Yesterday, as I watched online as a friend performed on WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, I also had the TV on. It was muted, but when the news came across the screen that Robin Williams had died, I was dumbfounded. Then the news that it may have been suicide took my breath away…
No stranger to the mental health field, I’ve seen my share of the devastation that suicide inflicts on the loved ones left behind. For nearly ten years as the office manager in a counseling center, I saw the hollowed eyes of the depressed, the super-excitement of the manic, and the humble gratitude of those who survived a suicide attempt. Every day when the phone rang, or the door to our office opened, I never knew who would be crossing our path, and what baggage they may be carrying.
We all have baggage. But some of us stumble under the weight. And we get tired from struggling to carry it…
My first encounter with suicide was when a friend in high school told me that her mother had recently died by her own hand. I was 15 or 16 years old. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could feel so bad that they would hurt themselves, and leave their loved ones to question, and to grieve in a way I had never known.
And yet only a few years later, I found myself in a place where I was tired of the struggle, tired of the fighting, tired of being on this planet and trying to live up to other people’s expectations of what my life should be like. I was ready to check out, but a friend intervened. She was so kind and compassionate. She talked to me, but more importantly, she listened, without judging. To this day, nearly forty years later, we are still dear friends, with a spiritual connection across the miles that is beyond explanation…
The second time that death by suicide altered my life was about three years later. The husband of a colleague shot himself in the chest, on their bed. He had done it early in the day, so when the wife and young daughter got home and saw his car in the driveway, knowing he was home, the child ran around the house trying to find him to greet him. Her exuberance ended abruptly when she found him drenched in blood, not moving, not responding to her screaming out “Daddy! Daddy!”
For decades the image of that child finding her daddy like that has haunted me. Ironically, at that same time, one of the songs that was played in regular rotation on country radio was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” by George Jones. To this day, every time I hear that song I go right back to that moment in her living room, and that look on her face when Pam told me what had happened…
I have watched through the years as people I knew, young and old alike, have either threatened suicide, or actually took their own lives, by various means – driving a car into a lake, drinking themselves to death, sitting in a running car in the garage, gunshots, and by playing “the choking game.” And there are countless others whose death by their own hand has shaken me to my core.
It’s all around us, all the time. And it doesn’t matter how a person takes their own life, we may never fully understand why.
Later in life, during a wildly spiritual phase, once again I found myself exhausted, and tired of fighting. I remember calling a friend, and simply saying “I’m so tired….” Thankfully that she heard the meaning between the lines, and came over to help.
Looking back, I know that I wasn’t really ready to check out that night. I simply needed life to change, to slow down, dramatically. And needless to say, after that experience, it did. I’m grateful for the exhausting and trying times, the low points, the days and nights of struggling. They remind me of how utterly fabulous the good times are, and if I had no way to compare them, I probably wouldn’t appreciate the good days quite as much.
Ironically, years later I would find myself working in a Suicide Prevention Training office. We served all of Tennessee, and reached hundreds of “gatekeepers” – the adults who regularly work with at-risk youth. It was very rewarding to work for such a wonderful cause, and to this day their training continues…
The most important thing that this training revealed was that if someone does hint at any suicidal thoughts, the best thing a friend or family member can do is to ask the question – “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” Like CPR, the process is called “QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer.”
I’m not a therapist, and don’t claim to be, but here’s a good video that explains the basic fundamentals of QPR. And ANYone can do it, to help save a life.
There will be many stories about Robin’s passing on the news for days, weeks, and months to come. There will be calls to action, and people will be encouraged to reach out and help those suffering from depression and addiction. But simply put, we can’t help those who don’t want help. No matter the issue – addictions, suicidal tendencies, even homicidal tendencies – if the person suffering doesn’t want help, it’s likely not going to happen. While it’s true that Robin recently went into treatment again, as we all have seen, nothing is guaranteed.
Inevitably, Robin’s story will start to fade, and it will no longer be the top news item…
Then when the next big name dies at their own hand everyone will be in an uproar again. Or when there’s another mass shooting, by someone who is mentally ill, there will be more talk and anger and questions and meetings and quotes from the media….
And then what?
The sad reality is that, even though there ARE resources available, and 24-hour hotlines, and hospitals, and medically trained people who can help, too often the suicidal person either can’t or won’t reach out for help. Until we find a way to eliminate the stigma of mental illness, and accept it as simply another medical condition that needs to be addressed, we will continue to see suicides and homicides in unimaginable numbers.
It’s been said time and time again, but I’ll write it again here. A brain illness is no different from a broken bone, a bad heart, a tumor, or diabetes. It’s an ILLNESS, and should be treated as that, with NO judgment. Most of us know someone who suffers from mental illness, whether it’s clearly visible or not.
The question is – What can we do to help? How can we break down the barriers and make them feel less like an outsider than they already do? Where do we start? How can we make a difference?
Glenn Close seems to be finding her way with getting the message out. Her organization is trying to get the conversation started, and I truly hope they succeed. Here’s a very powerful video that she and her sister made.
In the movie “What Dreams May Come,” Robin’s character dies in an accident. And yet his love for his wife, who died by suicide, knew no boundaries. He literally went to hell and back to find her. How ironic that his life was ended by suicide. How sad, and how unexplainable…
I’d like to think that this is how he feels now – full of laughter, with no worries to weigh him down.
(From the movie “What Dreams May Come.” Image credit – http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1919143424/tt0120889?ref_=ttmd_md_pv)
As we all say goodbye to Robin Williams, the actor, the comedian, the brilliant human being that he was, let’s all remember that…
Sometimes the one who laughs the loudest is the one who hurts the most…