Note: I have considered posting this for a week in various incarnations. Shifting my position back and forth, I am fairly familiar with either aspect of the argument. I have no special insight. I have no answers. Yet it seems to worse to leave it unsaid, since the very crux of this matter, for so many, lies in the inability to express. But understand, I have nothing that has not been said or known before. My only hope is that I will not make anyone’s situation worse, if I cannot make it even marginally better.
Robin Williams died. I woke up to that news, woke up to it like a slow moving hammer in the gut, like it’s still sinking in, the incontrovertible weight of it, a week later. Even the early reports were fairly clear about what had happened; that Robin Williams had killed himself. I write that, fully aware that it sounds like he made a choice. I don’t believe that he did, not for a minute. He didn’t make a decision to die; not that way you choose to have a cookie, or you choose to get a haircut. Depression doesn’t leave you with any choices.
This is not a fresh, new observation; I will not be the last person who needs to make it either. Suicide is never an easy topic to approach, not for anyone. In Ireland, we have finally begun, as a society, to discuss it. The entrenched Catholic mentality that it is a sin has withered; the once-accepted notion of its inherent selfishness is starting to fade. It is no longer simply too taboo to discuss. We are fortunate that a number of high-profile figures have spoken out about their personal experiences, such as Conor Cusack and John Murray. Donal Walsh used what little time he had left to attempt to persuade our youth that life was worthwhile and precious. Broadsheet.ie has been unwavering in its support of the growing conversation. As a society, we have taken the first fleeting steps towards understanding what many individuals have been trying to tell us; that suicide, that depression, these things are not mind-sets, they are not choices.
I’m not the only one who has been sitting at a keyboard, hammering buttons in the hope of turning up an answer (something I have certainly not found, by the way). There have been obituaries and goodbyes, there have been stories, pleas and tributes. It’s been a week since Robin Williams died and the loss still seems to hang there. He is someone who meant a lot to an enormous number of people. Clearly, he meant something to me. I didn’t know him, but there is a wound of loss gouged into me all the same. I’m not really going to talk about him though; because I didn’t know him, and what could I say that his family, his friends, those who knew him have been saying for days. He was a good man, by their account. He was a nice person, a comical genius. He was a father, husband, friend, person. I like his films, I grew up seeing him, and now he is gone and I am saddened.
There have been, in the wake of his death, many reminders to talk, for those suffering to seek help. Jason Manford wrote an eloquent piece on reaching out, on its necessity. It is naïve to imagine the act of reaching for help is simple, when it plainly is not. To speak truthfully of things, to breach the habitual daily armour we build, is more than difficult for many of us; for those suffering it can feel akin to an act of destruction, as if by speaking the pain they will crack the last vestiges of whatever keeps the dark thing at bay, that they will invoke it, summon it into reality. In silence, perhaps it can be contained, perhaps it will slink back to wherever it came from; named, or summoned, who knows what will be unleashed. This is fear, and it is human. To speak is an act of courage and act of faith. Every assurance aside, it is difficult to be convinced that those we might go to are capable or equipped to deal with our agony.
It would, however, be wrong, and dangerous, to suggest that the simple act of talking is the only step in the process. When something like this happens there is always the question, “why?” Always the question, “how do we stop this happening again?” The need to talk, to express, is both necessary and simplistic. It is not always enough. There also need to be systems in place to deal with those suffering from depression health, from any form of disordered mental health. David Wong, of Cracked.com, writing about the prevalence of depression and mental health issues among comedians, pointed out that Robin Williams could probably have tapped any stranger on the street for help or reassurance. We would gladly have given it. Robin Williams spoke about his depression. He wasn’t closeted away hiding his pain from an uncaring world. He is still gone.
The systems that deal with these issues are utterly unfit for purpose. There may be places were this is not the case, but I don’t know where they are. In Ireland they are a shambles. Gareth MacNamee, Lisa and Oisin McKenna are just three examples of the failures of the existing systems in Ireland. They are harrowing accounts of what can happen to those for whom speaking isn’t enough of an answer, who need more help than a sympathetic ear. It is an easy, comforting narrative to assume that talking is a catch-all solution. It is one that allows our authorities to shift the blame away from their financial and professional disinterest and inability. It falls, very often, for underfunded charities to bridge the gap between broken services, and families and friends who are unequipped or unable to provide the necessary support.
High-profile suicides always prompt a cultural soul searching, a quest for an answer. It is easier if there is an answer. If you can identify the point at which the failure occurred, you can take precautions, and you can safeguard against it. Otherwise, you are faced with the stark, terrifying thought that this is something that can repeat. There are reasons, general and specific. They didn’t Talk; they didn’t Get Help; The System Failed. Push further and there are more Reasons; the society in which we live is fundamentally damaged, infinitely damaging. Those who outlie the traditional heteronormative denominations are still bullied, othered, abused; they are denied basic rights, have their voices stripped away, told their opinions must be offset, “balanced” by the voices of “normal”, traditional voices. It must do wonders for your mental stability to know that every time you speak to a body of people, there must always be a bigot on hand to put you back in your box. And we teach our children that this, this horror, is acceptable, because they are different. We teach our boys that their value is tied up in their earning potential, that it is their social and familial duty to provide. We teach them they must be physically strong. To mock fatness and smallness, slowness, bookishness. We teach them to despise femininity, to use it as an insult, and then we teach them what is feminine. We train away the ability to express pain, to cope with it; the very act of feeling becomes inherently feminised and thus, worthy of scorn. We train them to procure sex for validation, to expect it, a lot of it, that their just reward for compliance is female companionship and sexual congress. We teach our girls to accept their role as prizes, convince them they want to be won, chased. We teach them to be small, and quiet and dainty. That they need to be pretty more than they need to be anything else; that they are in competition with every single other woman alive. We teach them to buy shoes and not eat in the service of the project of their appearance. That to be successful they will need to be bitches, that authority requires a brutality. We teach them both a philosophy of marriage, monogamy, mortgage like it is a fact, not a possibility, and build social structures that punish those who fall outside of it. We teach them that the structures that surround them are natural, correct, and inviolate; they are broken. We are – we are broken. We literally pile neurosis on top of ourselves and wonder then how people fail to cope. And this still, is not a total answer to question of where depression comes from, of how we solve it. It suggests that if only we could stop this problems, help people not to feel this way, they would stop choosing to kill themselves. Robin Williams was successful, loved, and he is gone.
Depression comes, from wherever it comes from, and it wounds and it hurts, and too often it takes like a thief. On a very fundamental level, we don’t understand it. Some of the science is becoming clearer, but we have no robust answers. There are some, most unfortunate in their experience, who are acquainted with it on a very intimate level. I am not one of these people. You could say I’m lucky; I know so many people who have tried to die. I’m lucky because I don’t know anyone who has succeeded. A lot of my friends know people who have died by suicide. I think we all know of people who have; friends of friends mostly, extended family maybe. It is there, though, on the periphery of all of our lives, when it isn’t closer. Like I said, I’m lucky; I don’t know anyone who has killed themselves. There’s a line of a Lene Marlin song I know. It goes, “I heard about your story from a friend . . .” and it makes me wonder about those people that I missed, those that didn’t make it far enough for our lives to intersect. Sometimes, I wonder how very large that number might be. I’ve never been through what Robin Williams, or millions of others have been through. I have no special perspective on what they’ve had to endure, and I don’t have a solution for them or for you. Fiction, for me, has always provided the best path to fundamental truths. I imagine that’s true of a lot of us; I think that is why we so keenly respond to the loss of someone like Robin Williams; because he provided a voice and a form to so many of the fictions which led us to strength, upon which we condition our existence. My entire worldview is conditioned by interactions with such fictions, my understanding of everything is informed by them. It should, then, be no surprise that depression takes a particular form in my mind. Some of you will be familiar, though most won’t I suspect, with the image of Sephiroth. To me, he is the ultimate expression of despair, the avatar of the suicide solution. You can understand his anguish and outrage, and the horror at what he is beneath his own skin, you can understand his point of view. He is a thing of rage and death and he is a monster, and he is so very full of rationales and reasons and logic. His philosophy of murder is couched with such clarity as an act of compassion, of relief, that he is utterly terrifying. He does not merely kill; he is the one-winged angel of despair, bestowing a favour, in the name of a terrifying logic, a Reason all too easy to understand. You don’t choose to go with him or not, you simply survive him. I read the stories of survivors, of sufferers, and it’s an image that makes sense to me. They know better. I’ve never had the knife in my hand, and I’ve never stood on the edge and stared over.
I’ve never stared into the darkness where the monster swims. I can’t claim that I have, and I don’t wish to pretend of been in a place worse than I have. I don’t know what people who battle daily with depression and suicidal ideation go through. I’ve never had to live in, or through, that kind of battle. I’ve just got this one night, from maybe three years ago; this one night where all my Reasons, and there seemed so many of them, were lit up like balefire. I was unemployed, and sending out dozens of CVs a week and getting nothing or nowhere. Most of my friends lived in different countries and I didn’t have the money to do anything with the ones that were here. I was upset, lonely and surly all of the time. I wasn’t who I wanted to be physically, mentally, financially, personally. I was failing to fulfil responsibilities I have invented for myself in the first place. I’d been staring at a bank of DVDs for more than an hour, completely unable to care what I watched or did next at all. Exhausted by doubts and fears and the sheer struggle to keep entertained in the face of monotonous days of simply enduring, awaiting some promised economic resurgence so I might be gifted with some job I didn’t want anyway, a cog in The Man’s Machine. I don’t know what it was about that night, what made it different than the one before. I remember no special significance, doubt there was one. I don’t know what turned reasons into Reasons. But something did; the kraken breached the surface. This dark and hungry thing was swimming through me then, and all I saw was more of this same trudging awfulness. There was no voice, no Sephiroth, even the monster is a metaphor I’m constructing here. There was just this idea – simple, obvious, and yet utterly appalling – that I didn’t have to have a tomorrow.
I didn’t choose not to do something drastic. I dodged it. That’s how I see it. I sat there, for the longest moments, mulling that thought over. And in an instance of clarity I realised I didn’t like what I was thinking. I left the room I was in. It was late, past the middle of the night, and everyone was asleep. I got my dog and I sat with her and I took many deep breaths and ate some chocolate, drank some water. I scared myself, don’t doubt it. Eventually – minutes? – hours? – I went to sleep. I woke up and the thing, whatever it was, wasn’t there anymore. I still had all those same problems, all those same reasons why my life was shit and not likely to improve any time soon. But they weren’t Reasons with a capital R anymore, they weren’t pointed at something, they didn’t mean that I was useless, valueless, a waste, a burden anymore. They were simply a reality of my life. My life isn’t so much better now. I’ve had a shit job for year and eight months that doesn’t pay enough and doesn’t allow me to have the life I’d like. I’m not going to pretend what I had was a unique experience. The consensus seems to be that a worryingly large number of people go through moments like mine. The lucky ones, like me, have only the briefest of glimpses of the monster; others live with it, day on day. They go through years suffering through it, and knowing that any respite might be temporary.
We’ve finally begun to reach a place, culturally, where we can share things like this without having to worry that some stigma might become permanently affixed to us; and because of that, we’ve started to learn that we are not unique in our distress. Unfortunately, that isn’t an answer. Saying, “Well a lot of people go through this” is not an answer, or a solution. It should be a rallying cry, a call to arms. Sadly, it is too often used to suggest that those suffering from depression, from suicidal ideation, simply need to “toughen up”, to “wait it out”, to “remember the good things in life”, to “be happy with what you do have”. In that state of mind, answers become irrelevant, they vanish into the murk, swallowed up by questions, by the appalling logic of the monster, until there is only one path, one ending on a horizon of infinite affliction. For those in that position, I can only offer the advice of Matt Fraction – find an anchor, something, anything to tether you until you can get to the help and stability you need.
Robin Williams had answers. I know because he gave them to me; he’s been quoting them off the screen in front of me all week. Robin Williams had access to support. He provided support for others too. You’ve probably read that he rang up Spielberg to keep him in good spirits during the filming of Schindler’s List, that he called on Christopher Reeves after he was paralysed. He was familiar with the concept of relief. Depression takes away that rationale, the logic of survival, swallows it whole or blinkers you to it. It steals your choices, until there’s only the bleak reality of endurance remaining. It is not a sickness you can cure. It’s not like a rash, or a chest infection. Can’t shovel money into a research project and hope to wipe it out by 2018. It’s not malaria; it’s not AIDs. When we climb into the stars and spread across a dozen worlds, we will likely take depression with us. That is not to say that there are no options, no defences. Quite plainly there are a range of avenues of treatment, from medicinal to institutional intervention, which can work for some, and not for others. A long-term regime of intensive psychiatric therapy may work for one person; for another any form of counselling might be useless. The most dangerous notion we could assume is that there is a singular right path to mental health. Real monsters are rarely susceptible to silver bullets. We need social and medical structures conditioned to respond to distress in multiple, complex and affirming manners, able to differentiate and respond to the variable and fluctuating needs of a host of people. Most particularly, we need care that begins from a place of compassion; one that sees sufferers as people, rather than statistics, or worse, unproductive social units, one that would construct failure as the responsibility of the intransigent ill.
But we need to recognise a fundamental truth too. We treat our social structures as though they are inherently natural, as if they are a level playing field, when in fact they are designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many, that they marginalise and stigmatise any who seek to exit or challenge them. They prioritise traditional (and archaic) identity and power constructs, punishing any who fail to fulfil narrow designations. There is nothing intrinsically right about society as it stands, and we cannot continue to punish those who flounder in the face of its flaws. We cannot continue to pretend that the constructed mechanisms of our societies are perfectly functional and fit for purpose, laying the blame for alienation and disenfranchisement on people who simply cannot, do not, may not, or refuse to conform to its imagined, invented standards of propriety.
It is time to say to those suffering, that yes, they are entitled to their pain, that they need not be burdened with guilt for having those feelings, that pain. That it is not only acceptable, but that we acknowledge that it is real. We need to make a sincere, honest, long-term commitment to providing the mechanisms for healing, for treatment and for survival.
Robin Williams was successful, beloved, and probably financially capable of affording more than basic care and treatment. He could have turned to nearly anyone in the world, at any given moment and asked for help. Robin Williams is dead.
Consider those who don’t even have Robin Williams’ advantages.
Samaritans 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
Aware 1890 303 302 (depression anxiety)
Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email email@example.com – (suicide, self-harm, bereavement)
Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)