me (but funnier) who’d managed to have a full life that was at least tolerable enough to keep choosing to live it every day, and to make the world a brighter, happier place even with the same monstrous disease I have eating away at his brain.

    He gave me hope. And so I’m incredibly sad that depression took him from the world, sad for him and the pain this stupid disease must have caused him, sad for his friends and family, sad for everyone who loved his comedy or his movies, and sad for everyone out there with depression who knew him as one of our own.

  16. Thank you, Jenny. This celebrity death has affected me in a way that no other celebrity death has: in Robin Williams I saw a kindred spirit.

    Like a previous poster, I’m not the clown, I’m the high-achiever, the person who is always ready and willing to help others, no matter what the cost to myself, because I completely define my worth by my accomplishments and I truly believe that no one would want me around if I wasn’t of use to them.

    As far back as I can remember, as far back as childhood, suicidal thoughts were a daily, almost constant presence. To this day they are there, floating just off to the side, intruding upon my conscious just often enough for me to know that they continue to be ever present. I fantasize about killing myself or disappearing. I’ve always had an exit strategy. I’ve written my suicide note dozens of times, planned out my suicide, laid out the pills and the alcohol and sat looking at them for a long time, unable to find the courage to go through with it. The next day always felt weird–with a certain unreality, like I was occupying space I shouldn’t be able to.

    I’ve only once ever actually swallowed a bottle of pills and I immediately told my parents and had my stomach pumped. Looking back on that incident, it was different from the other times because it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t me that was acting. Instead I was being compelled, propelled through actions beyond my control.

    I’ve been on medication and under the supervision of a psychiatrist for almost 15 years now. I know with utter certainty that I would not be here today if it weren’t for the meds. I’m the most stable I’ve ever been. If asked, I would say I was happy. But even when I’m at my happiest, even when life is at an absolute high, it’s all a lie, a skin over the despair that hides at my core.

    I’ve never shared this with anyone before. My husband doesn’t know this side of me. I’ve never shown my true self to my psychiatrist. To this day I cannot let myself not perform even for the doctor who is there to help me, because a part of me remains convinced that if anyone ever knew the true monster that occupies me, I’d be locked away forever. The rational part of me knows this is not true, but the darkness has more control over me.

    Last night I dreamed that Robin Williams lay in a hospital bed across the room from me in my own hospital bed and he was dying and I knew it. In my dream I vowed to stay awake until he was gone, to sit beside him and hold his hand so he wouldn’t die alone. But then, it was morning in my dream and I was awaking in my own bed and his bed across the room was empty and I knew he was gone and I had failed him, that he had died alone.

  17. I was barely 21 when my best friend committed suicide. At the time (as you write in your blog) people trotted out/ were full of the cliches about why she didn’t seek help, fixing herself, seeing her own value etc; all things I’ve heard repeated in the coverage of Robin Williams death. As a sufferer from depression myself, I know intimately (as do the hundreds of thousands of us that experience it) that one of the first things depression takes from you is that ability – to see your own value. What you see of yourself is massively negative; especially when those around you only see the act, the being ‘on’ you describe, and seem to miss the reality; that inside you are broken. The difference that exists between what the world sees and what you as the depressive knows to be the truth about yourself further isolates you. It’s tunnel vision, with the light at the end belonging to an oncoming train.
    Of course what all the well intentioned but ultimately pointless cliches also miss is that when you are in that dark and isolated place suicide looks like a solution. You reach a point where you honestly believe that the world in general and those you love will be better off without you. Suicide has a logic all of it’s own. To someone who hasn’t experienced it, this logic may not make sense, but to someone standing in the eye of the depressive storm there is a perfect symmetry to removing yourself from the land of the living; thereby removing the burden, that you see yourself as being, from those you love.
    As an aside to this, one of the things that condition the media reporting (and has once again happened with Robin Williams) is that it fails to address the realities of suicide. In an attempt to understand my own depression as well as my friend’s suicide, I did a lot of research into the subject. One of the things I learned was that for many people (though by no means all) who chose to end their lives, the actual decision is taken in the weeks and months prior to the act itself. This period of decision making is often accompanied by a deep depression (in Robin Williams case, he went into rehab in the months leading up to his death) as the individual struggles with what they see as the pros and cons of the decision. Once it’s made, really deep down decided, their mental health can often appear to improve; which is why you tend to get a lot of comments that follow the lines of ‘I just saw him/her and he was so happy’ or ‘he/she seemed to be less depressed’ and ‘they were making plans for the future’ etc. In my friends case, she made very vocal plans to go back to college; checking with her mother that she would be able to take care of her young son. Of course the reality is that the depression hasn’t magically melted away. The change comes from having made and accepted the decision to end your life. So my friend’s questions about child care were, in reality, her reassuring herself that in the aftermath of her death, her son would be taken care of. The reason this is important to understand (and why the media reporting of suicide rarely does little more than scratch the surface) is that depression and suicidal ideation isn’t something that can simply be caught/fixed in the moment, by calling a hotline or looking at the good things in your life. It’s something that must be tackled in the longer term. That’s why, as you say, it’s vital that we recognize depression as an illness, not a weakness or personality quirk; one that is often chronic in nature, and is as real and deadly as heart disease or cancer. Only then can we begin to understand that successful intervention, in the form of help and treatment, has to begin way before someone gets to the point of deciding to end their life.

  18. I’ve said the ‘it’s selfish to commit suicide’ thing in the past. It seemed a logical thing to think at the time, because when you kill yourself you’re hurting other people. Then I started to think about it. Isn’t it the other way around? Isn’t it selfish to want someone to live (read: suffer) so that you don’t have to suffer?

    Imagine living just for other people. You’re barely dragging yourself out of bed each morning, trying to get through the day, struggling with yourself every step of the way and literally the only reason you’re doing this is because of your friends and family. You don’t believe it’s going to get better. The rare times you’re having a good time are tainted by the lows which you can already see lurking around the corner. But you can’t quit because that would be ‘selfish.’

    Suicide is a difficult thing to understand, but a little more empathy would go a long way.

  19. Artists, comedians, entertainers and creative types also have the disadvantage of the narrative that they’re depressed/substance abuse and suicidal BECAUSE they’re creative and entertaining. it’s seen almost as a prerequisite. As if there’s some great balance that needs to be maintained, that to create good work you need to really suffer. The troubled artist and the sad clown, the star who “suddenly” crashes and burns. People look back and say “oh such a tragedy etc etc” but during the their life when they were surely displaying symptoms, and they could have been receiving treatment, it’s written off as “part of the creative process” “you can tell they’re really searching their souls, you shouldn’t interrupt. ” “They’re suffering for their work, that’s what it takes to be great.” “Look at how deep they are” “Real Talent like that is a burden, of course they’re sad” “Look at how REAL their work is.” “If they weren’t sad, they wouldn’t be able to be funny”

    This narrative is damaging and needs to stop. So many people refrain from giving a helping hand or are lulled into inattention because of some version of this “It’s natural for creative people to be, well, a little bit off” And so many creative people are burdened with the inability to label and treat their real, debilitating illness as an ACTUAL illness because they’ve confused the well of perpetual sorrow with the fountain of inspiration.

  20. I haven’t said or even thought what he “should have” done. I only wish that he could have.

    I have adored Robin Williams for as long as I’ve been alive. A friend of my mother’s was one of his roommates before he was famous and he helped her through some things back then. He was good and kind and funny and he gave the world gifts we can never repay. I didn’t love or even like everything he did (I may be the only person in the world who didn’t think Mrs. Doubtfire was funny), but I loved enough of what he did to recognize the talent.

    I’m in shock and I’m terribly sad. And I’m sickened by some of the things people think they have a right to say about him. I heard today his daughter had to remove all her social media sites because people were harassing her. This is a tragedy and that is all I can feel right now.

    I didn’t know him, but I miss him. And I wish he could have had just a moment of realization about who he was and what he had done for so many people and how much so many appreciated him. Just that one second.

  21. His wife revealed today he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. That must have been devastating for such a physical person.

  22. Your dean was great at his job. That’s how I was at school, always on and trying to get people to laugh. I finally felt comfortable enough with my friends to drop the act, and they immediately stopped liking me. They wanted the old Bethany back, the sarcastic one who swore a lot and made fun of the freshman under her breath. So that’s what I was until I graduated, I kept making everyone laugh and didn’t tell them when I was feeling down or needed a hug. Naturally, I am a super sarcastic person and I do swear a lot, but I also cry during sad movies and get angry-pissed instead of funny-pissed when I fight with my mom. They didn’t want to see that side of me. Anything that may have constituted as a real emotion was off limits. I wasn’t a real friend, I was the novelty friend to a bunch of proper Christian girls. I was the entertainment.

    I don’t have friends now, and my life is a lot better. I only have people in my life who know the real me and accept that. I’d rather sit alone on my computer all day than entertain people who call themselves my friend but would bolt the first second I tried talking about something serious.

  23. I just read a statement from his wife that he was also in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. I’m not ready to share my feelings yet, but wanted to thank Jen for this beautiful and heart felt post.

  24. I was the same with you. First i was shocked, which, in a fifteen minute drive home turned to, ‘makes sense’ and finally, the thought thats stuck with my the most, ‘hes finally free’

  25. Hi Jenny,

    Lovely post. Beautiful words.

    I’m going to wander out on a limb and please, please don’t approve this message if it is in any way a trigger for people, or offensive, but I am one of the people who has never been to that dark place that I know some people go to. I feel the utmost sympathy for those who feel so sad, depressed… something but I (currently) have no idea how it feels. Can I feel empathy? I don’t know. But I feel grief.

    And I would never suggest that any one who commits suicide is, themselves selfish – on the contrary, I give thanks that Robin Williams existed for 63 years and found something each day of those years that made it worth making it to the next day. It is incredibly sad that those reasons ran out, or he just couldn’t find one more until a new day brought another one. And I feel the same about every single person who takes their own life.

    But while individuals are not selfish, the act of suicide is and – really – has to be. In those moments, people aren’t considering anyone else, and why should they be? I assume their whole word may have shrunk to “I”, but I am happy to be corrected. They don’t think of the people who will find them, or those they leave behind, because that isn’t part of their illness. But it is an inherent part of the act – someone will find them (or, in the event of death by cop or by subway train, someone will take them) and someone will lose them. It is just deep, deep sadness all round.

    I hope I haven’t caused you offence because I love your blog and am reading The Boss at the moment – not my usual read but addictive. :-) Thank you for your writing, and getting up each day to write some more.

    1. But while individuals are not selfish, the act of suicide is and – really – has to be. In those moments, people aren’t considering anyone else, and why should they be?

      Speaking as someone who’s been suicidal and who has taken part in and helped run a support group for other suicidal people, it’s more complicated than that. It’s absolutely true that sometimes what people are thinking largely boils down to “I can’t take this anymore.” But pretty frequently – and I can say that I’ve felt this – the thought process is much more like “I am ruining the lives of the people I love by continuing to exist.” As an example, I have often felt like it’s monstrously unfair to my partner that I just keep on living, because if I were dead, he could go find someone better than me to love. In the worst moments, it can become really, really hard to believe that your death would actually make anyone sad, or even if it did, that they wouldn’t be much happier for it in the long run. It’s not especially rational, but depression by its very nature isn’t especially rational. :-/

      1. I agree with all of that, L. I have always said it’s futile to try and rationalise one’s emotions. Logic and emotion are not very compatible, and (in my case at least) suicide seems to be chiefly emotionally driven. It might not feel like it at the time: it might feel like a cold, hard, logical decision. But it’s a different kind of logic. I’m not trying to suggest that this is how it is for everyone, but it’s how it was for me.

        I remember the moment I started planning my second suicide attempt. It was a tiny, tiny thing: a friend sighed and rolled her eyes when I mentioned (for the zillionth time) a guy I had a crush on. At the time, I was totally obsessed with him and I realise now that it was a sort of defence mechanism: if I allowed him to totally consume my thoughts, then I didn’t have to focus on the massive black hole inside me. But at this moment, I realised that because I “had to” channel all of my thoughts and feelings into this guy, my friends were quite naturally bored as fuck of hearing me talking about him.

        I realised that I had a choice: either lumber my friends with the burden of me being so damned boring, or lumber them with the worse burden of this terrible monster I was keeping tied down inside of me. I thought of running away, where none of them would know where I had gone, but then I realised they would worry about me for a long time and some would be really upset by not knowing whether they had done something to drive me away. I thought about gently telling people I couldn’t be friends with them any more, but then I realised they would be so hurt by the rejection and not understand I was doing it for them. In the end, I “realised” that the only way of making my friends’ lives better was to make it so I was dead and they would grieve for a while then move on and maybe from time to time tell stories in the pub about the crazy things I used to do before I got really ill.

        My suicide was intended to be for their sake, not mine. Ending my own suffering didn’t even cross my mind.

    2. I have never thought about attempting suicide myself, but I have experienced depression and gotten low enough that I find myself thinking about getting hit by a car, or imagining if I could sink into the ground and not exist.

      I would say that in those “dark pit” moments, the world does feel upsettingly shrunken, but it’s not that the whole world is about “I”—the whole world has become about trying to erase “I.” It doesn’t feel selfish at all, nor does it feel like a selfish act. Here are some of the ways it feels for me:

      –It feels like being unable to believe that love is a real thing that I can give anyone, or receive, even though many people may be offering it.

      –It feels like I am somehow “faulty” in some way that can’t be remedied, and that it’s my own fault that I am faulty.

      –It feels like everything I’ve ever given or received that felt meaningful or good or worthwhile is actually worthless.

      –It feels like a crisis of faith—like I cannot muster up any faith or hope that I or the world or my work or my choices or anything can ever be anything other than worthless.

      –It can also feel shameful that I feel this way when I am surrounded by so many good things—truly wonderful people and a life that I deeply love…when I am not stuck in a depression pit. When in a dark pit, this becomes more evidence of how faulty I am—how could I be so ungrateful? Who am I to turn away from all the wonderful things that surround me?

      –When I’m around the people I love, I feel unable to truly love them fully, and that feels AWFUL. This is hard to explain, but I like M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” When I’m in a depression pit, I can’t extend myself—instead, something inside of me is retracting, disappearing, withdrawing, and would never allow me to extend my loathed self toward those I care about.

      –When I’m in a pit, something in me sees the wonderful things I love about the people I love and use those things as evidence for how much I suck, how unworthy and awful I am compared to these people who have chosen to have me in their lives. They are deeply misguided for having chosen to spend time and life energy with me, this voice feels. I respect their right to choose to love me, but I deeply question that choice and I might even try to persuade them that it’s a bad choice.

      It has helped me a lot when someone I love is able to hear me explain how I’m feeling without trying to tell me how wrong I am, because I know I’m wrong. I know that the ways I’m thinking and feeling don’t really make sense. But I feel so ashamed of the horrible person I feel myself to be that if I can’t tell someone, I get stuck in my shame. It helps if I can tell someone and they’re able to help me not feel ashamed for feeling ashamed.

  26. I remember, when I first started getting all therapy and medication for my mental illness that fancy insurance could buy, I was so disappointed when, even after waiting the requisite amount of time for everything to “kick in,” I was still mentally ill. I still had crippling anxiety about dying from a terminal disease. It was still hard for me to get out of bed some days. I felt betrayed, but everyone just urged me to be patient. I was accused of “not working with” my therapists. I guess I’m fortunate in that suicide has never really crossed my mind, so maybe my case isn’t that severe, but what people who don’t have a mental illness don’t realize is that most of the time, it never just goes away. You are and always will be mentally ill no matter how many therapists you talk to, how many pills you take, how many crisis hotlines you call. That’s a sucky reality. But those aforementioned things are there to help you cope with that reality and live your life, I think. People tend to be happy and supportive when you first seek out care, but after a while it feels like they’re saying, “ugh, aren’t you supposed to be better by now?”

    And that whole putting on a front thing? Dead on. Mine was more snarky, driven, sarcastic, etc. I kind of made myself into a caricature. Except at one point I kind of ran out of energy to do that and said “fuck this, fuck you” and just stopped talking to people. I’m gradually coming out of that part right now.

    People like to say that suicide is 100% preventable. Frankly, I don’t know. We can improve how we spot at-risk people and intervene, but at the end of the day, I think some people are still going to find themselves beyond the point of no return. It’ll always be a worthy pursuit to work that number closer and closer to zero, but I think we will do so (unfortunately) asymptotically.

    1. i hope this comment isn’t offensive, but I feel at times mental illness is viewed much like grief in that most people around the sufferer seem willing to be sympathetic and supportive in the short term but expect it to be ‘fixed’ in the medium to long term. That is like a broken bone, it should heal up and you are ok again and they shouldn’t have to keep hearing about it.

      It adds an extra burden onto the person who is suffering, because they start to feel like they’re doing something wrong by not being well and not being ‘over it’ already. The sufferer starts pretending to keep everyone else happy and that exacerbates the situation.

      If people understood that some mental illnesses are a life long condition, I think it would help. No one expects a type 1 diabetic to be over it and off their insulin after a couple of months.

      My husband has clinical depression, was diagnosed in his teens, so I have some familiarity with living with someone who has mental illness. To me it should be no different to any other life long illness that needs medication – like diabetes. I hope one day the stigma is gone and that those who don’t suffer the illness will have a much better understanding and more supportive approach to those that are ill.

      1. “It adds an extra burden onto the person who is suffering, because they start to feel like they’re doing something wrong by not being well and not being ‘over it’ already. The sufferer starts pretending to keep everyone else happy and that exacerbates the situation.”

        This – so much this. I’ve been relatively very well for the last 10-12 years, but when I was in a really dark place, the absolute worst thing about it was that I felt I was letting my friends down by not getting better. That I was crappy company. It made me hate myself even more, so I pretended to be better. Which also made things worse, because I felt like I was lying to the people I loved and (perhaps because of being on the autistic spectrum) I can’t deal with the concept of lying.

  27. So someone please tell me if I am being an idiot.
    This is something I haven’t shared with my fiancé and I only recently confide to my best friend.
    I’m the high achiever type, currently I’m in the last year of Uni and I’m in the top 15% of my whole entire class – so you know I’m doing pretty well. As I’ve mentioned I have a lovely fiancé who I love and adore, I’ve got a great group of small but close friends (quality over quantity) and family that I also love. But I feel like that’s all there is to me, I’m nothing more than a uni student, someone’s fiancé and a daughter, friend and sister. And that makes me really sad. I don’t want to use the word depressed because judging by some of the comments I don’t think I fit the category but yes sometimes these thoughts do make me feel depressed. I really resonate with the above comments re: the high achiever depressed types but at the same time it’s not something I feel all the time just hovering in the back of my mind. The feelings are amplified when I’m in social gatherings where I don’t know people or recently when I was at a work together and I knew people. I struggle to find that common ground and I generally don’t feel like I’m an interesting person – I definitely wouldn’t be missed if I never go to these things. I don’t want to have to drink to have a good time and feel I would be interesting and I don’t want my fiancé to chaperone me all the time just to make sure I’m having a good time. But that night I felt absolutely shitty about myself and did wonder what it would be like if I was gone. I felt more alone that night in a crowded room than I ever felt before.
    I don’t know if these are signs, I don’t know if it will get worse, I don’t know if I’m just being crazy and this is normal for people to feel this way from time to time but I do know it’s not something I could share with anyone close to me. I don’t want to worry them. And I would really silly ‘asking for help’ when I’m sure there are people who are suffering way worse than me and actually need it. Id feel like I’d be wasting their time.
    Sorry for hijacking this post but I really don’t know what to do and I feel kind of better sharing this with complete strangers.
    Sorry for waffling.

    1. Jessica,
      What you described experiencing while at a social event is textbook social anxiety, which is a 100% legitimate reason to seek out help from a qualified therapist. The other thoughts you described, the trouble figuring out your identity, honestly to me sounds typical of someone your age because you’re at the point in your life when figuring out who you are is primarily what you are doing. I assure you, many of the people you see around you who seem to have it all figured out are just as lost as you are. However, a therapist can help guide you through this very scary part of your life. I encourage you to seek one out–your school should have a counseling center that you can use for free. You will not be taking time away from someone with “real” problems, because you problems are real and important, too.
      Hope things get better or easier,

  28. Jessica wrote
    I don’t know if these are signs, I don’t know if it will get worse, I don’t know if I’m just being crazy and this is normal for people to feel this way from time to time but I do know it’s not something I could share with anyone close to me. I don’t want to worry them. And I would really silly ‘asking for help’ when I’m sure there are people who are suffering way worse than me and actually need it. Id feel like I’d be wasting their time.
    Sorry for hijacking this post but I really don’t know what to do and I feel kind of better sharing this with complete strangers.
    Sorry for waffling.
    I just wanted to respond to your comment with a big hug and a lot of supportive energy. Firstly, I would suggest taking some time examine the feeling you are experiencing without framing them within the terms of other people. There’s no index of depression or isolation, no prescribed chart where person A ranks higher than person B which makes them somehow more deserving of help. I would add that seeking that help when you need it is never “silly”; it’s the first, courageous step in the journey.

    As for sharing with people who love you – I’ve been on both sides of this (as I mentioned in my previous post) and I’m sure that anyone who cares for you would prefer you to share your problems than keep them to yourself; leaving you to feel isolated and alone. To put it another way, how would you feel about someone you love feeling the way you describe? Would you want them to worry in silence or would you prefer it if they shared the burden they feel with you? I’m guessing from the nature of your post that you would totally understand and want that person to share and I’m sure that the people who love you would feel the same. After all that’s part and parcel of what love is; caring about the whole person, the good and the (often self perceived) bad. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that not a day goes by when I wish that my friend who took her own life had been able to talk to me, to anyone, about how she was feeling. Given the context of her experience (which I won’t go into here) I know she felt isolated and feared spending the rest of her life as a burden to her friends and family. I only wish I had the chance to tell her that it simply wasn’t the case. That losing her is the burden that was almost beyond bearing and nothing she could have said to me, nothing she could have shared or the help that I potentially could have offered, could come close to the weight of living without her in my life. I’m sure the people who love you would feel the same way.

    1. Thank you Promise and Petra for your words of support. I guess I do have certain issues I’ll need to work through and I hope someday I can disclose all this with my loved ones. I really need to do something to fix this. But thank you, it makes it everything feel a little less silly. Hugs to you x

  29. I had the fortune of finishing one of your books today and went to your Goodreads out of curiosity – it was there that I came across this post.

    I just wanted to thank you for being someone in a public role who has the bravery to say these things, because truly they need to be sad. I’m sick to death of people saying that we shouldn’t glamorise Williams’s death, that he was selfish, that we shouldn’t encourage people to take the ‘easy way out’, blah blah blah. There was nothing easy about what he did. For all we know, in his final moments he might have regretted what he did. There’s no way we could ever possibly understand or relate to what he was feeling because the truth is, we simply have no way of knowing.

    What we CAN relate to is the fact that he was driven to that point. As you said, it’s obvious now that he must have been suffering for a long time. All of his roles seemed tinged with a certain sadness, like each character was a lovable older guy who was secretly hurting in spite of all the gags and the primping. When you say you’d be lying to say he was your favourite actor, I can relate – he was one of those actors that I didn’t think about all the time, but who I pretty much expected to always be there. It’s the fact that it hits so close to home that makes his loss so poignant, and it saddens and sickens me that there are people who are using all of this as an excuse to judge him or rant about how we should censor discussions about suicide and act like it isn’t a very real, very common issue.

    Society doesn’t seem to care if you’re suffering. The average person on the street probably wouldn’t stop to help you if you were wandering along with a soulless look on your face, crushed by the pain of living with depression. But if you dared to ever harm yourself, if you dared to take your life, suddenly it’s everybody’s business but your own.

    We have a long way to go, as a society. Even with the passing of a much beloved actor, a household name for many years, people’s judgements have been brought to light. Suicide is shrouded in just as much stigma as it ever was and even those who mourn the loss of this man are quick to judge him for doing what he did.

  30. Your view on this is so incredibly valued to me. As someone who has tried everyday for a year to keep her mentally ill best friend from killing herself and someone who heard her mother scream at her dad that “the only reason she hasn’t killed herself is because she didn’t want to ruin the kids christmas” I have to admit that I am guilty of thinking that these people I love are incredibly selfish. How could they want to do something so horrible to someone who is clearly trying to help? This blog has made it much clearer to me that I’m the selfish one. Of course they didn’t want to hurt me, they didn’t chose depression. I just want to Thankyou for explaining to me what they could not.

  31. A brilliant post, Jenny. I think the language of suicide confuses and confounds. We refer to the “committing” of suicide, as if it is a rational act, a decision, a commitment. As such, it’s easy for people to question that “selfish” choice. But as you eloquently outline, it’s not a choice; it’s not a decision. We don’t say that someone chose to commit cancer or to commit cholera. This is why I refuse to say that someone commits suicide” and instead say they “died of suicide”, just as someone dies of cancer or dies of heart failure. When you say it this way, it stops people and makes them think. It jars the ear. Suicide needs to be understood as the method of death; it is not a “choice” just as cancer is not a choice.

  32. This literally is making me go get help right now for a depression that’s been getting worse for six months now. It’s still such a far cry from how low I used to go that I’d been waiting to come back out on my own. But then, here I am, bingeing my way through your archives, and I read this, and I think, “This could be my life here. I can’t afford to keep f***ing around with this.”

    So, thanks. Thanks for everything you do.

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