[A/N: I wrote this entry some time ago this summer, and in uncertainty kept it as a draft for some time. I am publishing it now because with space and time to reconsider, I am okay with the honesty of my own experiences here.]
The news of Robin Williams’ suicide is everywhere at the moment, and this certainly isn’t the first blog response to it, and I doubt it’ll be the last. In some ways, this is usually the sort of thing I would write about on my recovery blog, but I want to be able to put this out publicly for everyone to read, and those two things don’t work well together.
Honestly, my thoughts are still a mess. When the story first broke, when the word ‘suicide’ was first used, it felt a bit like someone had pulled the string on my diaphragm and snagged it taut. For many people in my generation, Robin Williams was a staple of childhood, a huge influence and presence while growing up. It’s hard not to feel the inherent tragedy of someone who made so many people laugh ending up lost in such deep depression. The usual ‘if only’s and thoughts on how it shouldn’t have been that way that come with suicide just feel that bit more poignant.
Mr VI said it best for me, in a status he posted online:
“And all I can think of is that all it takes is *one* bad night. Just one. I shudder to think how many bad nights he had over his 63 years. How many times he was hurting but made it on anyway.
Just…be kind to people today, OK? And even it’s *just* today you might save a life. And lives are made up of many days and nights.”
The thing is, I’ve made attempts on my own life before. I first did when I was twelve, with a naively small overdose that nonetheless knocked me out for a few hours and was never treated. Again in my early twenties, more than once. Five times I was hospitalised for it, and I am only alive today thanks to (among other things) the invention of modern fuses. I’ve had those bad nights – I can still remember clearly the moment of just needing everything to stop, of the sense that you just can’t, you just cannot be for even one more minute. The desperation, the blinding exhaustion.
I survived. I took not enough pills, or too many, or changed my mind partway through. Through luck I am still here, and I still live wary of the danger of that one bad night. I started suffering from depression when I was ten. It’s something I’ve learned to live with, but it’s always a risk, always a danger. Always something to overcome.
And the world really is filled with some utterly ableist bullshit. The common narrative of suicide as ‘selfish’ or ‘stupid’ now makes me grit my teeth with anger. I remember hearing it often when I was a teenager, from ‘friends’ who should have known better, who heard me talk about my problems and decided the solution was this ‘frank talk’. I don’t even think they did it maliciously, but that didn’t stop the ignorance causing me untold amounts of anguish.
There was one friend in particular who felt the need to inform me every time the subject came up that self harm was for ‘weak people’. She would never direct it explicitly at me, but my struggles with such were known to her. These little jabs culminated until I once wrote a blog entry about my experience and the concept of it being selfish, and she left a comment saying the exact same: ‘I wouldn’t say self harm is selfish, just weak.’ Something snapped, and being fourteen and having serious confrontation issues I wrote an entry responding to it angrily. This blew up and ended with me desperately apologising for offending her, as she was convinced (and subsequently convinced me) that her comment had been perfectly reasonable and I had ‘turned into some kind of hate-note’. I felt awful about it for a very long time, as if I had taken my issues out on my friend for no reason.
Alas, it wasn’t just peers who would say this sort of thing. I wrote a piece in college about a girl who self harmed and the teacher commented that ‘you have to be pretty messed up if you’re taking a knife to your arm’ as a criticism of me trying to portray her as reasonable. My scars weren’t as obvious back then, and so I doubt she knew I was a self harmer, but saying that sort of thing casually to a sixteen year old was still fucked up.
These messages were everywhere – from the song ‘Waste’ by Staind (which I would listen to and berate myself over) to everyday conversations and media representations. I was bombarded with it, told over and over that I was weak, selfish, and less than for suffering from a mental illness. People would always frame it in terms of ‘what you’re depressed about’, looking for justifications, rather than accepting that actually it’s a chemical imbalance and while things being shit certainly didn’t help, it wasn’t the cause. There was no one issue you could fix and resolve and suddenly have everything be better.
Growing up it didn’t get any easier. My abusive partner pushed my self esteem into the ground, leaving me feeling suicidal (and not telling anyone) for months. When I finally tried to tell him, he reacted exactly as I’d known and feared he would – ‘don’t be so fucking dramatic’. Years later, back at the hospital, you could never tell if you’d be treated by a doctor who was sympathetic or who would treat you like dirt. Things I was told by doctors in A&E include:
‘If any other patients come in, I’m going to leave this and go treat them first.’
‘People in the world have it far worse. You should look at pictures of blind and deaf children to make yourself feel better.’
‘You don’t need medication, you just need life goals. I went through medical school which is one of the most stressful things you can do and I didn’t cut myself.’
The worst part of this was that in the shame and mire of having just tried to kill myself, I had absolutely no will in me to point out how fucked up and wrong they were. I just nodded and accepted it. My other two visits, the doctors were absolutely amazing and supportive and helpful, which fortunately for me included my worst time. The nurses were always great. There was never anything in the middle.
All I can conclude about this? We need to talk about depression.
But we don’t just need to talk about it in vague terms. We need to make a concentrated effort to change the way it’s portrayed in our media, to make sure our medical professionals are educated on the matter. Suicide is not selfish. Self harm is not weakness. These are signs of an illness, a disability that people who have never experienced cannot possibly imagine – it’s not just the same as having a bad day or feeling a bit sad. The more people have these messages pushed onto them, the less likely they are to actually come forward and look for help, because god knows the last thing you need when you feel suicidal is to have someone tell you what an awful person you are for thinking it.
We need better treatments, we need more support. We need the tabloids to get smacked around the head for the way they’ve reported on this (some of the headlines made me feel physically sick in the grotesque and ghoulish detail they went into). We need more options for people who are suffering from mental illness to get help before it reaches a crisis point.
For now, I just want to curl up and not read or think about it too much. I want to move away from the knife-sharp memories of my own attempts – of the utter devastation that failing to kill myself brought. I want a little more kindness in the world, a little more laughter, and the sad fact is that we just lost a source of kindness and laughter.
RIP Robin Williams.