Understandably, I heard, read, and saw more about suicide and mental illness this week than I ever have. Fortunately, most of what I read was very positive and understanding; some of it wasn’t. I, of course, am now going to add my two cents. This might take awhile…
Obviously, I’d never met Robin Williams; like most other people, I had just grown up watching him in movies and on TV. One of my first memories of Sesame Street is of Mr. Williams showing a muppet robin that he has a red breast, too! That kind of joy and humor proved confusing for some people, as they wondered how such a bright and hysterically funny man could take his own life.
I really can’t answer that question any better than the brilliant writers over at Cracked. While I don’t know that this kind of characterization is true of every funny person, the article does a good job of explaining not only the innate fear behind the humor, but the unhelpful reactions of others. Funny people don’t share their pain, because others are only used to seeing them smile and joke. “Lighten up,” indeed.
Like I’ve said before, 3 is the funniest person I’ve ever met in real life. He didn’t have the manic energy or wealth of impressions of Mr. Williams; 3 was more like Jimmy Fallon, giggling at his own jokes. As mentioned in the Cracked article, 3 didn’t have the greatest childhood. He even said to me once that he figured out pretty early that if he made jokes and said silly things, grown-ups would stop asking him how he felt about Mom and Dad’s divorce. I don’t think 3’s humor was entirely a defense mechanism, though. He genuinely loved laughing and making other people laugh. Still, it’s desperately important to note that people who are depressed or suicidal don’t necessarily traipse around, somberly staring at the ground, telling anyone who cares to ask that they’re going to kill themselves. Don’t expect people to be happy all the time, and don’t overlook the funny ones.
Sadly, not all internet reactions to Mr. Williams’ death were compassionate. Shocking, I know. I won’t get into the ignorant news anchors or bitter old pseudo-celebrities who are either truly cruel or just saying things for the sake of being shocking. I do, however, want to address a moderately popular blog post that went into great detail about how suicide is a choice. I mean…really?
Someone has just died. Forget the fact that this said person was an internationally beloved comedian who consistently went out of his way to be kind and generous to others; he’s a human being. Can we not make our first response to someone’s death “They were wrong”? Or at least wait more than 24 hours before bloviating about the nature of death under the mind-numbingly self-centered proclamation of “truth”? Goodness.
Let me be very clear: if you want the barest, meanest, most compassion-less technical classification, then yes, suicide is a choice. The thoughts behind suicide are not. Do you understand the distinction? Yes, suicide is, by definition self-inflicted, but what leads a person to that point? Depression, mental illness, abuse, constant bullying – these things ravage a person until they are INCAPABLE of seeing any other way out. They don’t choose to hate themselves or their lives or their circumstances. The haywire chemicals and hormones in the brain of someone with mental illness prevent healthy thoughts, just like pancreatic cells in the body of a person with diabetes prevent the health production of insulin.
Two Christmases ago, after a fight with my mom over S’s upcoming marriage and the nature of love and relationships, I thought about suicide as I made the 9-hour drive back to my apartment. Somewhere around Cincinnati, I sobbed as I thought about what it would be like to just drive through the guard rail and into the river. It was never a serious consideration – more of a thought exercise. Too messy, too much trouble for my family, my mom would blame herself, etc. It’s the closest I’ve ever come, which is to say, not close at all. Point being, I did not have the disordered thinking, the misfiring synapses, the improper chemical levels that cause people to overlook the consequences, to forget how much their lives mean, to believe that suicide is the only option.
I wish people would stop acting like the single greatest reason people commit suicide is because no one ever told them not to, no one ever told them to be happy or to enjoy the beauty of life. It’s so much more complication than that. This isn’t to say that I’m advising against telling people such things. On the contrary, I’m all for doing and saying whatever you can to keep people from taking their own lives. I just don’t think “Don’t do it” is a solution that’s going to work for everyone. Schizophrenia can make you see things and hear things that aren’t there, and depression can prevent you from hearing “I love you, please don’t kill yourself” even when it’s being said directly to your face. Mental illness is not a choice.