Like so many people, I felt gut-punched when I heard of Robin Williams’ death. It would have been bad enough if he’d died of a heart attack, cancer, a car accident, a shooting, or any other cause that could have befallen him. But suicide? He’d done it to himself? It made me heartsick. I thought, “DAMN, another one who didn’t make it.”
At the end of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath wrote, “How did I know that someday―at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere―the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” She didn’t know. And when the stifling distortions and black despair overwhelmed her, she did put her head in the oven of a London flat and end it all while her beloved children slept in the nursery.
Plath’s quote expresses what’s always haunted me: The realization that, if you’ve suffered depression and suicidal tendencies in the past, you won’t know until the day you actually die that you won’t wind up taking your own life. I think the more you’ve healed, the more you’ve put behind you, the stronger you feel, and the more you’ve achieved balance and a clear head, the more terrifying it is to think that darkness could ever descend again.
In a Facebook post about Williams, Anne Lamott said, “We think in the aftermath of Robin’s death that there will be consciousness raising about mental health, but I doubt it.” I agree, but not only because, as she says, the “shock and awe” will pass. I think it’s because if someone hasn’t experienced true depression, he or she can’t possibly understand it. People want to imagine depression as a really bad case of the blues, an unremitting sadness, and it’s so much worse than that. A really bad case of the blues is a good day. They don’t understand the anguish that fills not only your brain, but every limb as though with concrete. It’s too hard to get up out of the chair and put one foot in front of the other, and yet you can be energized by a rage that sends sparks flying out of your fingers and melts your brain into lava–and you don’t even know what you’re angry about. That’s how it’s been for me, anyway. Some of the worst exhaustion came from slamming back and forth between the leaden feeling and the spitfire anger.
When I was first prescribed Zoloft over twenty years ago, my therapist described it as slipping a glove over the raw nerves. It was a relief, even though a different kind of deadening took place. Euphoria for the most part deserted me, but so did what I described to myself as scraping my feet on the bottom of the well as I kicked and fought to break the distant surface again. I’m one of the lucky ones. Sertraline worked from the start and has continued to work. I even got through menopause unscathed.
And it’s not even that I never get sad or depressed. I felt depressed this week over a culmination of things, from Williams’ death to the violence in this country and worldwide to the simple fact that summer’s coming to an end. I get depressed when Mom’s not feeling well, and I know what kind of hell I’ll go through when I lose her. I get depressed seeing the Hooligans getting another year older and envisioning the day when they’re hardly in my life any longer. I dread all the deaths and tragedies that lie ahead, that must lie ahead because that’s how life rolls, and I shudder to think I wouldn’t be able to cope.
What I took away from failed suicide attempts when I was a teenager was that I only consciously thought I wanted to die; it was my subconscious that was adamant about wanting to live. I continued to believe that through later horrid periods, and I’m desperately hoping my life-loving subconscious is what will always keep me from doing something I just don’t really want to do.
I understand how you can reach that point, though. That’s what makes me ache for Robin Williams and anyone else who raises their arms in surrender. I appreciate that people see it as weak, cowardly, selfish, and all the other damning adjectives. It’s heart-stopping to think of the pain such an act causes to those left behind, not to mention the anger. But I also know how desperately a person can yearn for relief and release; how a person can convince herself that it’s better for everyone she loves if she’s not around any more to afflict them; how a person can believe to her roots she’s not worthy of the space she’s taking up on the planet.
I don’t pretend to know what Robin Williams was thinking, what the enormity of his problems was costing him, what pushed him into action on Monday morning. I just understand enough to know I feel bad for him. Dammit, another one didn’t make it.