Suicide Isn’t Just Other People’s Problem
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.]Published August 12, 2014. Last updated March 12, 2018.