Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What They Suffer

"We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  --Dietrich Bonhoeffer

My thoughts have been somewhat sad and chaotic since the police confirmed that Robin Williams committed suicide. As I've read some of the articles and online chatter on the subjects of depression and suicide, it's painfully obvious that some people judge suicide out of ignorance. If you think that people who commit suicide are selfish or that people who are depressed just need to take a walk and get over it, you are wrong. Dead wrong.

First and foremost, depression is an illness. It's not exactly like cancer or asthma or ALS, though those sorts of illnesses can cause depression. But just as people with cancer or asthma can't control the growth of tumors or the ease of a breath, people with depression can't control their thoughts...and those thoughts are really, really, unutterably sad.

When those unutterably sad thoughts continue long enough, people get worn out and can lose hope. It's exhausting to live with such sad thoughts all the time, and even more exhausting to pretend that everything is okay. People with depression can be superb actors. Robin Williams won an Oscar. People very close to me during my depression had no idea.

No. Idea.

All I wanted was for the pain to go away, and death seemed like a perfectly lovely and peaceful way to end that pain. Had I ended my suffering by suicide, my friends and family would have wondered the same thing people are wondering about Robin Williams...what in the world did she have to be so sad about?

I wonder that, too, now, from the perspective of middle age and many intervening years of happiness. I know I felt like a failure, inadequate, an embarrassment to my loved ones, rejected by my best friend, a disappointment to my father. My brain saw all these negatives as the only truths and wouldn't let me see that I was so very loved, so very appreciated and respected and admired and smart and successful. Nope. I was 16, and all I saw was complete failure.

My brain was broken, sick, suffering.  

No one knows what was going on in Robin Williams brain before he hanged himself, and I've been disturbed to read comments that presume such knowledge. I don't know what Robin Williams was thinking, but I've been to that black hole he was in, and it's so very dark and lonely and insufferably painful, and climbing out of that black hole took years.

I recovered from severe depression with professional help and lots of love from my husband, mother, and sister. Ever since, I've stayed alert to the tone of my thoughts, and when they start getting negative, I act. I go to the doctor. I talk to professionals and friends and family who help me reset my inner perspective. I don't ever want to get sucked back into the hole of mental suffering again.

The tragedy of Williams' death is that his depression was so persistent that the help he got didn't alleviate his symptoms well enough. Some of those he left behind--his family, friends, fans--might naturally want to place blame. But this wasn't Williams' fault any more than it was the fault of his therapists and doctors. When my aunt committed suicide, her psychiatrist blamed himself. He shouldn't have.

We certainly don't blame the family and friends when a cancer patient dies, but family and friends of suicide victims often blame themselves. They shouldn't.

Rarely is blame-placing helpful or just.

But what is helpful and just?

If you are depressed, get professional help. Tell your doctor. Get therapy. Take meds if the doctor thinks they will help and be honest with the doctor if they're not working. Talk to a priest or pastor or other faith leader if that feels right to you. In those really dark moments, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Depression doesn't have to last can be followed by happiness in this life. Seriously, it can. I'm living proof of that.

If you know someone who might be depressed, love them, listen to them, call them, stay in touch. Don't tell them how to fix their problem or to go for a walk. Ask them to take a walk with you, however, so you can listen to them talk. Listening without judging or bossing someone around helps enormously. Encourage them to get professional help.

But don't blame the sufferer. Don't judge him or her until you've been in the pit yourself. Once you've been there, you know that judgment is pointless and cruel. Remember: as you judge, so shall you be judged.

The most powerful things you can give to people suffering from depression are mercy, compassion, and love. Try those instead of judging.



  1. Beautifully written. What I find so sad is that a man who brought so much laughter and joy to millions of people around the world, died feeling so sad. I imagine, to get to a place where you feel that suicide is the only option your thoughts and feelings would be dark indeed.
    I don't judge him for what he did. I feel sorry for his family and friends left behind and will pray for them. Despite what we know about depression, it is hard when "loving" that person is not enough to actually help life them out of that dark place. We want our love to be enough. Thanks for these thoughts, and for leaving a place open for comments. This is the first place I thought I could comment without setting off a firestorm of discussions and arguments.

    1. Thank you, Mary. I appreciate your thoughts and the compassion with which you share them. We do want our love to be enough, and it hurts to realize that, sometimes, it just isn't.

  2. Thank you for the post. Being Buddhist as sad as I was to hear of his death, I hope his reincarnation will be one a happy one and once again fulled with laughter that he gave to all of us. I don't believe his spirit was done being here yet. Maybe we will be lucky enough to experience his presence again in our life time.
    I can understand why someone would want to get off that spinning wheel of darkness. He made no secert of his use of drugs or alcohol as a way to handle the demons within. I'm thankful more people are open about their depression and it can be talked about without guilt.

    1. What beautiful thoughts, Lisa. Thank you for adding another compassionate perspective.

  3. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. I was so sad to hear that he had committed suicide. While I generally think of suicide as a permanent solution to a temporary problem, reading your words helps me understand that Robin wasn't able to find any other solution that offered relief. May he rest in peace and find the calm he seemed to be seeking. Prayers, too, to all who suffer from depression and may the light that is shining on this topic right now help them.

  4. Susan, I really appreciated your post. I too was in a black hole as a young adult. It is very difficult for someone who has not been there to understand the pain. Through medication, therapy, and support from my husband, friends and family I climbed out. Like you, I learned to identify signs within myself and have stayed out of the dark. There are some effective coping skills for me. RIP Robin Williams.

    1. LaNell, thanks for sharing your story. I also found effective coping skills and know what a huge difference they make for me. Do you wonder, like I do, why some people can climb out of the hole and stay out with coping skills, while others keep getting dragged back in? I suspect it's a combination of circumstances and brain chemistry, but maybe it's just brain chemistry.

  5. Beautiful, thank you. And so glad you are here to share it!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!