I cannot know what the layer of complexity of celebrity does to one’s psyche as I’ve never experienced it, nor will I. I just know as a normal nobody that the despair and sense of nothingness and desperation to make the pain end were palpable in my case, and the selfishness this desire engendered wasn’t pretty, or rational.
Suicide touches us all – at least in the first world countries. Really, is there a person reading this who hasn’t known someone to commit the act? In my own case, the first suicide I knew of was the mother of a school friend, and then I knew of several other kids over the years who had parents who killed themselves – talk about selfish! Yep. (But hey, I’m not judging as I was in that exact position years later.)
When I got older, luckily I never had a friend commit suicide (although that is a terrible phenomena for lots of teenagers), but I remember my mother had a colleague from work who did kill herself. My mother’s reaction was much scarier to me than the shock of it – she said she understood it and could see doing it herself if things got too bad. Well, she’d already tried when I was eight years old, for gods’ sake, so even though she did a half-assed job of it, she wasn’t repulsed by it.
My father’s reaction to suicide is exactly that – repugnance. He’s had tough times, too – lost two wives to death (not by suicide, but illness), lost his job and family and house. And he tells me that he never, not once, thought of harming himself. I don’t think that makes him some sort of hero, but it is an interesting contrast between my parents and does speak to why they fundamentally have such different world views (and are long divorced.)
As these two’s daughter, I admit to swinging both ways. Mostly, as a former mental health professional, I have a tremendous amount of compassion for the state of despair that underlies suicide. But I’m not quite as sympathetic to the act itself because of the devastation left in its wake.
When one is in the pit, they are usually not thinking about that devastation. About the wife or father or child who will find the body in that state, who will panic and try desperately to revive their loved one, or have a sense of their world shifting on its axis in one horrible moment of thudding reality as they see a head blown off, or smell piss and shit from a body hanging from a belt, having let go of its sphincters. These are some of the realities that the person wanting to just end their emotional (or sometimes physical) pain doesn’t take into account usually.
And the ripple effect of this devastation – no person thinking of suicide can anticipate this. One suicide in a family can make others so much more acceptable and then that much more likely to occur. Kurt Cobain had a long family history of suicide. Not uncommon. Probably also a long family history of depression and/or substance abuse to self medicate, too.
I, too, come from a family history of both unipolar and bipolar depression. I’ve certainly suffered from it and so have my son and mother – well, I’ve written a fair amount about her bipolar illness.
The one thing that makes my mother my hero is the following – unlike my father who has a strong, visceral repugnance to suicide and self-harm, my mother does not. She views it as rational, acceptable, understandable – even a release in some cases. But up to now she’s made a conscious decision to NOT do it. I’m not saying she isn’t still flirting with idea; she certainly is, as witnessed by last year’s contact with the State of Oregon (a tragic/comedy of errors apparently as nobody she talked to even knew what the hell she was talking about!). But flirting and doing are two different things. And she’s been clear – she doesn’t want to kill herself because of the effect it will inevitably have on me and my son, her grandson.
She is less concerned about me at this point, but she’s very concerned about her grandson. I can appreciate this, as he’s quite frankly, more volatile than I am. For one thing, he’s younger – for another, as a man, his choice of method would most likely be more fatal than a woman’s (this is only going by statistics, but I’ve talked to him about it and what he’s mentioned is no doubt close to 100% fatal.)
So my mom, my crazy and crazy-making mother who will be 80 on August 29, doesn’t want to create a family legacy of suicide. And for that, she is and always will be my hero. She is doing something that is, for her, extremely hard, because every time she’s in the pit, she wants to die. Every single time – even on medication. But she’s learned over time that her pit is temporary and if she can just ride it out, she will feel better eventually. When eventually is may not be predictable, but eventually will come.
So that’s my definition of hero.
I do feel sad that Robin Williams couldn’t hang on a bit longer. I do understand both intellectually and on a gut level, the despair that drove him, but I don’t think I could ever say he’s a hero, because he has either perpetuated a family history (I don’t know his family background with mental illness/substance abuse/alcoholism/suicide) or perhaps even worse, now created a legacy of suicide which is not the thing any parent wants to pass on to their kids. His pain is over – his family’s is only continuing.