There was another death, of course, one I didn’t so much skip over as decide to mull.
Robin Williams’s suicide, I mean.
I was a fan, I guess. His flights away from ordinary conversation at first made laugh, later made me uneasy, and thought some of his acting schticky, but when he was focused his characters could be, as with Parry in The Fisher King, almost unbearably human.
But as my fandom was mild, I didn’t have much to say.
And then I heard this:
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Those struggles now ended. He is, as his Genie character in “Aladdin” would have it, finally free.
BLOCK: Well, that idea – that suicide is freeing – has prompted a lot of concern in the mental health community. We heard from a number of our listeners about that. Among them Elizabeth Minne, she’s a licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas, and she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.
ELIZABETH MINNE: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And you wrote in to express your concern. You said, comments like this make my job difficult. Explain what you mean by that. How is it more difficult?
MINNE: I have found that comments like this can be interpreted by families and by individuals as a sign that they too can attain something positive by committing suicide.
BLOCK: Something positive meaning some sort of liberation from the pain that they’re in?
MINNE: Right. Some sense of freedom or view it as a positive way to find – or an appropriate way to find some sense of relief.
Minnie goes on to note that she tells her patients that “suicide is never an option for working through distress – that there is always a way for us to get to a better place.”
Most of the commenters were, shall we say, unimpressed, calling out Minnie’s credentials, expertise, and even motivation—one accused her of wanting to keep her patients alive just to make a buck off of them—and generally decrying her inability to see how awful depression could be.
Her words pricked my ears, certainly, and had I heard something similar when I was in the midst of my own self-destructiveness, I would have lit my own torch against her: Of course I have the right to kill myself! Of course I can free myself of all of this terribleness!
But I’ll give Minnie half a break: she is a psychotherapist who works with greatly distressed people, so if she’s going to be of any help to them she has to carry the hope that they lost. She has to believe they can get through until they can believe it themselves.
I’ve spoken enough about this before to say simply that that mattered to me, even if I wasn’t at the time wholly conscious that and how it mattered.
But it also helps to acknowledge that suicide is, in fact, an option, and that suffering in life can be so great that wanting to shed that suffering by shedding life makes sense.
It’s about recognition: just as telling someone that they can get through is a way to see that person when she, perhaps, can’t see herself, noting that suicide is on the table is a way to see, to allow one to see, her suffering.
You don’t have to agree with it or like it or encourage it, but if you know you can’t save someone else—and therapists damned well better know they can’t save someone—then maybe you have to accept that he can’t save himself. If his life is in his hands, then his life is in his hands.
Depression morphs one’s mind—I look back to old journal entries and think Who was the person?—but it’s not as if one is a less authentic self when depressed when not, that somehow all one has to do is to scrape off the weight of despair and one’s real life will pop back up.
I don’t know, maybe some patients want to hear that, want to hear of the elasticity of the self, and who knows, maybe for some it’s true.
But for some it’s not, for some the suffering has seeped in so deep that the only way to get rid of the suffering is to get rid of the self.
I don’t know how a therapist deals with a situation like that. I mean, I know that the two who worked hard with me kept working, but I don’t doubt that they knew the limits of that work. Do they see mental illness like other potentially fatal illness? that sometimes the surgery and the chemo and the therapy don’t take? Or is that fact that there’s no hospice care for depression mean that the limits themselves aren’t understood?
In any case, my life was in my hands, and only when I finally, finally, figured that out for myself—only when I knew that death and life were both options—was I able to sigh, Okay.
It could have gone the other way, of course, and that sighed Okay could have been my last word. But I don’t know that I could have closed my fist over life had I not also held death in my hands. I had to hold them both before I could let one of them go.
I am sorry for Robin Williams’s family that he let go of life, and I’m sorry for him for the suffering that led to that letting go.