Last week we were eating out when we realized the background noise was no longer a football game, but announcements that Robin Williams had died, possibly as a suicide. Williams was so loved by so many that his death has sparked a lot of discussion about depression, and perhaps, while his depression and death were something we all regret, his death may be the key to unlock the door that we have been holding shut too long.
Last night I was talking to a friend and she referred to death, especially suicide, as “The elephant in the living room”: that which our culture insists on avoiding mentioning, even when it’s right there in our faces. Why? If there is a universal reality it is that we all die at some point. When our bodies are too damaged to continue functioning, they stop, and we suddenly have lost the mechanism we use to interact with other humans. We hate that because interacting with others is probably why we put on bodies in the first place. We don’t talk about death.
We especially avoid talking about suicide and depression. Depression is a fairly universal prelude to suicide. People don’t kill themselves because they’re really looking forward to being dead and just can’t wait (with very occasional exceptions). They kill themselves because they can’t figure out a way to make their life worth living, to make the pros outweigh the cons. There may be too much physical or psychological pain, or too little love and joy.
There are cases in which death may be preferable, it’s not our call. I am really tired of the frequent response “It beats the alternative” when people hear about someone being injured or dealing with a wretched disease, as if death is the only alternative. No, among varied alternatives, the one we want is to be healthy, to be pain-free, and happy. Frankly, from everything I’ve heard, that’s what being dead is all about; you’re ethereal body is whole and powerful, you are with loved ones, and you are practically wallowing in infinite love and joy. Sounds pretty good. But while relaxing on a beach also sounds pretty good, sometimes you’d rather be getting something done. Thus, we’d usually rather be alive, continuing with our plans, and spending time with our living friends, even though “the Alternative” is comfort, love and joy. So don’t say “beats the alternative” when you mean “this horrible thing is, at least, better than the worst alternative I can come up with”.
In the end, what’s wrong with Death? Three main things: first, it separates us from our friends, second, it prevents us from doing the things we intend to do, and finally, we don’t know enough about it, and that makes us nervous. What we don’t know about it we can try to address through spiritual and mystical means. Humans are psychic (whether you believe it or not), so I’m going to go with the matching stories from nearly all centuries and cultures, and you can choose whichever stories you prefer. That’s our choice. As for the other two problems, the solution is different.
If death bothers you, don’t start in on it early. If you don’t want to be separated from your loved ones, BE WITH THEM. Don’t put spending time with them off, don’t put off telling them what you want to tell them. If not being able to spend that time with them is what worries you about dying, why are you spending so much time doing other shit? If you’ve got something you want to do (to complete, to achieve), don’t waste your time doing something else- like sitting at your computer looking at more pictures of cute kittens. Go out and GET a kitten and play with it! Go to the pound and play with the kittens there! Paint the painting, write the book, go look at the pyramids, or start the savings account so you can do it next year or five years from now. Start doing what you want to do, because at some point, you WILL be dying and probably say “damn, why didn’t I get around to that‽”
Why is it that we are sad that Robin Williams died? Because we wanted more of him. Most of us didn’t know him personally, but he touched our lives. His performances taught us things and changed us. He played some wonderful roles: so often doctors, psychiatrists, priests, and teachers that there must have been a reason. He started out as Mork, the ultimate outsider, looking at our culture, and thus able to see the things about ourselves we don’t see. Most of William’s roles seemed to have that “outsider” aspect. The Genie had “Phenomenal Cosmic Power, itty bitty living space”, again, giving us perspective on our own wishes and motivations. He gravitated to rolls that explored how humans work. In his comedic routines he shifted from gender to gender, culture to culture with blurring speed and ease, thus showing us our commonality. In “What Dreams May Come” the very experience of death was explored- not just by his character but by the audience as well. He had a gift and insight he shared with us, and we really hate to lose that. It’s not surprising that some of the internet comments direct anger at him for killing himself. He “stole” what they considered rightfully theirs: his future roles.
We are also terrified that if someone we saw as so insightful, so wise, so popular, wealthy, and all those other things we imagine he had and was, could still suffer from depression, what chance do those of us who have less money and connections have? We don’t talk about our fear because we cannot imagine that talking about it will make it any better. We are SURE there is no answer, so why not just try to ignore it. Someone once interviewed all the survivors who’d tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, and every one of them said that on the way down they’d changed their minds. Every one. Suicide hotlines can (sometimes) tell someone who has exhausted all the possibilities they can find about some charity that can help them with food or heat, of a way to get out of an abusive relationship, of some way to change how awful their life has become. Just because someone (who practically by definition is exhausted and has limited resources) can’t come up with a solution, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one; it’s sad when someone dies because they didn’t know that the solution to their problems was available. The story about the Golden Gate jumpers doesn’t tell about the people who DID die when they hit the water at terminal velocity. Maybe those people didn’t change their minds on the way down, so their souls left their bodies when they felt the impact. It would be hard to interview that population and gather those statistics. I think we have some reasonable shame that we as a culture (and as individuals) have not made the answers and help more available to those in need. It’s easier to “not think about” it than to wonder if we might have been able to help. Once again, if that guilt is the reason for our silence, then like spending time with loved ones, and doing what we want, the answer is to just “get to it”.
Depression has been with mankind since people started writing about themselves, and probably before that. One thing we have learned in the fifty years is that there’s a chemical component of depression, that when certain chemicals are in the brain, we’re more likely to be depressed. We’ve also learned that because of the body mind connection, what we think and feel stimulates production of different chemicals in our brains. This can create a horrible feedback loop in which sad thoughts lead to chemicals that lead to more sad thoughts. This is where drugs are supposed to come in and help. They are supposed to interrupt that cycle so that the body can stop hurting itself, and start healing. It’s such a delicate balance that it’s freaking hard to manage, but we can hope that we are learning, and getting better at it. But even now, a few particles of the wrong stuff in our brains, and suddenly what looks possible seems impossible, and we’d better have someone around to help while that imbalance is dominating our brain chemistry. And once again we’re back to guilt. We don’t want to think about whether we could have made the difference if we’d been there at the critical moment. We can’t be everywhere! We can’t solve everyone else’s problems. But we always wish we could and wonder “what if”?
And that’s why I think we should talk about death and depression. If we can openly share our fears and guilt over “what we might have done”, our friends can point out the fallacies in our arguments. We can come up with more workable solutions. We can be reminded that we share the same problems and sometimes can get help or help each other with solutions. Together we are less afraid, more powerful, better able to cope. We may never be able to get this particular elephant out of the living room, but if we can stop pretending it’s not there, what we’re doing in the same room will be a lot easier.