TW: Suicide, Mental Illness, Addiction
I’d like the media to report that Robin Williams has died after a long illness. That it was mental illness shouldn’t be a factor. Miss him.
— Ms D (@msdwrites) August 11, 2014
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.