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Suicide Isn't Just Other People's Problem

Suicide Isn’t Just Other People’s Problem

By Mir Kamin

I was going to write about the first day of school, today. Longtime readers know I always take a picture of my kids’ shoes on our front step each year before they head off to the bus. I forget why that seemed like the thing to do, years ago, but it’s an important part of the routine, now. So yeah, I have the shoes picture. I have tales from their first day back, and because I am a giant meanie who sends the kids back with minimal supplies until they can find out what their teachers want, I also have a story about going to Target that night and discovering they were completely out of college-ruled paper. My daughter wandered the aisles, engaging in a soliloquy about how, “It’s back to school time… did they not realize people were going to need paper? They couldn’t order more of it?” My son ate in the high school cafeteria for the first time. Heck, my kids are in a class together for the first time ever, and we already know I’m going to be baking that teacher a lot of cookies before the year is over.

But my heart really isn’t in it, now, to spend a thousand words on something so mundane (though precious to us, of course) in the wake of the news that Robin Williams died yesterday of an apparent suicide.

Facebook and Twitter are overrun right now. This is what we do when a celebrity—particularly one with whom my generation grew up—dies: We reminisce about when we first saw them on TV or in a movie, talk about how they were part of our childhood, say that we feel old or lost or that we can’t believe they’re gone. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Because suicide is suspected, I’m also seeing a lot of very well-meaning “if you’re depressed, get help!” and the countering, “if you tell someone who’s depressed to get help, you don’t get it!” exhortations, too.The bickering has begun. “If you think suicide is selfish, unfriend me right now.” “If you’re going to tell me that my concern doesn’t count, I’m not going to stop being concerned, I’m just going to think you’re a jerk.”

Like many, I feel like I grew up on Robin Williams. Mork and Mindy was quite possibly my favorite show, as a kid, and I had the rainbow suspenders to prove it. I think Williams was talented in a way precious few are, and while it is a loss whenever anyone dies, to hear he may have taken his own life does feel like it adds an additional layer of sadness and unfairness.

For me, it also cracks open a fear in my chest that usually can be hidden under daily activities, chores, you name it. Regular life doesn’t leave me sitting around thinking about suicide, these days. Polite people in polite society don’t talk about it much. And I’m not a mental health professional or an activist. I’m just… me. Just a regular person, a regular mom.

And that’s where it starts, that fear, because suicide isn’t something that only touches rich celebrities or people we don’t care about. Suicide touches the lives of regular people. Suicide touches the lives of people who are left trying to wrap their brains around why they couldn’t save their loved ones.

When we heard the news last night, and the kids asked who Robin Williams was, and my husband and I talked about him a little, I don’t know what they thought. I didn’t ask. I very much doubt my daughter was thinking of the day that came to my mind, one from over two years ago, now, when she was so angry that she wouldn’t even look me in the eye. She was on her fourth psychiatric hospitalization and she was done. We still didn’t have a good grasp of the demons that had risen up about a year before and seemed determined to take over her life. Many meds and professionals and protocols had been tried, and up to that point, all had failed. She wanted to come home. We didn’t blame her—we wanted her home, too—but she wasn’t stable enough to leave the hospital. We wanted her whole more than we wanted her home with us. And she was furious. We sat in a run-down cafeteria on visiting day and she railed on and on in every way she thought might sway us, interspersed with every barb she could think to throw out. It was… an attempted blackmail, I guess? A cry for help, too. A cry of anguish. It felt like utter despair, to all of us. And she threatened to kill herself, for not the first time. She was calm and matter-of-fact about it, too. She explained how she could figure it out in the hospital or just wait until she got home. She told us we couldn’t stop her.

I can tell you that I cannot see the word “hopeless” or encounter even the suggestion of that feeling without being immediately flooded by the scent of that horrible cafeteria.

I put my arms around her while she tried to push me away and I told her that I loved her more than anything. I told her I was sorry, sorry that she was hurting, sorry that she was stuck in the hospital, sorry that she couldn’t see a more hopeful future yet. I told her “You don’t get to kill yourself on my watch,” which—in retrospect—makes me cringe. (I’m not the ruler of the universe, nor am I the arbiter of how my children get to live their lives. At the time, it felt important to try to take that control from her. Now, it feels vain and foolhardy to have said that.) I told her that if she couldn’t see the value in her life or envision a pain-free future, that we would keep working to help her find it, and that in the meantime I knew she mattered and that things would get better and that we all needed her to just hang on and try to believe me until she could believe it for herself. “We’ll figure it out,” I told her. “You can be as mad at me as you want. You can be mad forever. That’s okay. But you have to stay here and be mad because you don’t get to give up. I won’t let you give up. I love you too much. I need you here.” I don’t know if I truly believed I could stop her or just wished it to be true.

So yes, I have first-day-back-to-school stories, but I today I’m mostly thinking about how I have a 16-year-old who’s doing pretty well, two years past that unthinkable conversation. And she has worked hard for it—I don’t know that I know anyone braver, who’s fought as hard as this kid has had to fight—and we have a fabulous support team, and life is far from perfect, but it’s good. We were lucky. We are not in a better place because our family is somehow more deserving or smarter or harder working or magical. We were just plain lucky. Plenty of families have what we have and lose everything, anyway. And if I think about it too much, I know that our luck could change again, because that’s the nature of this beast. I try not to think about it.

All I want to say about Robin Williams is that I am deeply sorry for his family and the friends he left behind. I don’t want to lecture anyone on their right to grief or how to properly deal with a depressed person or whether or not suicide is always preventable. Be kind, be helpful, reach out—everyone knows this stuff. Depression kills. It’s preventable, sometimes, but maybe not always. It’s not right and it’s not fair.

[If you or a loved one need help, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.]

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Kate

    August 12, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Thank you for writing that. I lost a friend to suicide earlier this year and what you said really crystallised a lot of the thoughts I’ve had since her death, renewed as they were on hearing about Robin Williams this morning. Thank you. And I’m glad you were lucky. Really genuinely glad.

    • Mir Kamin

      August 12, 2014 at 5:28 pm

      Thank you for your kindness, Kate. I am so, so sorry about the loss of your friend.

    • Aimee

      August 12, 2014 at 7:40 pm

      Kate, I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my husband to suicide 19 months ago. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Alliance of Hope, but they are a non-profit to help people grieving suicide loss. They have a forum that has helped me immeasurably.

  • Aska

    August 12, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    Thanks for dealing with the subject with more personal experience than platitude. I’ve heard them all, and especially “suicide is selfish” makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

    You say you told her, “You don’t get to kill yourself on my watch,” and that it makes you cringe now. As a fellow sufferer, I understand your intellectual objection, but I also feel that it was a good thing to say. You gave your daughter a point of stability and security when she needed one. You were her rock, you were what a child needs in a mother. For me, these words mean less a wrestling away of control, and more a statement that says absolutely unequivocally, “I want you here, I love you, don’t go.”

    I might be completely wrong, and I’d be curious to know your daughter’s view of those words today. I’ve been through many crises and sometimes in a crisis, the dumbest kind words are the ones we need to hear the most.

    When I heard of Robin WIlliams’ death, that it was a suicide, my first thought was – that makes a lot of sense. He was a wonderful person, and such people have a hard time in this world. I am sorry that he suffered, but don’t begrudge him for going. Who could, after all the jewels he’s left behind and all the lives he’s touched in so many good ways? His life was a worthwhile one, and wherever he’s now, he deserved his rest.

    • Rachel

      August 12, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly about the “You don’t get to kill yourself on my watch” comment. I can see how it could be taken as a way to remove the tiny amount of autonomy a depressed person has left, but I think it mostly sends the message that you want the person in your life so much and love them so much that you’ll take them in any form, sick or not. Knowing what to say to a depressed person is incredibly difficult, and you do the best you can. As long as love and desire for the person to get better, you’re usually on the right track.

  • Betsy

    August 12, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    Seven years ago I held my daughter the night before her hospitalization and told her I would count the days with her then two year old son, but I could not tell him she was not coming home. We were lucky, too. She is home, healthy and happy….for now. And we count our blessings.

  • Stacy

    August 12, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    When my husband was 15, his 13 year old brother commit suicide.  To this day, my husband thinks suicide is selfish.  However, having been suicidal myself, twice, I know that the person thinking about it is actually trying to make life better for everyone else (my pain is too much for them to deal with.  They would be better off without me).  There is no easy answer.  It is horrible.  It is sad.  And it does need to be talked about.

  • Lynn

    August 12, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    We lost my father-in-saw to suicide 7 years ago today. It seemed to have come from no where and it is a day that will be etched in our minds forever. For the survivors, time goes on, but I don’t know if it is possible to ever heal completely. 

  • Jeanie

    August 12, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Yours is the very first article I’ve read anywhere — and I’ve read a lot of them — about Mr. Williams’ suicide that bothered to give the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number. Kudos to you!

  • Kim too

    August 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    I’m right with Aska and Rachel, Mir.  I say this as a long time reader who vividly remembers your posts about this, and who now cringes at my own comment to you before I had the whole story.  But that comment came from a place of caring and defense of you, the person I have a relationship with, however remote it might be. Your comment to her was not controlling parenting.  It was a statement of love. It was a place of security.  It was a reminder that she was not actually alone in this world.

    I am so devastated that RW, who gave us all so much joy, spent his last hours in such agony.  Because no matter how hard it is to be the ones left behind, nobody commits such an act lightly.

  • Aimee

    August 12, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    Mir. Thank you for writing this. You know how much talking honestly about mental illness and suicide matters to me, and I am so grateful for you and for this post. I am even more grateful that your daughter is home safely. I think it’s pretty common to feel that suicide is selfish — I know I had those feelings after my husband died, along with a hefty dose of rage at him for doing what he did — but I also think that it’s important to note that that is a FEELING that is natural when we are grieving, and not a fact.

  • Lucinda

    August 12, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    You continue to amaze me the way you make it through the hardship and come out a little wiser.  I’m so glad Chickie is doing well. I’m so glad I found your blog 10 years ago.  I’m so glad I get to witness your bravery (facing the unfaceable) and learn from your experiences.

  • Kelly

    August 12, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    Thank you Mir. As the mother of a 12 year old with great big emotions that, frankly, scare me with their intensity you give me hope that we’ll make it through. So thank you for sharing your story.

  • Lara

    August 13, 2014 at 1:58 am

    Thank you for continuing to share your family’s stories. Each story shared, I think, is a step towards breaking down the stigma. With increased awareness and more open dialogue, hopefully, more services will become more easily available also.

    As a side note from a longtime reader – not sure if you wrote this or I just assumed between the lines but – I thought the shoes pic was an in lieu of kids pic as you wanted to keep their anonymity but still do the back to school pic, albeit in a non-traditional fashion. And that was totally a run on sentence but it’s past my bedtime so I’m not fixing it 😛

  • Naomi

    August 13, 2014 at 6:06 am

    Thank you for writing this. My nearly 14-year old daughter is on her second psychiatric hospitalization, and I really don’t see the way forward right now. It helps a lot to read your posts.

  • ailo

    August 13, 2014 at 8:55 am

    This isn’t the first time I’ve cried while reading one of your posts, but it feels the most meaningful. Thank you for articulating this. I wish you and Chickadee the best.

  • Michele

    August 13, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    I was surprised at how… triggering of grief Robin Williams’ death was for me. It’s not surprising though. Mr. Williams had bipolar disorder. My brother had bipolar disorder. My son has bipolar disorder. My brother also committed suicide by hanging – although he used a rope in the barn rafters. His 19 year old son found him. He was about 5 years younger at his time of death than Mr. Williams. My son has been hospitalized 4 times. One time was a result of him literally saying, “I’m not safe. I need walls. Lock me up.” And so we did. When he was 11 (he’s now 14), I spent an entire night bear hugging him so that he couldn’t use the knives he pulled from the kitchen (they’ve now been under a combo lock for years). My youngest was asleep, and I didn’t want to traumatize him. My husband was at work. And I literally felt like I couldn’t let him go long enough to get to the phone or else he would make the move before I could stop him. And so there we lay, me talking him down, and acting as a human straightjacket. All night. I was able to get him through that crisis that night. We have more stories. But the thought that concerns me, brought up by my brother’s death, and Mr. Williams’ death is… What about 5 decades from now? Will my son finally be just worn out of this constant fight? It almost seems to me that they almost…wore out. Wore out from this constant fight for their sanity and their ability to cope. I don’t know what that means for my son.

  • Mir Kamin

    August 13, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    I know this probably sounds trite, but I want to hug everyone in this comment thread. Wishing health and wholeness and peace to everyone who’s struggling, and hoping for better times and less fear for us all.

  • Kim T

    August 13, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you. I don’t know that I have much to add except that I get it. I’ve had those conversations with my oldest child and both of my sisters. I don’t feel out of the woods. I can barely talk to my family, kids or anyone about Robin Williams because it feels too raw or real. I also have the thoughts that no one who deals with a chronic illness is ever really out of the woods. That’s the part I feel I must accept to keep loving my child. I know that I can’t prevent it, but that I can do my best to let him know he is loved, he matters and we want him here. The rest is up to him and whatever management we can craft for his illnesses. I continue to think of depression like cancer or any other life threatening condition, you can get it under control, there are many people who kick it’s butt, but not everyone does and at this point in science and medicine we may never know why some people survive and others don’t. We just will continue to love people for whatever time we have with them, and that has to be enough. But mostly, thank you for writing this, I agree with everything you said, so much. Much love to you and your family.

  • RL JUlia

    August 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    One of the most important things I ever did was to tell my then 21 year old niece that suicide or attempting suicide (which she had done twice) was not the answer to her pain – that we/she needed to find different and better strategies. That things would get better, that her family would always love her and that her life shouldn’t be over when it was really just beginning. I also told her that she wasn’t alone- that her family was rife with suicides/suicide attempts and depression – she just had to look for it and listen to the stories in a different way….I don’t know if suicidal thoughts are genetic but there are enough folks in my and my husband’s families who have tried to make me think twice…. and to tell my kids that these thoughts seem to be common in our families and that they are always to be shared and never followed through on. I have no idea if my conversation with my niece made a difference or not -but she’s still alive and healthier and happier today than she was then. I’m so happy she stopped trying to kill herself.

  • Deanna

    August 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

    As always Mir, your words are beautiful and what many of us wish we could express. I had a very similar reaction wwhen I heard the news. I thought of my own Chickadee and her hospitalizations, and the darkness that tried to take her. Then today I took that beauty to her college orientation. I tried to soak in every moment, because I never thought she’d be there. I can only pray that his family, and all the families in the middle of that nightmare can find some kind of peace and healing.

    • Mir Kamin

      August 14, 2014 at 9:14 am

      This one made me leak happy tears. College orientation! How wonderful. So happy for her and for your whole family. 🙂