I’d been trying to break down my feelings over Robin Williams’ tragic suicide when his widow revealed that he had been struggling with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and oddly enough it was that revelation that ultimately crystallized the issue for me.
Not because of the news itself, but because of the reaction to the news that I saw from a variety of folks on this big digital gossip-fest we call the internet.
What reaction, you ask?
“Well, if he had Parkinson’s, that makes more sense.”
And if you had that thought yourself, you are part of the problem.
Because innocent though it seems, it trivializes mental illness. You could reword the statement, twist it around not to alter its meaning but instead reveal it, and it would come out more like this:
“Well, if he actually had something wrong with him, I can see why he might kill himself.”
It treats a lifetime’s struggle with depression and anxiety as irrelevant in the face of a “real” medical condition. It’s an attitude that is not only callous to the suffering caused by mental illness, but directly contributes to the sort of tragic outcomes we’ve seen far too often.
Suicide isn’t about pain. Almost any pain can be endured, so long as hope remains.
Suicide is what happens when hope runs out. Suicide happens when someone looks to the future and sees nothing but more pain, more suffering, with no prospect of surcease.
When this happens with cancer or some horrible degenerative disease, we call it “euthanasia” and we lobby for laws support it.
But when it is a result of mental illness, we call it incomprehensible.
And it’s not.
It’s entirely comprehensible. It’s no more an act of weakness or cowardice than that of the person who chooses not to suffer through the remainder of their life in agonizing pain, because oddly enough, it’s the exact same choice.
And in treating it differently, we unintentionally encourage it. In effect, we tell the sufferer that their pain isn’t real, it doesn’t matter, it’s all in their head and if they would just get over it they could be happy like everyone else.
And that’s not necessarily true.
Sometimes, mental illness is like cancer. You can’t splint it, can’t suture it, there’s no silver bullet that’ll make it go away. The best you can reasonably hope for is to be in remission.
And sometimes that’s not enough.
Sometimes you find yourself at the intersection of Hopeless and Exhausted and anything looks preferable to another day like this one. And you look around at the uncomprehending faces of the people passing by, at their failure or refusal to acknowledge your suffering as something real, and you start to wonder if maybe it’d all be simpler if you just… stepped off the curb.
Tragic, yes. But never incomprehensible.
It’s easy to lose hope. Treatment often fails: psychology is to the study of the brain as alchemy is to chemistry; a science barely in its infancy, where principles are only loosely understood and progress is often made by simply throwing random chemicals in a crucible and seeing if the product is poison or panacea.
And for those whose hope runs out, it is all too often shame that keeps them silent. The fear that the ones they love will not understand them, not accept that the pain is real even if they’re not bleeding.
And that’s why I find that attitude infuriating. Because it kills people.