My Definition of Hero

suicide3   suicide7

I was going to make note of the death by suicide of Robin Williams, but so much of what I might have to say has been said in my series of posts I recently wrote here, here and here.

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.

 

 

8 thoughts on “My Definition of Hero

  1. Your dad has also had his share of health problems, and the older one gets, the tougher real pain is to handle, so his repugnance about suicide seems to me to be very heroic. I guess I have never really understood mental problems (just BUCK UP!), but do understand what it is to feel ongoing pain so, although your dad (my brother) and I have never been close, as you know, I am glad he is an example to you of the other end of that spectrum and I applaud him.

  2. Dear Aunt Barbara: I didn’t mean to imply that my father hasn’t been heroic in his repugnance, just that when you don’t have that repugnance, when you’re in a more accepting place with suicide, to consciously decide not to do the act – is heroic. It’s heroic in a different way, I guess. My father’s sense of it is informed by many things, one of which is his religious convictions and to some extent doing what your religion teaches you, while noble, is not as difficult as determining the right thing to do without religion. In my mother’s case, she’s basically an agnostic (maybe even atheist) and her conviction against suicide is coming from a very different place than “I’ve been taught suicide is a sin,” (which it may be – I don’t know.) But you know – you are right that my father is an example of a “just say no” approach to suicide – and yes, I do applaud him for that. My parents are very different people (as you know, or suspect!), and I have been grateful to have both perspectives, different as they may be, to compare and contrast. In fact, as I’ve gone along this path called life, I have to say I generally relate more to my father’s thinking about a lot of things. Of course when I was younger, I was closer and more like my mother, but . . . as time has moved on, I see both qualities present in myself (and thank goodness!). Love, your niece, Laura

  3. Laura: I guess I need to interject a little levity here. Once when my mom was staying with me, my dad called her and told her if she didn’t come to pick him up, he was ready to commit suicide. Upon asking me what she should do, as she didn’t really want to do this, I called The Suicide Hotline, told them where he was, and they went. What transpired after that I don’t know exactly, except later on he called me (he was pretty sure it was MY dastardly deed), and blessed me out royally. I’m sure you know from your dad that Grandpa Bud could do that to a T. So there is such a thing as people threatening this act on and on and on, so maybe our attitude gets a trifle ho-hum. I wish I had known you for all those years but am glad to be able now to read your thoughts and get to know you in this way. BTW, you do know that my ex-husband was bipolar?!? Love, your absent aunt B.

  4. I particularly like your take on suicide as a selfish act (although I do not agree in the universal reprehensibility of selfish acts, but that is another story entirely). Perhaps the increasing suicide rate in our country is a product of a culture that appears to value self-centeredness. It has been demonstrated that one way of improving one’s mental health is to consciously serve others, thus driving one’s psyche out of its hidey-hole where it can fester and consider things such as destroying itself.

  5. Aunt B – that’s a funny story! I’d never heard it before, but yes, I can only imagine Grandpa Bud reading you the riot act – or as you put it, “bless(ing) you out royally” – !! I certainly know of many people who threaten suicide and I suppose one can develop the ho-hum attitude towards it, but in my limited experience, I always assume even a threat is serious. I know of too many people who have completed the act – I mentioned on facebook about a guy i worked with on my last law firm job who was depressed, out for a number of weeks in the hospital, only to come back for a week, then kill himself over the weekend. I mean, he was supposed to be all better – but obviously he wasn’t. I worked for a man not too long ago whose father committed suicide. All those childhood pals who had parents who killed themselves – plus the people I’ve worked with directly. I think I was just lucky that I never had a suicide in one of my clients. I had one, in particular, who I believed to be at high risk. Plus, as you no doubt know as i do – people with bipolar depression are at an even HIGHER risk of suicide than just those with unipolar depression (your ex-husband and my mother versus me, for example.) It’s those awful swings between the highs and lows that are the worst times for them – which is entirely logical of course. Anyway – I’m glad you’re getting to know me and I hope you know that I love you and my Dad (different as you two may be) VERY much. I’m glad we’re family. Love, your (absent) niece, Laura

  6. Thank you so much for your thoughts, Uncle G. I agree with you about the reprehensibility of selfish acts – I am not declaring suicide to be that (or at least I hope I’m not.) In fact, since I’ve squarely been there myself, I feel I can “call a spade a spade” and not pussyfoot around about it. But having said that, I can only greet selfishness with compassion. After all, we are all selfish to one extent or another.

    You make an excellent point about the culture of self-centeredness and the rise of suicide. Well, it may be more the rise of acceptance of suicide. And I agree – to the extent you can get outside yourself and serve others, I think you directly affect your mental health. After all, it’s in every great religion – good works and charity to others – and as a part of the 12-step program.

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