I have been very quiet, as I watch and listen, while tragic events unfold with shocking frequency. I have been careful about what I read, and I want to be careful about the words that I add to the cacophony. My contribution to all of this has to do with when mental illness haunts brilliant minds, and how we react to that, when those minds make their brilliance public.
::trigger warning – suicide, depression, violence::
I spent several years in a marvelous English PhD program; I went there to specifically to study the work of Virginia Woolf, who happens to have died by suicide at the age of 59. I have heard thoughts about Robin Williams’s death that echo conversations I have heard about the death of Virginia Woolf. You can tell me what sounds familiar to you.
Mourning the work that will never be. I get this. This feels healthy. Loving the work that a brilliant mind has produced naturally leads us to wonder, what will the world miss, because of this loss?
Grief over the loss of a person with whom you feel deeply connected. I get this, too. I understand that a familiarity with her work or even her diary could not make me close to Virginia Woolf, the person, even if she were alive and living next door. Every fan in her right mind understands that she was not related to or friends with Robin Williams. Virginia Woolf feels like an aunt, to me, but that’s just the language I use to express the way I feel about relating to her words and my perception of her personality. If Robin Williams felt like an uncle, and you want to express your grief that way, that seems healthy to me, as long as you don’t claim the same rights reserved for actual relatives who actually spent time with this person. I read The Hours, and I cried as the fictionalized Woolf died. I will watch Robin Williams on screen and experience feelings of loss, particularly during films that I spent a lot of time watching as a child. This is very different from feeling entitled to judge the decisions of Woolf and Williams, which is what I would like to address, next.
Anger at the celebrity for “choosing” death. I don’t think that this is healthy. Let me be very clear that grief often includes anger. But directing anger towards the person who has died feeds a cycle of anger that discourages the mentally ill from talking about suicide, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and it feeds stigma. I can say this with confidence, because I encountered people who are angry AT Virginia Woolf, right now, for having drowned herself, in 1941. This kind of anger feeds on itself and does not end. Even worse, when someone expresses anger about the way a famous person deals with depression, people who are not famous read these generalizations about depression, and we react. Someone I know through Facebook expressed her feelings about this beautifully, this morning: “It’s everyone having their feelings *at* you, instead of with you.” It’s a good question we can ask ourselves. “Am I asking others to simply absorb feelings I throw at them via social media or this conversation? Or, am I feeling grief alongside others who mourn a true loss?”
Feeling entitled to the “lost work” that brilliant minds will not produce. This is not ok with me; entitlement is never ok with me. I love the work these minds have shared with us, and I wish there was more work to love, but I do not DESERVE more. I don’t care how life-changing, helpful, or beautiful the work may be. It is a gift, not something we have the right to demand from anyone. I happen to love the work of a photographer and artist, Dora Maar, who became a recluse smack in the middle of her life, and hid from the world not only her own work, but also work by her partner in love, sex, and art, Pablo Picasso. That was her right. Her life, her work, her things. I do not particularly like the work of J.D. Salinger, nor did I ever find him, as a personality, particularly attractive, and yet, I was offended on his behalf every time someone drove up to his house and demanded that he share the work he was creating with the world. The man did a lot of weird things, and that was his right. His life, his work, his things. Go ahead and long for the work that will never be, but stop yourself before you go so far as to demand work from someone who cannot or will not produce it.
Language that perpetuates the false notion that suicide is always a choice by asking “Would YOU have done it?” This downplays the vast difference between a healthy mind and a mind wracked by the storm of mental illness. Even if you have depression and it is severe and you have struggled with the desire to die, you do not know what you would do, were you standing in the shoes of the people who are gone. I’m not totally comfortable with the analogy I’ve seen between cancer and depression (it seems to be an attempt to lend greater weight to depression as a disease that can lead to death), but I do understand feeling frustration that when someone dies of cancer, *everyone* blames cancer, while someone who has died by suicide receives heaps and piles of blame. I am DONE with the idea that life is the choice that good people make, while death is a lazy choice made by people who are tired of fighting–this is false. Depression is an illness that changes the mind. I’m not talking about psychosis or paranoia, although Woolf certainly wrote that she was terrified of these things. I am simply insisting that we stop equating the way the world looks to a healthy person with the way that the world looks to a person who has depression. I am not saying that suicide is a “good” decision, or a “good” escape from a painful illness. My point is that it doesn’t matter whether YOU, or the writer of a column, or the host of a talk show, or a student in a literature class, would choose to die, if you were faced with terrifying mental illness, a disease like Parkinson’s or even, in the case of Virginia Woolf, the threat of a Nazi invasion and the stress of a world war. I am angry about claims that like “I would never choose death over life,” because this feeds stigma. For me, becoming suicidal happened slowly and insidiously, during a time in my life when I seemed productive and successful. I seemed “have it all” and was about to graduate from an Ivy League College to move on to a prestigious graduate program. And yet, I could only see pain and darkness. I felt numb. It was a terrifying, close, airless space, and suicide seemed like an appealing alternative to living like that. I am alive because I put blind trust in the people who told me that I would not feel that way, forever. Was that my choice? Or was it the time I spent locked in the psychiatric emergency room under suicide watch that let the feeling pass? I certainly didn’t enter that ER willingly. I did willingly go to see the doctor who put me there, and I told him that I had spent the previous night contemplating and even planning suicide. The person that I recognize as ME was so small, so swallowed up by that illness, that I look back on those memories like I’m watching someone else. It doesn’t FEEL like it was actually ME. Here’s my point: no one knows that suicide IS a choice, because none of us have actually been through it, so let’s just stop with the speculation. It does lasting harm. It shames. It stigmatizes.
The importance of our lives does not lie in what we produce or how we might benefit others. Whether or not you possess a brilliant mind and/or produce great work has nothing to do with your worth. No matter what a culture values or celebrates (think about the word: celebrity) I will keep arguing that the truly helpful way forward is to display empathy. We fight the darkness when we show that we care about our own lives and the lives of others. We bring light when we practice self-care simply because we are human, and when we care for others, because they are human, too.
Empathy and valuing humanity for its own sake. We can do that. In the last two weeks, we have seen unspeakable terror and tragedy across the world, and right here in the US. We shook with the revelation that Twitter users in Gaza were giving badly needed advice on dealing with tear gas to American citizens in Ferguson, MO. We have lost beloved American icons Robin Williams, to suicide, and Lauren Bacall, to a stroke. I see only thing that I can actually do for everyone suffering for any of these reasons: empathy, good listening, showing that I value the humanity of the person feeling pain. I hope that this blog post helps you do that, too. Value yourself. Value other humans. Simple, and so difficult.
::Edit:: This op-ed piece for the New York Times contains the best information and response to the death of Robin Williams that I’ve seen. I’m not surprised that author and doctor Kay Jamison is responsible for it. “Depression Can Be Treated, But It Takes Competence.”