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, 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 who 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 dear friend who died by suicide at age 61 after having first attempted suicide in his twenties and living forty years with serious depression. Had he suddenly stopped caring about his friends and relatives? Or did the anvil crush him?

Like so many things viewed from the outside looking in, we have no idea what major depression that leads to the brink of suicide looks and feels like. Only the people who have been there know and they are hard pressed to describe it in a way the rest of us, with our stomach aches, can understand.

When I think of Robin Williams, having lived to the age of 63, I wonder how many other times he was nearly crushed by the anvil but survived. This time it was just too heavy, too powerful. There was no choice involved. He didn’t commit suicide. His depression killed him as sure as if a stomach cancer had metastasized to his brain and heart.

I hope the people who have traveled the same road as Robin Williams find ways to speak out about major depression; I hope they keep trying to help the rest of us understand. Speak the truth to us. Educate us.

Tell us what they need to stay alive.


#64/100: 64th in a series of 100 in 100

8 Comments on “The Limits of Our Experience: Understanding Depression and Suicide

  1. Reblogged this on Red's Wrap and commented:

    Suicide, so final, so devastating for families, so hard to understand. Here’s my attempt to sort out my own thoughts.

  2. Pingback: Teens And Depression: Tomatoes Good For You; Wii Helps MS Patients « Depression: Fighting Back

  3. News of every suicide brings up the past. We should have a conversation about cousin Peter someday…

  4. It’s the ‘trying to exlpain colour to someone who’s blind’ syndrome, I think. On both sides. You just want the pain to stop, but you can’t explain what the pain feels like, and there’s no room to believe it ever will.

  5. Incredibly self aware, intelligent and disarmingly honest writing. I’ve really come to look forward to your posts, as I always find myself with something to think about. I wish that more people would slow down and stop thinking that there are ‘answers’.

  6. I mourn Robin Williams.

    More, I fear for all of the people out there who might be tipped over the edge by his passing. I, too, want to know: what do you need from me? What can I do to help you? I want to help with the anvil. Can I? Is that possible? Something tells me… no, not possible.

  7. These are very powerful words Jan. I too, have suffered from “stomach aches” but have no comprehension of what it feels like to be clinically depressed. I cannot fathom what depths of despair one must feel to come to the conclusion that ending your life seems to be the lesser evil than living. Tragic is the only way I can describe the loss of a loved one through suicide.

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