I never thought the issue of depression would be such a polarizing topic. Robin Williams’s death has proven otherwise. He hanged himself to end his suffering from the disease of depression. Along with the countless sympathetic posts and stories, I have seen some pretty disgusting ones, calling Williams a coward (Fox News) and saying that he died from a choice not a disease (Matt Walsh). These comments sadden and anger me, and as I see them popping up, I pray that Williams’s family is somehow sheltered from these hateful words. Suicide is indeed a choice, especially from the outside eye. There is the choice to do it or not do it. However, depression can drive one so far into the dark that it may seem that suicide is the only option, completely obliterating the definition of “choice” and “option.” Depression makes the choice for you. To begin to comprehend suicide, consider the following quote: “depression is like a room engulfed in flames and you can’t breathe for the sooty smoke smothering you limp — and suicide is deciding there is no way but to jump straight out of the burning building.” Williams did not hang himself out of spite or cruelty. He got tired of living in the room engulfed in flames. He got tired of depression whispered breath in his ear. And in the end, depression won and made this choice from him.
One in four adults (approximately 57.7 million Americans) struggle with mental illness in a given year. These can include the following: “major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.” We all know someone who is struggling, whether we consciously know it or have no idea about the silent battle a person is always waging. For me, I have people in my life that have struggled or are still struggling, and I have experienced it personally. In the last years of high school and beginning of college, I was depressed. I’m not talking about being sad for long periods of time. I’m talking about room-engulfed, can’t-catch-my-breath, hysterical-outbursts depression. Freshman year of college, I sat in my bathtub with a razor blade, feeling the water turn cold to chill my skin. Depression’s dark breath worked to convince me how much easier it would be to end it. The battle didn’t seem worth it. As I thought more and more about it, I realized I couldn’t run that blade down my wrists. Cutting was nothing new to me—the pain brought relief—but the terror of what was in store for me on the other side steadied my resolve to seek help instead of end it all. It was terrifying to seek help, to admit I was not perfect. With weekly meetings with my therapist and daily medication, I got better. I’m no longer on medication, but the memory of the dark is still there. I still feel its icy death grip occasionally, and hear its chilling voice in my ear. Now, though, I am cognizant of how much the future holds for me. It is worth the fight. It is worth the struggle.
I was lucky. Some people are not able to win the battle so easily. This is not a reflection on the person but on the disease. For some, the claws are dug down deeper. I have someone very dear to me that took a gun to his head, and with shaky hands, he put it down. I had another dear someone take the gun and pull the trigger…twice. Both were spiritual persons. Perhaps the only difference is that one sought help, or perhaps the length of the suffering played a part. Either way, both were courageous men to face what they faced in their lives. They were no cowards. I hope these people who are talking so negatively about Robin Williams never have suicide touch their lives, and I hope they do not learn what that room feels like as it’s engulfed in flames.
In many recent articles, blogs, and news reports, writers have asserted that Robin Williams died from a choice rather than a disease. I pose the question; did he not die from both? He chose to end his suffering after battling this disease for most of his life. I’m certain it was not a fleeting choice perpetrated on the spur of the moment. It was the only option he felt he had, and no one knows how many times he had wrapped that belt around his neck and decided not to do it before the final day. He could have continued the struggle, reaching out for help. One would think he had already done numerous times after coming out publicly about his fight with depression and drugs. Matt Walsh, a popular blogger, wrote the following: “To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse.” However, depression is a disease similar to malaria or heart failure. It does not always result in death, but it can. There are treatment methods. The only difference is that depression manifests internally. It is not like a pox that is evident to the naked eye splayed across the skin. It is a silent disease. Like alcoholism, it is a disease that will always be present. Some days it may be easier to not take that drink, but others are full of unquenchable desire. Some reach the point where they are tired of the treatment and reaching out and tired of not being able to take that drink. They decide to be vanquished because depression has made this choice for them. Is this the right choice? I don’t believe death is ever the right choice, but I also know one must be in a place of endless darkness to actually tie that rope and jump. Suicide is similar to someone succumbing to leukemia. It is a direct result of the disease of depression. Yet when someone refuses treatment for leukemia, we do not shame them. We do not shame someone who dies from almost any other disease. Why then do people feel the need to shame Robin Williams or anyone else who dies by his own hand?
Many of these writers, and even one news anchor, have said that Robin Williams is a coward, and one of the reasons is for leaving his family and friends to deal with his suicide. Walsh was disturbed by Williams’s “willingness to saddle [his] family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.” It is indeed extremely difficult for those left behind. There are questions that will forever go unanswered, and a hole in one’s heart that will never again be filled by that person. However, from what I’ve read and know from my own experiences with the disease, these people do think of their families. There reaches a point where the grief their suicide will cause seems little to the burden they are currently saddling their loved ones with. They start to believe that they are acting in their loved ones’ best interest mainly because they are not worthy of their love. This is not true. No matter what loved ones are dealing with while a person with depression is alive, it does not compare to the grief and pain they are shackled with after that person’s passing. The disease of depression twists this fact, though.
Matt Walsh suggests that joy and love are the only things that defeat depression, not medication or therapy. He writes, “We can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression. No depressed person in the history of the world has ever been in the depths of despair and at the heights of joy at the same time. The two cannot coexist. Joy is light, depression is darkness. When we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it. I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it.” What Walsh does not understand is that true depression robs people of their ability to feel joy. They may observe it, but they have forgotten how to obtain it for themselves. Yes, they feel unworthy, awful, and sinful. However, it’s not a choice they make to not feel joy; depression withholds it from its sufferers.. Medication and psychotherapy help build a bridge back to joy. (Read more on depression and its treatments.) Perhaps what Mr. Walsh has experienced in his lowest points is what we all struggle with at some point—the very meaning of our existence. We have all felt at some point that we are unworthy, that we are awful, and that we are sinful or immoral. This is part of life. This is why we do things of worth, of use, and of grace. These feelings are normal, especially when we can still see joy and experience it. It is when joy is just a distant memory that can no longer be obtained when we have to worry. Again, it is not a choice to turn away from joy when saddled with depression.
Walsh further explains his belief that depression is not only a chemical imbalance, stating that it’s not clinical but rather spiritual. He elucidates, “But I don’t understand how theists, who acknowledge the existence of the soul, think they can draw some clear line of distinction between the body and the soul, and declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in one but not the other. This is a radically materialist view now shared by millions of spiritualist people.” He is attempting to persuade that depression is as much a spiritual ailment as a bodily ailment. Something is dark within the spirit to cause such darkness in the body. Walsh says that he is not saying depressed people lack religiosity or are automatically atheist; based on his rhetoric, he is saying that although you may be a spiritual person depression indicates that there is something wrong in your soul. Fix that, and you fix the depression. Let’s backtrack for a minute. When someone is sick with any disease, whether it’s depression, heart disease, leukemia, etc., it does impact the soul. The body and the soul are intertwined. The disease works on the soul as well. However, that someone has not done anything to bring on the disease. The effect that the disease is having on them physically, emotionally, and spiritually is not their fault. There is no deficiency within the soul to bring on the disease of depression. It is indeed a chemical imbalance of the body which, if you are a religious person, may affect the health of your soul solely because any battle weighs on the soul. It is NOT a deficiency of the soul that then causes the chemical imbalance within the body.
Walsh also wrote in his recent blog that worse than believing Williams died from a disease is the “fact that we seem to approach it with an attitude that nearly resembles admiration.” He explains that the language with which we are talking about his death resembles admiration. The Academy of Motion Pictures tweeted “Genie, you’re free,” and many others have said that now he is in a better place. Walsh asserts, however, that using rhetoric like this is as good as giving a suicidal person a gun. I do not agree. Firstly, this “glowing” rhetoric we are using regarding the death of Robin Williams is not for the dead. It is for the living. It consoles us. It’s an attempt to make the incomprehensible understandable. We are paying tribute to a man who touched our lives in so many ways and mourning not just his death but a world without him. We know he is free from his suffering with his disease. We also know that he made this last act absolute. No one knows with 100% certainty what the great beyond holds for us. One would have to be suffering unimaginably to choose this because uncertainty is terrifying. Would one turn to nothingness or even a white hot netherworld if suffering was endurable? Williams starred in What Dreams May Come. He contemplated the after-ness. Secondly, we are not admiring suicide or even the disease of depression. We may say “you are free” because scientifically we understand the suffering. By explaining suicide through the scientific terms of depression, we are simply explaining. We are not downplaying suicide; there are real reasons that lead to suicide. By talking about these we are hoping to encourage people to get help rather than turn to the ultimate absolute. It is not a hopeless disease that leaves one completely powerless. Doctors understand it now. There is treatment. There is help. Some people reach a point where suicide is the only option. We hope to reach people before they reach this point.
What it all comes down to is this. Suicide is tragic. It is a tragedy NOT a choice. There are ways to prevent it. There is help out there. But for those left behind after a suicide, do not let your words become daggers that stab an already wounded heart. Do not call their loved one a coward that made a choice instead of a person who suffered from a disease. The people left behind were loved and appreciated. The person who took his life knew he was loved. Depression won this battle, though.
For Robin Williams, you are already missed in our household. I grew up watching Mrs. Doubtfire every time I would visit my grandparents in Omaha. My brother’s first trip to the movie theater was to see Aladdin. My brother and I would pretend to fly after every viewing of Hook, and we bought the game Jumanji to try to act out the movie. I’ve seen Dead Poet’s Society numerous times and have shared it with countless students. I will cherish every laugh he gave and every time he lifted the spirits within our household.
O Captain! my Captain! your fearful trip is done.
After every heart who watched your art, is now forever won.
If you’re suffering with depression, don’t keep silent. Reach out. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and visit this website.