The Limits of Our Experience: Understanding Depression and Suicide

A few days ago, some people had a suicide story. Now, everyone has one.

If you never knew anyone who died by suicide before, not a single friend or relative, someone at work, down the block, you knew Robin Williams. Everybody knew Robin Williams.

We knew his face, his elastic, electric face that every second, even in repose, had the potential for explosion, a firecracker of surprise. I loved his face. He had the face of a favorite cousin, the one who could charm everyone with a new card trick learned last week at camp, who was thinking about becoming a ventriloquist, an option he would explain while helping clear the table after Thanksgiving dinner. He was the person you always wanted to be with because he was so joyful, full of mirth, but so aware of you, conscious of what would make you laugh and what wouldn't. Taking care of people with his jokes and antics, taking care of them, not entertaining them.

There is the sense that Robin Williams cared for his audience in that same way. Today, all the millions of people that felt cared for by Robin Williams are reflexively thinking why couldn't he find someone to care more about him. That's what they think was missing from his life. If more people had reached out to him, if he had been able to make more of a connection, tell others his problems, seek their support, he would still be alive.

Maybe. I don't know. I have never had suicidal thoughts despite having rough times and spending time feeling quite extraordinarily alone. It never occurred to me and I know why. I was depressed by life's events. I didn't have major, clinical depression. The first condition is one that can be ameliorated by friends' support and kindness. That and time and sometimes other strategies like exercise or overwork or, in my case, sitting in a bathtub running the hot water for hours every night while my young daughter did her homework on the bathroom floor eventually repair what is broken and life goes on. This kind of depression is a stomach ache compared to the stomach cancer that is major, clinical depression.

I have known a couple of people with major, clinical depression. One of them was my mother. A couple are friends. I don't know whether my mother contemplated suicide. She never said and, as far as I know, she never attempted suicide. She would go through great patches of time, several months, when she would barely move from her bed. She was in a darkened bedroom when I left for school and in the same place when I returned. I didn't know about depression. I just believed her to be sad. About what it wasn't clear.

Friends with clinical depression make reference to suicide, ending it all, not having the strength to continue. When I hear this talk, I try to do the things that Mental Health America and other suicide prevention organizations instruct. Ask questions. Be direct. Talk about resources and the plan to use them. When I listen to these friends or read about Robin Williams or hear about friends whose relatives have died by suicide, it strikes me that my own understanding of clinical depression is largely framed by my past stomach aches. It's almost a reflex to start suggesting activities to get better, 'hey, go sit in the bathtub for a while,' and I think that my friendship will make someone decide not to continue on a suicide trajectory. So foolish.

Clinical depression, when it is at its most severe, is a giant anvil of despair and hopelessness. It takes extraordinary effort and a lot of resources, psychiatric, medical, social, to keep breathing under the weight of the anvil. And because it's an anvil and unrelenting and growing heavier by the day, the depressed person's ability to exercise choice about living or dying keeps shrinking.

"Why didn't he think of his family? What about his children? How could he leave them? How could he do this to us?"

Relatives and friends of people who die by suicide, and now Robin Williams' fans ask these questions. The questions come out of their own experience, experience which might even include terrible dark times which they survived and now think are comparable to what Robin Williams experienced. I heard these questions asked by relatives of a man who died by suicide at age 61 after having first attempted suicide in his twenties and living forty years with serious depression. Did he suddenly stopped caring about his friends and relatives? Or did the anvil crush him?


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