“I’m a knight on a special quest.” – Robin Williams as Parry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten angry about a suicide before. As a psychologist, and as someone who’s dealt with depression off and on for most of my life, I’ve been only too aware that the pain of depression – not just the psychic pain, but the physical pain – can be every bit as strong as the pain that goes along with any other terminal illness someone might want to name. And when that pain is at its peak, the desperate need to find some way – ANY way – to make it stop can sometimes make the most desperate measures seem attractive beyond all reason and belief.
I’m fortunate; although I’ve thought about it at times (every seriously depressed person does, no matter what they may say), I’ve never truly come close to any of the things I look for in judging a client’s safety – forming an intent, gathering the means, making a plan. In my darkest moments, my own therapist is very fond of pointing out just how strong my desire, my will, to live really is. But because of my own struggle, I’ve always responded to other deaths with sympathy and empathy, feeling mostly how terrible and sad it was that the person ever had to feel so much pain that suicide seemed the only way out.
I’ve always loved Robin Williams’ work, from the sublime silliness of Mork & Mindy to the equally sublime pain and fear and sadness and human triumph of What Dreams May Come and The Fisher King. Even if his struggles with depression and addiction had been a secret, it would have been clear that there was more to him – much more – than just an incredibly talented clown. I feel terribly sad that such a brilliant, funny man had to walk through so much darkness. But I’m angry, too.
For better or for worse, a lot of people in this world pay attention to celebrities in ways that have nothing to do with the reason for their celebrity, thinking them somehow heightened or enlightened, someone to look up to, someone above the fray. Because of that, I’m sure that right now, there’s someone out there reading or talking about Robin Williams and thinking, “oh, man; if someone like him, with all his talent and all his accomplishments – someone with his kind of life – can get to the point in his depression where suicide is the only way out, what chance do I have?”
I can’t say that Robin Williams didn’t have the right to take his own life; since I believe that our lives are our own and no one else’s, it follows that ultimately, we all do. And I do feel deeply moved and deeply sad for what he must have gone through. But what he did not have was the right to become a role model for death.
I’ve seen the wreckage, the chaos, the despair that suicide leaves behind, and I believe that anyone who contemplates suicide has one last responsibility: to consider the effect the act will have on those around him. Yes, our lives are our own, but unless you’re a hermit with no human contact, we don’t live them in isolation. When you’re someone who’s sought and achieved visibility on a grand scale, that responsibility is magnified. If you’ve worked that hard to become someone who’s in the public’s eye, then I’m sorry, you owe the public something, and part of what you owe them is gritting your teeth, putting up with the pain, finding any way you possibly can to keep on living, and helping others to believe – even at the times when you don’t believe it yourself – that tomorrow will be better, that every cheesy line ever written about new days bringing new hope is really true, that life still has a fighting chance.
Because, god damn it – as long as you’re alive, there is ALWAYS a fighting chance.
Nanoo nanoo, Mork. Have a safe journey home.