“I can’t understand why someone would want to kill themselves.”
Having heard this numerous times since the death of Robin Williams, allow me to shed some light. I won’t pretend to know exactly why Mr. Williams ended his life, but I can give you insight into the mind that sees death as the only option.
I’ve been there, every time I’ve been pregnant. The hormones send me to very dark, very ugly places, especially when I’m expecting a girl. Since I’ve had nine kids, as you can imagine I’ve been there frequently. This is far more personal than I’ve ever wanted to be on this blog, and I’ve rarely discussed this with even my own family.
But I haven’t been able to get this off my mind, and I want to help settle others’ minds.
Here’s my understanding of the depressed mind:
The depressed mind is in torment—literal torment. Think about the most critical, abusive person you know. Maybe it’s a relative, teacher, boss, or even “friend.” When you are around this person, you feel every muscle clench, your heart rate increase, your skin prickle. Because no matter what you’ve done or said, from this person’s mouth will come nothing but vitriol and hate. Nothing you do is good enough, or helpful enough, or worthy enough. All you want to do is escape the tirade and the screaming.
When we’re depressed, this voice is often the one in our heads—impossible to escape. It’s not our voice; it’s the voice of the world, collectively whittling away at us, pointing out our failings at every minute of every day. No matter where we go or what we do, we can’t shut it off. Alcohol and drugs can distort it for a while; sleeping pills sometimes help. But always it returns.
It’s the loudest at night, when it’s dark and quiet and nothing can stop the voice that sits back in a cozy chair with the list and recites, coldly and cruelly, how we failed that day, and how we’ll fail tomorrow.
The depressed mind despairs. And I wish there were a stronger word than “despair,” because I don’t think it can fully envelope the all-encompassing devastation the depressed mind reaches. For with that voice never shutting up, never shutting down, we begin to realize that in all of this marvelous, massive, fantastic world, there isn’t even one corner that will tolerate us. Because no matter where we go, how fast we run, how quietly we sneak away (and depressed people often try these tactics), we take our minds with us, the ones that never let us forget and never will forgive. We can’t find respite, anywhere, unless that mind is stopped.
The suicidal mind is rational . . . in its own way. Because the voice of the world in our minds tells us we’re failures, we’re useless, we’re unworthy to even breathe the free air, we begin to believe it. We also begin to notice how our despair affects our families and friends, which is akin to giving a shovel to a man in a pit; we go only further down. The mind begins to think, If I weren’t here, my family and friends wouldn’t suffer.
And then the mind dwells on this: If I weren’t here, they wouldn’t suffer. Oh, sure—they’ll feel bad about our loss for a few months, but they’ll recover. They no longer need to worry about our condition, no longer cater to our odd whims or manic moments. They can live their lives, instead of being controlled by our lack of life.
The depressed mind isn’t selfish; it sacrifices. I’ve heard many people say that suicide is selfish, and maybe they’re thinking of old movies where the heroine in despair throws herself down on the bed/sofa/forest floor to get the attention of the hero and wails, “Oh, I wished I could die!” because something didn’t go her way.
That’s not how the depressed-suicidal mind functions. In fact, contrary to the lists that state the signs of suicide, most of us who have been there will never tell anyone else that we’re contemplating that option, for one very important reason: we’re not worthy of help.
Why bother our loved ones with even more to worry about? Depression is very much an iceberg: what friends and family see is only the tip. We hide in closets and showers to weep. We rarely–if ever–reveal what we’re thinking and seeing. We put on brave faces for as long as we can. When we finally do collapse on to the bed/sofa/forest floor in agony, we’re much further gone that you’d ever expect. You may think we’re at point C, but we’re already at point X, trying to figure out how best to do Y to get to Z—the end.
We don’t want to burden you with that knowledge, nor do we believe there’s any hope. Too often, when we do dare speak up, others don’t realize just how far gone we are.
At my lowest points I spent weeks summoning the courage to tell my ob/gyns that I was struggling. My very worst time was with my fourth daughter, and when I told my doctor that I was having “mental stress,” she just shrugged me off and said, “Most pregnant women do. And you already have seven kids, so what do you expect?”
That shut me up, right there. I couldn’t go on to tell her that I was contemplating ways to die “accidentally” so that my husband could collect the insurance money that would help get our family out of financial crisis.
(In my more rational moments, I frequently thought of canceling that insurance policy just so I didn’t contemplate the scenario anymore.)
I didn’t dare tell her that I was trying to plot ways to make sure my baby survived, and that my Internet searches had been subtle to see just how old a fetus needs to be to stand a chance when the mother has succumbed.
No, that doctor thought I was at point C, and since she was already running late that day with her appointments, she never once looked me in the eyes. I started skipping my prenatal appointments, because I wasn’t worthy of being helped.
I didn’t go back for months, until I was nearly ready to deliver. The doctor never asked why.
With my last pregnancy, I knew I would be facing this same despair, so I told my doctor early on where I would be mentally at about month five. He took me seriously, and when I hit that point where I was thinking about self-destruction again—and had already once put my entire folder of writing into the recycling on my computer, a sure way to eliminate something I used to love—he prescribed me medication.
I called it “the flu pill.” The side effects were worse than any flu I’d ever had, and within two days I stopped taking them. Afraid that those drugs were my only hope, I didn’t dare say anything when I went back to my doctor. I hoped he would ask how they went, maybe offer another suggestion, but he didn’t. He was rushed that day with an emergency c-section, and didn’t follow up.
I went home, sure there was no additional help for me.
The undepressed mind will read this and think, “How stupid! Of course there are other treatments!”
But the depressed mind does not see that. Rational in its own way, it concludes that there is no other way to silence the mind, to save the family and friends, to end the downward spiral.
I don’t think anyone wants to die. We don’t want to cut short this fantastic adventure we’ve been granted, but it’s become unbearable. Tortuous. Excruciating.
In the end, suicide becomes the only way to give those we love a better life, to remove us and our downfalls and our failing from their lives, to give them a clean start.
My maternal grandfather killed himself at age 28, when his only child—my mother—was just 11 months old. A few times my mother said she wondered if he’d at all thought about her when he held that gun to his head. She has no memories of him, but his suicide affected her the rest of her 87 years.
As I’ve pondered that question, I’ve concluded that yes—he did think of her. In whatever unstable rationale that he was dealing with, he may have seen the taking of his life as a way to make hers better.
Or maybe not. Maybe he was just a selfish git who was too embarrassed by a public shaming that he couldn’t go on anymore, and impulsively pulled the trigger. That tends to be our knee-jerk reaction to when we hear about a suicide. Foolish. Selfish. Weak.
But I don’t think so. Those dark moments when I tried to figure out how to end my life but let my baby’s continue (too difficult for me to ever figure out, thank God), I wasn’t thinking about myself.
I was thinking about my children who I failed to love and pay enough attention to, because my mind obsessed uncontrollable.
I was thinking about my husband who deserved a kinder, happier wife, and who should have a wad of insurance money to find his new bride who would be prettier and sweeter, and would love our children far better than I was.
I was thinking about the space I would leave for others to use better than I had, who needed the air more than I did, who could make a better contribution than I ever could.
I don’t know if Robin Williams had any of those thoughts going through his mind that night, but I suspect he did.
I suspect that the majority of suicidal minds only want to improve the lives of others by taking their own.
That’s not what happens, of course. Family and friends are devastated, and that loss is felt for the rest of their lives. Questions are asked, over and over, with no answers.
But maybe my insights from that side can provide maybe one or two. Yes, they did love you, far deeper than you may realize.
They offered themselves as a sacrifice hoping that your life would improve because of it.
They died because they did love you, and I believe firmly that on the other side, God will receive them with compassion, understanding, and overwhelming love.