On Suicide, ECT, and Robin Williams

I suppose it’s only appropriate I comment on the death of Robin Williams. When I read the news on my Facebook feed, as dozens of my friends posted about his death I couldn’t help but get choked up. It wasn’t just because of how I grew up with his movies, it wasn’t just because I have such fond memories of watching Mrs. Doubtfire or Good Morning, Vietnam, it was also because people were actually talking about mental illness. This tragedy is different. It wasn’t a mass shooting with people posting links to poorly-researched and inaccurate articles about mental illness leading to all kinds of violence. People weren’t discussing how awful people with mental illness are – people were talking with compassion about the subject of mental illness. And that’s wonderful. It makes me feel as though we’re finally starting to get out of the 1950s era of thinking about mental illness as a “malformation of character” and into an era of thinking about mental illness just like it were any other kind of illness – a physical ailment and not something that’s `just’ in-our-heads.

When I was in high school, one of my friends tried to kill himself by ingesting an entire bottle of Aspirin. I remember I had just gotten into bed when the phone rang and, a few minutes later, my parents came into my room to tell me my friend had just tried to kill himself. It was my first experience with suicide. I talked to him on the phone and told him that I loved him, that I would be praying for him, and that I wanted to see him soon so we could talk.

I was angry because I thought he was stupid for trying to kill himself, I was angry with myself because I thought the fact I didn’t see it coming meant I wasn’t a good friend to him. I was wrought with guilt, partially because I thought it meant I didn’t care enough about him, but mostly because I thought I’d given him permission to kill himself. Guilt and anger so often accompany suicide.

A few weeks before he tried to kill himself, we’d had a conversation in which he’d asked me if people go to hell when they commit suicide. He was of the opinion they did and I disagreed with him. My argument was essentially that Jesus had already paid for all of our sins including the sin of committing suicide – so people do go to heaven when they kill themselves if they have faith. And as I sat up in bed, holding the phone to my ear…trying not to yell at him for being an idiot, my heart was sinking with a special kind of guilt because I thought I’d essentially given him permission to kill himself.

I’ve thought about that after I’ve tried to kill myself. I’ve thought about the guilt and anger I felt as a teenager and tried to imagine what it was like for my parents and friends to know I’d come so close to ending my life. Guilt and anger. Guilt because we “should have seen it coming”, guilt because it must mean we “don’t love them enough.” Anger because they’re idiots, anger with ourselves because of the guilt, anger because death always seems to bring out anger in us. The emotions are so hard to deal with and they come at a time when you can’t really focus on yourself because there’s this person in front of you who just tried to end their own life and they need love, comfort, and support.

The only time I remember my dad yelling at me, getting furious at me, was the last time I tried to kill myself. It was over 3 years ago. It wasn’t a depressed attempt to end my life – it was an irrational, psychotic, attempt to end my life. The short story is that I, in the grips of delusion, thought my dad was going to kill Kerrin, my dog, so I needed to defend Kerrin and the only way I could do that was to kill my dad. The thought entered my mind and I was terrified of doing it…I thought that the only way to stop my dad from dying was to kill myself. So I carefully counted out some pills and was just about to swallow a lethal dose when my dad came in and swiped the cup of pills out of my hand. I broke down. I threw the glass of water at the ground and it shattered as my dad asked me in a voice of rage and confusion: how could you do that? how could you be so stupid?

I collapsed, I wept; hot tears streamed down my face and I couldn’t remain standing. I reduced myself to a lump on the floor as Kerrin, confused about what was happening, came to lick my face. I was shocked at my dad’s reaction, but it was totally appropriate. I was being stupid. But, through no fault of my own, my illness often reduces me to stupidity.

Life is tenuous, facing death as I have, being nearly tipped over on the fulcrum that divides the living from the dead I’ve learned how little there is between life and death. Our lives can be taken from us at any time – because of an accident, the will of another person, or our own will. But it’s important not to focus on that. I’ve driven myself sick while riding in a car, thinking about how it would take just one mistake, one miscalculation, either by the driver of the car I’m in or by the driver of another car and my life would be ended.

There’s a lot of material available on the Internet and elsewhere about the meaning of life. I remember a Deep Puddle Dynamics song that pleads with someone, anyone to tell the singer “what is the meaning of life?” We especially search for meaning in the midst of tragedy – we want the tragedy to have some significance. We want something positive to come from Robin William’s death, we want something significant to come from the Aurora Theatre Shooting. We can’t accept that oftentimes there is no reason we can see, sometimes the significance comes years later.

I had no idea how to respond when my high school friend tried to kill himself. It was my first exposure to the kind of hopelessness that comes from a person who thinks the only way out is to end their life. We want a magic answer, we want the perfect phrase to recite that will make everything better. I think of when I’ve tried to take my own life and try to think of what I needed to hear in that instance when I was so hopeless, when I was lost in such a dark place, when life seemed so unbearable that death was the lesser of two evils. And, when I think of those times, I remember: there’s no magic phrase that would have brought me out of such a place. Maybe someone could have told me they loved me, that they needed me – but, when I’m in a place such that death seems the lesser of two miseries, I’m not going to believe anything you say. I’m going to hear those words and my mind is going to discount them as placating me, as insulting me and discounting all of my pain. Because, in that space, I’m more cynical than usual – I think I have a special kind of enlightenment, I think I have an answer and that answer is to take my own life.

That instance with my friend, trying to come to terms with his hopelessness, being lost in such a dark place, was my first experience with the kind of irrationality, the kind of low-place that leads so many people into ending their own life. I had no idea I would be in that place myself, multiple times, in the years to come.

As I sit here writing this, I so desperately want to share with you some kind of insight that will help you if your loved one ever enters such a dark place. But I can’t think of anything. My parents, my friends, tell me they love me all the time. People tell me how awesome I am, how much they value our friendship…I have such an amazing support system that one would think I’d never reach such a dark place. But mental illness is a whole different kind of animal. It changes your very thinking. People’s genuine love for you can quickly be turned, through no fault of their own, into a mocking kind of affection – they just feel sorry for you because of your illness, you don’t actually offer them anything – you’re worthless, they’d actually be better off without you.

Mental illness can convince you of ridiculous things. I’ve had the delusion ever since I was diagnosed that I’m making the whole thing up for attention…and I become riddled with guilt as I call my parents and tell them that I’m sorry for all the years of pain, the medical bills, and the hopelessness that defined the early years of my mental illness. I become engrossed in righting all of the purported wrongs I’ve made, I call my doctors up and tell them I’m sorry…that I’ll make it up to them somehow. I admit what a terrible person I am and the weight of that delusion oftentimes seems unbearable.

But I am sick, I’m smart, but I’m not smart enough to trick all of my doctors for so many years, I’m not clever enough to fool an entire psychiatric ward at a hospital multiple times – I’m not a good enough actor to keep up a ruse like that for 7 years. But still…the thought pops into my head and I can’t shake it. Delusions such as those, become defining characteristics of your reality – you see confirmation of your delusions every where you go. There’s no amount of rationalizing with me to convince me otherwise – I’ll hear those things and go on thinking that I’m faking it. When I last tried to kill myself, there was no way anyone could convince me there was another solution other than to kill myself, it took my dad physically stopping me in order to prevent that. Because you can’t reason with delusion.

How do you deal with something like that? How do you deal with a force as powerful as the delusions of a mental illness that can convince a person of ridiculous things as well as dangerous things? How do you deal with the emotional trauma of that kind of delusional thinking?

In the days after Robin Williams took his own life the Internet was buzzing with all kinds of articles theorizing what suicide actually is. David Foster Wallace’s comments on the subject matter seem to be the consensus on what suicide, and depression, are actually like. He must be the authority after all – he too was a brilliant artist who took his own life after a terrible struggle with depression. Of all the people he must know how to put it eloquently, he must know how to package it up neatly and present it to people so they can finally understand what depression and, by extension, suicide is all about. I don’t buy that. Suicide is not eloquent, it’s not romantic, it can’t be easily packaged and presented to the public for all to finally understand. I think it’s important that we try to understand mental illness and what leads people to take their own lives, but that understanding isn’t going to be easy to digest, it’s not going to be neatly packaged for our easy consumption.

Mental illness is a terrible, ugly, filthy thing. It’s not eloquent, it’s not easily digested – it’s confusing, enraging, and completely stupefying. How could someone take their own life? I have no idea. I’ve been there several times myself and I have no idea.

I think what’s more important than understanding the issue of suicide is doing something to help those who are in a dark enough, deep enough, place to attempt it. In my experience with attempted suicide there have been times I’ve stopped myself and there have been times other people have stopped me. Both are equally hard. In the former, it’s stopping a freight train. In the latter, it’s being derailed and suddenly dealing with a future you thought you were ridding yourself of.

I’ve come a long way from being in such a dark, deep place that they had to shoot so much electricity through my brain so as to give me a seizure in the hope it would prevent me from killing myself. It was a last ditch effort, it was my Battle of the Bulge; the only tool we had left to try to keep my heart beating. ECT gave me a new life…in many ways it was like I did die laying in that hospital bed three times a week for six months. Because, after I’d walked out of that storm I was a new person. I had a clean slate. I was left to rekindle friendships that had started to fade because of my inability to relate to people, I was left to relearn how to draw and paint, and I was left to try to figure out how I was going to live my life. The year immediately after stopping ECT was tremendously difficult – it was picking up the pieces of a house after a bomb hit it. My brain didn’t work the way it used to, my memory was so awful I couldn’t remember what had happened the day before, there were large blank spots where my memories used to be, and ever larger blank spots where my abilities used to be – I had to start over from square one and everything seemed like an insurmountable task.

But then I went to church.

I don’t remember much about this particular church service. I do remember it was one of the few times I was well enough to go to a Thursday night church service where there wasn’t as much of a crowd. The sermon went over my head, I couldn’t follow along with the readings; everything went by way too fast because my brain was still a hot mess, my brain was still buzzing with all that electricity. But we sang a hymn. Hymn 515: I’m But a Stranger Here:

I’m but a stranger here,

Heaven is my home;

Earth is a desert drear,

Heaven is my home;

Danger and sorrow stand

Round me on every hand;

Heaven is my fatherland,

Heaven is my home.

What though the tempest rage,

Heaven is my home;

Short is my pilgrimage,

Heaven is my home;

And time’s wintry blast

Soon shall be over past;

I shall reach home at last,

Heaven is my home.

Therefore I murmur not,

Heaven is my home;

Whatever my earthly lot,

Heaven is my home;

And I shall surely stand

There at my Lord’s right hand.

Heaven is my fatherland,

Heaven is my home.

Remembering that hymn is what gives me comfort in knowing my life is not in vain, remembering that hymn reminds me of my true purpose on earth, and remembering that hymn gives me great comfort – in knowing that life is just temporary, and knowing my life is in God’s hands.

Even in the darkest places, there’s always hope. Hope that tomorrow will come, hope that everything is just temporary. So, while I can’t package suicide nicely for you, I can tell you that it’s important to find that hope; just like Robin Williams’ Peter Pan had to find his happy thought to fly. Cynicism and a black kind of narcissism may reign high when I’m depressed enough to start considering suicide, but, when I’m reminded of my hope, when I’m reminded that I have a purpose it strikes a light in the blackness of suicide. It’s enough to have that light as a guide home, it’s enough to once again make the journey to recovery.

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