Depression, Suicide, and Selfishness: Reflections on responses to Robin Williams’ Death

In No Particular Path on August 12, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Robin Williams’ suicide has, of course, resulted in a flood of well-wishing, condolences, and remembrances of his brilliant comedic and acting talents, as well as references to his humanitarian work and insightful commentary. It has also brought up some things that I believe deserve more honest and sensitive discussion than they have so far received. I am referring to the issues of depression and suicide, and the related idea of when an act is selfish.
It is a good thing that so much has been written in support of those who suffer from depression. Called an “invisible” illness, depression is often undiagnosed or badly diagnosed, often treated in a kind of knee-jerk fashion with a variety of pharmaceuticals, confused with temporary down times and reasonable sadness, and sometimes simply dismissed as nothing to worry about. Women especially have been misdiagnosed and over-medicated. Men have often been encouraged in denial and told to “man up and shake it off.” It will be a very good thing if, this time, a public figure’s struggle with depression generates some honest talk about the disease.
Suicide is, if possible, an even touchier subject than depression. Technically, attempting suicide is, in most places, a crime. A successful suicide can mean that life insurance policies will be invalidated, that the cause of death will be expressed in euphemisms and evasions, and that churches will refuse sacraments and funeral services. Even the elective suicides (physician assisted or otherwise) of people who are terminally ill and suffering are approached with a sense that, somehow, staying alive is something other people owe us; and keeping people alive regardless of their needs and wishes is a noble act. Both in terms of medical ethics and practice, and in terms of the social contract and individual freedom of choice, suicide needs a more thoughtful and sensitive discussion than it has generally received.
Which leads us to the question of “selfishness.” In the midst of the overwhelmingly supportive responses to Williams’ death, there have been a few voices of criticism, mostly around the charge that his suicide was a selfish act. Countering that have been articles, such as that by Dean Burnett for The Guardian, that have argued, based mostly on arguments about the serious and poorly understood nature of depression, that are saying that it is wrong to call his act selfish.
As one who has suffered the loss of a loved one, my wife of 25 years, to suicide, I would like to offer a bit of counterpoint. Let me say first that I would have felt less compelled to write this if the charges of selfishness had been held back for a reasonable amount of time or had seemed less harsh and critical; and if the response to the idea had been less vitriolic and more sensitive. Because I believe that suicide is, in fact, always a selfish act; but I don’t intend that as a condemnation of those who choose it. It is, I believe, the ultimate selfish act, the final, irreversible act of self-interest, when the individual puts his own needs first regardless of the potential consequences for others, especially for those closest to him. It is also a personal choice for which I cannot fault someone whose suffering has brought them to that place. I believe that, especially when life itself has become our biggest burden, we have the right to decide to end that life. We can argue endlessly about whether suicide is moral or immoral, whether it is a threat to human society or a natural extension of human freedom, but it would still be a selfish act.
The suicidal person will often justify the act by claiming that they are doing it for others. “I don’t want to be a burden.” “I don’t want you to have to see me suffering this way any longer.” But the most common real life response to a suicide for the people who loved her is not to feel relief, but to experience abandonment, anger, a sense of helplessness and impotence, grief, self-blame and the blaming of each other, embarrassment, shame, regret, guilt and a host of other negative consequences. We twist ourselves into knots trying to explain the suicide, to understand it. We tell everyone who will listen how much we regret not having seen what was happening, not having made an unmade phone call or visit, for having been angry or disappointed or something with the person, not having said “I love you” often enough or sincerely enough. We are driven close to or even into depression built on grief; and we worry that we might, ourselves, be infected somehow with the possibility of suicide. In private we alternate between sobbing grief and angry outbursts. We slowly put our lives back together, but we never feel as though the other’s death made things better for us.
It can be argued that suicide is not a rational decision, but that would be true of any purely selfish decision. And I’m not sure it is always irrational. Robin Williams had suffered terribly from addiction and depression. He was aware of those struggles. He had talked about how addiction never went away but just waited until one thought that it was OK then struck again when one’s guard was down. He knew what he was dealing with. Lacking evidence (which we may someday have) about his final thoughts, how can we be certain that he was not making a considered, rational, personal choice at the end? Is it really irrational to say to oneself, “I’m done with the struggle and I’m ready to go now”? They say that there are signs that someone is considering suicide, and those signs sometimes include a desire to wrap up loose ends in their life, to try to control what will happen after they die, to begin to cut burdensome ties and complete promises and finish responsibilities. Could it not be argued that those might sometimes be rational actions?
I think that we should be slow to judge, both the one who has died and those who are responding to that death. The suicide had his reasons, and it is good that we are becoming more sensitive to those reasons. He might have been depressed, or in pain, or simply ready to move on to the next adventure, as the elders in native communities once did. But we know at the end that he was thinking first of himself and his needs; as was his right. On the other hand, those who criticize the suicide may themselves have considered it and been pulled back from the ledge; they may still harbor some anger about being “saved,” or some doubt about whether they were really wrong; or some sense of loss of control, or disempowerment because they were prevented by others from making their own choice, especially if the things that led to the attempt still afflict them. They may have been left behind by someone else’s suicide and are still struggling with all of the things I mention above, and they may need to call the suicide out for selfishness in order to reassure themselves that they are going to be okay.
Of course Robin Williams’ death is a significant loss to all those who were entertained or moved or inspired by him and his work and life; the same can be said of anyone who chooses her own death and leaves behind the people who loved her. But it is not necessarily unloving to feel anger, to feel that the other person has been selfish, to feel that we are somehow hurt by the other’s choice. It is normal and natural. Each of us arrives at this place uniquely and we will respond uniquely to what has happened. I think that we ought to respect those responses.
I greatly admired Robin Williams; his passing grieves me; but I simultaneously believe that his choice was a selfish one and respect that choice as his to make.

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