At the beginning of the week, the famous comedian and actor Robin Williams died from an apparent suicide after a long struggle with severe depression and substance abuse and when reading the countless articles about him, his life and his work, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes, suicide really is the answer for some.
Severe depression, the kind that envelops you is a like a lying thief that sits on your shoulders. You hear positive words, thoughts and feelings but they’re stolen by the thief and turned into negative lies and it’s those lies that we hear when we’re struggling so acutely with life.
The very premise of severe depression is that it lies and tells you that you’re alone. Depression puts you in a bubble where you know several things but feel very few. We can know that people love us. That we’re not alone. That there are people out there who will listen to our most depressed and scary thoughts. But knowing it and feeling it are two very different things and if you can’t feel it, it doesn’t help. Depression tells us that no-one will listen or care about how depressed we feel. That they won’t understand what it’s like not being able to get out of bed for days at a time. It tells us that our friends and family love us only when we’re happy. It tells us that we shouldn’t chase our dreams because we won’t achieve them. It tells us that there’s no point asking for help because it will never work (even if it does for others). It tells us that we’re useless, fat, alone and that we deserve every bad thing that happens to us. Rainbows and unicorns happen to other people, not us.
And when we don’t think life can get any worse, we add in addictions. We become alcoholics to numb the pain. We start self-harming because it’s the only thing that stops the panic attacks. We take too many drugs because we don’t want to feel anything. A self-perpetuating cycle fuelled by the thief who sits on our shoulders.
I read comments on articles about Robin where people said ‘I wish you knew how loved you were’ and couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t matter whether he did know or not because the likelihood is that he couldn’t feel the love or maybe he couldn’t accept it. When you’re that low, logical thoughts don’t come into the equation. There is no doubt that he WAS loved. His family loved him, everyone he met appeared to love him and his fans felt nothing but love the for the characters that he portrayed so well in his career. I’m sure that he did know he was loved but it doesn’t matter if his thoughts were so dark and all-consuming that it wouldn’t allow him to see or feel it strongly enough.
There was an out-pouring of organisations and celebrities promoting charities that could help in times of need and telling people who suffer similarly to Robin to ‘seek help because you’re never alone and suicide isn’t the answer‘ and I cringed a little. Not because it isn’t necessarily true of course but because the entire mental illness spectrum and substance abuse changes your thoughts and beliefs at their very core. People can say that to end your life is the epitome of selfishness but until you’ve been in that persons position, you can’t judge. Until you have wet your pants because you couldn’t get to the toilet in time or have thrown up from the panic attack that just wouldn’t stop, you can’t know what it’s like. There are endless resources for help out there but that doesn’t mean that our illness will allow us to seek or accept it – we often don’t see the point because we ‘know it won’t make a difference’.
Yes, the pain that we would leave behind from suicide is immeasurable with feelings of guilt that they ‘wish they had known’ or ‘could have helped’ but in all honesty, that pain, which we can only imagine, feels like nothing in comparison to the pain we go through in that moment. Our Lying Thief tells us that our loved ones and the world are better off without us in it. They won’t have to ‘listen to our problems’ anymore or ‘put up with miserable us’. When we’re that low, we feel like we’re doing our loved ones and the world a favour. One less person in the Universe to worry about.
I even read people say – ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem‘; a quote I truly detest. The word ‘temporary’ is defined as ‘effective for a time only; not permanent’ but let me assure you, there is nothing about it that feels temporary when you’re full of desperate despair. Yes, the episode might ‘only’ last a few weeks or months (though likely years on and off) but when you’re going through it, it feels as though the dark tunnel will last indefinitely and you see no hope or light; just more dark times and painful emotions.
We don’t even know who we are anymore. We stopped being able to distinguish where ‘we’ stop and the illness starts a long time ago. Are we naturally this miserable or is it the depression? Are we always this boring or are we just too ill to say anything? No wonder we feel like failures in life when we can’t even sort out which thoughts are our own. We don’t tell friends or family how deeply we’re struggling because we often get platitudes such as ‘people have it worse than you’ or ‘do things to cheer yourself up’ and that lack of knowledge and understanding prevents us from opening up when we’re so acutely ready to. And we fear that you’ll leave us when we do eventually open up. That our thoughts that scare us so deeply will scare you even more greatly and you won’t know what to do once those words and feelings are out there. If and when you do leave, it will only serve to reinforce that there’s no point in us trying to talk because ‘everyone leaves us eventually’, so explains the Thief.
Being a friend to someone who is depressed and struggling is a road fraught with pitfalls. What you say, how you act; we over-analyse anything looking for the negative because that’s what the Thief tells us to expect. After all, you’re going to ‘leave us eventually’ so why should we believe you when you say you’ll be ‘there for us no matter what’?! Which is why so many of us act like the class clowns. The ones that hide behind the self-deprecating humour, the sarcasm, the out-right jokes; the funnier we are, the less likely you are to see the real us; we hope. Because after all, who wants a friend like us right? The one that cancels dinner plans constantly because we can’t face a restaurant? The one that can’t leave our bed so you’ll have to come to us? The one who can’t go to the supermarket as an adult without their mum? Why would anyone sign up to that in a friendship?
I’ve been that friend. The one that’s been there in the middle of the night on the phone texting because you couldn’t bare to say how you really felt out loud. I know that if you do it I’ll be angry because you’re intelligent, amazing, gorgeous and I’ll be furious that the world doesn’t get to experience having you in their lives. I know I’ll also be angry because it will feel like you didn’t love me enough to stay. I know that if you do it I’ll feel guilty because I couldn’t help you enough; that I moved the Earth for you but it wasn’t quite enough. I know that if you do it my heart will break into more pieces than you helped to build. But I also know that if you do it it’s because you’re suffering insurmountable pain and I can’t hold it against you for wanting it to stop.
However, for many of us there is help and we should always try and fight the lies our mind tells us. There are doctors and therapists who help us get past the bad times. There are friends who will understand when you cancel dinner plans. There are friends that appreciate you can’t get dressed and will come and cuddle you in bed instead. And there are parents who will hug you at 27 years old in the vegetable aisle of your local supermarket.
I’m 28 years old and after 15 years of fighting the Joy Thief and wondering when exactly I lost my mind, the thought of suicide still knocks at my door asking me to choose more often than I care to admit. For the moment I am strong enough not to answer but for some, suicide really is the only door they can and want to open. It may be the most hurtful to others but when you’re so sick, it can often be the only answer our illness will allow us to see.
Sometimes, just sometimes not everyone in life can be helped.
That doesn’t make it right or wrong; it’s just the answer we’ve chosen.
It’s as simple, painful and as complicated as that.