18 August, 2014

Suicide and Sorrow, some words for Robin Williams

I must say some words for Robin Williams. Among my generation, he was at his peak when I was a child, and I suspect that's made him the favourite comedian of almost everyone my age at one time or another. You'll find precious few people in their early thirties who didn't see Aladdin more than once, and who didn't watch it for the genie, and that's just one example.

I wish this post were an ode to him. He deserves one, but I'll leave those to people who knew him better--both him and his work. I must stick to what I know, and speak about depression in general, and defend those who have taken heat from displaying their understanding. People are naturally sensitive now, and I've seen some arguments arise as to the nature of what happened to him, and I hope to draw a firm line under it now so that we may cast it aside. This is not the time for bickering, but it is an opportunity to attain some understanding of depression and how we might learn to overcome it, or help those we love when they are in need.

I write this out of respect for him. I must make that clear. Because next I'll talk about what happened to him, and how depression is far more than a chemical imbalance in the brain. This must be understood if we are to respect his memory and the way he died.

Allow me to make some things clear:

1) I know depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.

2) I've suffered from it.

3) I know that the aforementioned imbalance is made far worse by drugs, especially those that have lasting effects on brain chemistry even when taken in small quantities.

It occurs to me that our devotion to the idea that depression is a mere question of chemicals stems from a lack of empathy. If we can't believe suicide springs from the heart, is that because we feel the need to judge it?

The amount of dumb kids I've heard talk about how Kurt Cobain was just a junkie who blew his brains out leaving a wife and daughter behind, so screw him, makes my head spin. That's a disgusting attitude towards suicide, and it seems the only way we can make sense of it is to say, "Well, he had no choice." Otherwise we think he must be a horrid, selfish weakling.

Again, that's disgusting. We need to understand that we have no right to judge another person before walking a mile in their shoes.

Robin Williams suffered, and if you understand his suffering, you'll know that you cannot sweep it aside with a simplistic explanation. Nor should you, and nor do you need to. A person who commits suicide deserves your empathy, your EMOTIONAL understanding, not your Wikipedia knowledge about chemical imbalances, and certainly not disdain.

If you could speak with him, if you were his friend, would you stop at telling him, "There there, it's just chemical imbalances. Just don't dwell on it." Is that really all you'd say? I would have started by asking him what was wrong, encouraging him to share his feelings (his FEELINGS, not his knowledge of chemical imbalances) with me, then began the long process of convincing him, by speaking on his own terms, how life was worth living. Because it is, and chemicals don't make it worth living. Joy does. And the great secret that's hard to see is, joy is found everywhere. It's dancing in your face at every moment in life. You just, sometimes, grow blind to it.

Chemicals can help you grow blind, but they can't work alone. And telling him all about chemicals would certainly not be speaking to him on his own terms. That would have made him feel that you didn't even care to understand, and he would have been right.

I hear a great deal of crap about depression and suicide, even from friends and family. I tell them it's more than a neurological disease, and they don't believe me. Well, I've been clinically depressed. I've even deeply contemplated suicide. I've lived in more than one therapeutic hospital. All this was while I was a child. My late childhood was a well of nightmares, and I know for a fact that clinical depression comes from (or with, and there's no difference) a perspective on life and, because they're created by joy and sorrow, by dreams and nightmares, perspectives can be changed. Otherwise, why bother communicating? Moreover, what do you think my reaction was when people told me the nightmares were all in my head?

The fact is, though most people are too self-righteous to cognate it, that to brush Robin Williams's problem off as a chemical imbalance is an insult to him, and an insult to all depressed people.

I've mortally offended people by speaking the truth about depression, too. I once had a person physically attack me (and not successfully, I must add for reasons of pride) because I said attempted suicide is almost always a cry for help. I've probably met over a hundred kids who have attempted suicide, and they all confided in me something they would never admit to an adult: it was a cry for help. It's not hard to kill yourself if you truly want to. Actual suicide is a decision to end life, not to cry out to those you love. There is a big difference, but there's also a big similarity along the road, and it's found in a person's inability to see the love and compassion and joy around them, and it's well beyond the chemical.

You'll see what this stuff really looks like amongst teenagers in my book. Know that I've been told a few times that it's not realistic, and I don't know what it's really like in those hospitals et cetera. Well, I've lived in those hospitals. I was one of those kids. I know exactly what it looks like, what it feels like, and I also know most people don't have a clue what it's like to be depressed, suicidal or truly isolated. The reality isn't pretty, it isn't simple or easy to explain, and it isn't purely sentimental either. I hope you can accept that, and I hope I've helped you see that depression is not something to brush aside as a chemical imbalance. It is a disease of the HEART, the SOUL, and the MIND, not the blood stream.

The essence of my point is, chemicals didn't kill Robin Williams. Sorrow did. And it's the sorrow that must be understood. If I didn't believe that, I'd be in the pharmaceutical industry, but drugs don't solve the problem. They just push it aside long enough to be dealt with. Communication and understanding and regaining the ability, that we are all born with, to see that joy, is what solves the problem, and I would urge anyone who feels depressed or contemplates suicide to heed those words. Joy is all around you. Take your medication, but don't expect it to fix everything, and don't despair if it doesn't work. It's a nudge in the right direction, not the end of the path, and it's a path worth walking, and there are helping hands all around you if you trust enough to look.

As for the rest of you, become a helping hand, listen to people who are depressed and become one of the myriad hands that deserve to line the path they'll walk to happiness. To accomplish this, look, see, listen and hear, and understand that depression is a fraught journey not to be brushed aside.