Tuesday, August 12, 2014
I am the widow of a dear man who died by suicide. In light of Robin Williams' death, I pray some of the following thoughts will bring perspective and offer guidelines on how you can respond in ways that help instead of creating further wounds.
My late husband was a fun guy, a respected businessman, a huge hockey and football fan, a loyal friend and a dedicated family man. That he would die by suicide is the LAST thing any of us who knew him would have expected. It was completely out of character for a man who spent his life trying to make others laugh, trying to lighten a mood, trying to make work life better for all his colleagues.
This is the devastating effect of depression and anxiety. The brain does not work as it should. No amount of self-discipline, determination, right thinking or willpower can change it. It is a physical disease which alters the brain. Treatment may help, but there is no cure.
The stigma regarding depression and anxiety, the societal bias and condemnation of those who suffer from it or the families who have lived alongside it (and the complete ignorance that some express about this) are some of the reasons my husband did not seek out professional help. He did not speak of it and, in fact, lived a very productive, rewarding life for many years.
I want to express my thanks to those who provide thoughtful, informed and compassionate fact-based responses regarding depression, anxiety and suicide. I am deeply grateful to you for doing your part to shed light on these tragic diseases.
To those who are less informed, please educate yourselves about diseases of the brain. Expressing opinions on any forum may be your right, but in matters of life, death and trauma, please do your research and consider carefully before you post opinions publicly. When my husband died, an innocent son and wife were unfairly subjected to cruel judgments and well–meaning but misguided "helpful suggestions" published on the internet in various forums.
Imagine yourself in the shoes of those left behind. reading your remarks when they've just lost the person they hold most dear in a shocking and unexpected trauma.
When a suicide happens, my heart breaks for those affected: the direct witnesses, the first responders and many more. I pray they find the help and comfort they need to process and move through this tragic event.
In the case of a talented and impactful actor like Robin Williams, we become secondary witness to his death. Do not brush aside lightly the impact of the deep-seated legacy this tragedy leaves. I would encourage you to seek help for processing your own response to this or any similar trauma.
As for publicly expressing your response, please remember that what you say matters. Can I encourage you to practice kindness? It costs you nothing and means everything. Think twice before you speak on any matter. Become informed about depression and anxiety. It affects SO many people. Your friends, your family, perhaps even you. Stop the stigma. Disease in the brain is the same as any other disease and those suffering from it need to be treated with compassion, not cursing, silent steady presence, not "helpful" opinions.
My friend, Author Margaret Terry shares this wisdom: "People say 'You ARE depressed' but they don't say 'You *are* cancer' - they say you *have* cancer. Even the medical community is guilty of using this language that contributes to the shame of living with the darkness depression brings, shame that is not felt by people who *have* leukemia or heart disease. No one wants to feel they *are* their illness. My hope is that all this coverage and talk about the devastating symptoms of depression helps our culture understand depression is an illness with no cure. It can (possibly) be managed with medication that can sometimes offer remission. But it still remains a silent killer that infects families and friends of the person who suffers with it."
Encourage the government to fund more comprehensive research into the complexity of diseases that manifest themselves in the physical brain. We know so little about the brain. Better yet, become the researcher who does this work. Currently we only have a "chemical soup" - many differing drugs to "try" which bathe the entire brain, take far too long to work and create all sorts of difficult side effects. Then add counseling which is hugely subjective at best, toss in some misguided mantras about just "change your thinking and you'll be better."
In the depths of depression and in the panic of anxiety the one suffering sees no light. They feel completely alone and isolated. They lose perspective, and forget about those who love them. They lose interest in their abilities, their gifts, and their blessings. The single-minded focus is on the black darkness and the pain. The disease affects their thinking so that they cannot think rationally but they are convinced that they are rational. To think about doing even one thing is overwhelming so that even one simple piece of advice becomes a hammer blow.
They think only of the pain, from which they believe there is no escape. Hope disappears. No one has ever felt this way before. They feel that how their life is now is the way that it will always be. They think they are so broken, they cannot be fixed. That helpless, hopeless, desperate, eternal pain is made even worse by physical pain, darkness, shame, self-hatred, desperation, or any combination of these which seem to ultimately suggest only one alternative: Make the pain stop.
So, suicide is not even a choice, at the end of the day, because the one suffering feels they simply have no other choice.
Everyone is fighting a battle of some kind. Let's not begin offering glib solutions. The one suffering cannot hear it.
There is no easy button. There is no magic formula. Depression and anxiety should be afforded the same funding, research and respect as brain tumours, cancer, diabetes and chronic pain. No judgement, no stigma, no hiding, no whispering, no clucking or shaking ones head.
Yes, it is sad. Yes it is tragic. But it must never be final. The person in darkness today may very well be the person who stands beside you in your darkest hour. I know. I'm in a good place now but I've been on both sides.
For additional perspective, may I recommend Anne Lamott's post from August 12, 2014?