After forty-eight hours, I began abstaining from the Internet. My brain could no longer assimilate or respond sanely to the storm of emotion, judgment, anger, defensiveness, and fear that has been triggered by the tragic suicide of Robin Williams.
One of the hardest themes to handle has been the vociferous denouncement of those who take their own lives as “cowards.” This has, of course, been met with many replies urging compassion and denouncing the accusers as being clueless about the realities of mental illness.
It probably comes as no surprise to my readers that I don’t belong to the “cowards” faction. When I hear people talk about how suicide is a selfish choice, I don’t deny the truth of that–but I’m able to see that it might be one momentary, selfish choice that follows 9,999,999 unselfish ones made at other desperate moments. I believe there’s enough mercy in us to forgive such a thing.
I’m also able to see that a person who commits suicide may not be in possession of their faculties. Those who condemn seem to expect a logical weighing of pros and cons, or an ability to think of consequences–during a severe episode, these may be absent. I myself have shared about times when my grip on reality is tenuous–someone in worse shape might be incapable of considering anything. Those with bipolar disorder have an astronomical suicide rate compared to the general population; some studies say up to one in five will die this way.
Should I ever fall to my illness, I would fully expect anger from those my choice harmed. Blistering anger. But anger is a very different thing from contempt.
Contempt makes people “other.” Contempt is a tool used for convincing oneself that they are different; that this could never happen to them. Contempt is used to make us feel superior. And it hurts to see that someone might look at a person who died in pain and despair and feel a kind of need to assert their own superiority.
Having said all of this, I want to say that I can see another reason people express this attitude. For some people, it doesn’t have to do with judgment or contempt. I think they express it because they are trying to protect others who they fear may be contemplating suicide. That is to say, they worry that a lack of condemnation might send the message that suicide is an okay thing to do. Somewhere in them is a dreadful fear that giving that kind of message might tip a sufferer over into the wrong decision. By stressing one’s duty to others, or the idea of a moral obligation to keep trying, they hope to give someone on the edge a reason to wait.
My heart goes out to these people. I know what it’s like to fear that someone I love is going to harm themselves, and fear that I might be neglecting to do or say something that would change the outcome. I have been with those who live in the aftermath of suicide, and heard their heartbreak and their anger.
But I don’t think shaming those who fall is the way, and I don’t believe shaming them in advance is actually a deterrent. And I can’t help but notice that some of the same people who denounce my brothers and sisters as cowards if they kill themselves are equally quick to denounce us for our lack of productivity or our use of public health resources to try to stay alive. Apparently it is far less acceptable for the rich, successful and well-loved to remove themselves from this planet than for the poor and friendless to do so.
Now, having said what I felt compelled to say as my personal response to this issue, I will let go and give myself permission to move on to different topics. Robin Williams, I love you, and I’m sorry for the pain you endured. I promise I will try my best to remain here and carry the kind of message you might wish.