To be or not to be: pondering suicide

Jamakaya, Columnist

Suicide freaks us out.

It does so because most of us know someone who has attempted suicide or succumbed to it. Many of us have experienced depression or have loved ones who struggle with it. 

It especially freaks us out to see someone as apparently happy and successful as Robin Williams take his life. It’s sad and shocking. It hurts, and comfort is hard to find. 

My father committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning when he was 48 and I was 14. My brother, who dragged my dad from the garage that day, shot himself in the head at age 33. Three close friends have died by their own hands, losses that weigh heavily because they occurred more recently.

There are many things to clean up in the aftermath of a suicide, from the physical premises to the emotional mess. Days of shock give way to questions, introspection, guilt, sometimes shame or blame. We’ve seen it played out in the American media in the past few weeks.

My mother felt guilty for our family’s collapse, yet she had struggled to keep a sick husband and three children afloat with little income. There was mental illness in the family tree and both my father and brother suffered for a long time from a host of burdens, all exacerbated by substance abuse. There were several “interventions” with them that didn’t work.

As a girl, I had no idea what to do about my father, who suffered a rapid mental and physical deterioration from alcoholism. Telling him I loved him didn’t help. As a young woman, I steered clear of my brother because his drug use (booze and cocaine) scared the hell out of me. I was always worried he would hurt someone. It turns out he only hurt himself.

I’ve had decades to ponder these events and what I have learned is neither new nor comforting: Despair can be overwhelming and you can’t always help people. You should certainly try, but sometimes people can’t be helped. There are so many things in our lives that screw us up and drag us down, and some of us just don’t make it. 

For more helpful advice, I think An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison are the smartest, most compassionate books about suicide. Jamison is a professor of psychiatry who lives with bipolar disorder and has attempted suicide. As such, her writing is informed by professional expertise and personal experience. She is someone who has been there and really understands the pain and all the issues around suicide.

Thinking about Robin Williams, I remembered a wonderful passage in a biography of Virginia Woolf. One of the most important writers of the 20th century, Woolf was dogged by mental illness her whole life and killed herself at age 59.

In most writing about her, Woolf is depicted as a tragic figure, often defined by her suicide. Author James King said the fact that Woolf achieved the literary success and philosophical influence she did while struggling with mental and emotional illness for 59 years “constitutes another kind of greatness.”

I love that he recognized her survival as an achievement in itself, and I think we should celebrate Williams in the same way. What fortitude he had to sustain those hilarious comedy routines and to remain active and creative as long as he did! How blessed we were by his presence.