About twenty-four hours ago, the Internet blew up with the news of actor and comedian Robin Williams’s death from an apparent suicide.
Twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes ago, the shaming started.
I’m going to come right out and say, I haven’t seen a whole heck of a lot of it personally. My Internet connections are fortunately compassionate enough and educated enough not to go there. As well, a good number of them have personal experience of living in the place that leads one to consider suicide as a reasonable alternative to taking one single more breath full of pain. So my awareness of the negative responses comes mostly second-hand, from people talking about posts they’ve seen. When I decided to write this blog I fully intended to look for the sources. When I sat down at my computer, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If you want to see for yourself, check out the top trend on Twitter. Or read this article for a sample.
I couldn’t bring myself to look, because, as someone who has attempted suicide and survived, I’ve heard it all. To my face. From people who purport to care. From people who purport to work in the mental health fields. And I couldn’t bear hearing it again, and experiencing the helpless anger of being confronted with the unfeeling and thoughtless–even if well-meaning–views of people who do not understand what it’s like, to whom there is no way to explain.
People say you’re selfish. They call you a coward. They blame you for putting the people around you into grief. They ask you why can’t you see how much you’re loved? Why isn’t your life enough? They tell you the pain you feel isn’t real. They tell you to distract yourself, chin up, think of how hard others have it. Think of how the survivors will feel, if you succeed!
I understand survivor grief and survivor guilt. I’ve had friends who have completed suicide. And when this has happened, my first thought isn’t to blame and shame the person for causing me grief because she could no longer live in the dark place. My first reaction is anger: Not at the person, but at the darkness. Severe chronic depression of the sort that leads one to consider removing oneself from life is a battle that never ends against a foe that has no mercy. I am angry at that foe. I think, “Oh fuck. Another one of us didn’t make it.”
I apologize if this essay is more incoherent than usual. I have a hard time keeping my thoughts in order on this subject.
You can’t explain what it’s like to anyone who hasn’t been there. They don’t have the context to understand how hard it is to keep breathing on days when hope ceases to exist. They don’t have the context to get, really get, the horror of looking at a long stretch of endless grey days, when happiness seems like something that other people get and enjoying life seems…inconceivable. At those times all you have is your own will to keep you going. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. There may not even be a tunnel. The idea of a tunnel implies a space through which you are momentarily passing. The grey in you seems to go on forever, infinite in all directions. You can’t imagine it being any other way. Believing there might be something else is, in itself, an act of will. And your will is not infinite. You use it up, and there’s no surcease, no way to recharge it. You’re just so tired. If you had a choice, you’d take it, but there is no choice. Not anymore. You’re done.
People on the outside will read that last paragraph and probably find things they object to. Like, “Well, it only SEEMS to go on forever,” or “there’s ALWAYS a choice.” They don’t have the means to understand the utter exhaustion that comes with the struggle.
And part of the exhaustion is not being able to be real with the people who don’t get it. Knowing all the well-meaning but obtuse things they’ll say when they’ve never been on the same planet you’re on. Having to hear it, and having to bear it.
This is one reason I have always found being an inmate of a psychiatric ward a comfort. No masks. No reason to keep up pretenses. That one burden–and it is a substantial one–is gone for a time. On the locked ward, people don’t play games.
The thing is, having a mental illness makes the people around you uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or who to be. They don’t know who you are. It is, and I’m going to go ahead and say literally here, as if you have come from a different galaxy, one with an inside-out reality non-natives can’t imagine. I think there’s a good amount of xenophobia in the mental health stigma. Particularly since a mental illness can lead you to places people without them don’t like to think about. Self-harm and death, for example.
When you shame a person for mental illness, for attempting or completing suicide, what you’re doing is trying to make yourself comfortable at their expense. When you say, “Think of the people you will hurt,” you’re saying, “THINK OF MY COMFORT!” But most of the people I’ve known who’ve struggled with mental illness have already done that, and it didn’t work. We’ve already thought of you. We’ve already done the volunteer work. We’ve already found new hobbies. We’ve looked at the greeting cards we’ve saved from family and the letters from lovers. It’s not that we don’t know. It’s that none of it helps. And you think… You think, “Who’s the more selfish? Me, for wanting not to have to live in this pain? Or you, for insisting I do to spare you?”
I suppose one could say I’m lucky. Right now, I’m not suicidal. The last time I was, I had someone close to me I could trust enough that I could say, “I need help right now if I’m going to survive.” But I’ve also been down the other road. The one where I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt because their first response would be to ask how I could hurt them so badly as to feel what I did, and demand to know how I could be so selfish as to cause them pain and to berate me for being ungrateful. And no, these are not assumptions. I heard all these things when I tried to speak up, and I didn’t want to hear them any more.
If you want to be a true support to someone in a mental health crisis situation, put your own comfort aside. Listen. And shut the fuck up. We can’t take care of you right now.
I have no more words. I’m going to close with a favorite link of mine from Hyperbole and a Half.