Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams, Suicide, and Hope

Robin Williams was a few months older than I am when he died. That photo is from 1979, when he was becoming famous for his role in "Mork & Mindy."

I admire Williams' work, regret his addiction to cocaine and alcohol, and am sorry that he is dead. He was a remarkably talented actor and comedian. Sadly, he apparently decided to hang himself.

We can't be sure, but it's likely that suffering from depression had something to do with his death.

Celebrity deaths get heavy media coverage: so when yet another movie star dies from suicide, drug overdose, or some other avoidable cause, it can seem that fame leads to self-destruction.

Although famous folks from Hannibal to Margaux Hemmingway killed themselves, I think it's prudent to remember that many high-profile folks didn't: like Lauren Bacall and Bob Hope.

I'll be writing mostly about life, depression, death, and why I haven't killed myself. You'll find links to articles about Robin Williams near the end of this post.

Decades in an Emotional Desert


I grew about a foot, and started shaving regularly, when I turned 13. As that was happening, I noticed that seeing sunlight washing over a freshly-mowed lawn was accompanied by no emotions: at all. I saw each blade of grass clearly, sunlight still sparkled through water droplets, but my response to the scene was strictly intellectual.

At the time, I assumed that having all the beauty and wonder sucked out of the world was a normal part of growing up. The way many adults acted strongly suggested that this was the case.

I mentally shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Feeling something besides "empty" most of the time would have been nice: but now I could reach higher shelves, so there was an 'up' side.

Decades later, on the recommendation of my wife, I talked with a psychiatrist: who promptly diagnosed me as experiencing major depression. Turns out, most adults don't live in an emotional desert, constantly fighting to make their brains work.

Around the same time, I learned that I've got ADD-Inattentive, Asperger's, or maybe something else. Either way, high-strength antidepressants and a few other drugs finally sorted out my brain chemistry.

Now I can think more clearly than I could since my pre-teens, maybe ever.

It's great.

Stubborn as a Mule: Still Working on Fortitude


I thought about killing myself: once, in my teens. After a few seconds, I decided that I was very stubborn: and likely to endure longer than any of my then-current torments. Afterward, I still felt awful, but the feelings passed.

I've felt like killing myself a few times since then, but each time I remembered that obstinacy has advantages. "Perseverance" or "dogged determination" sound better, maybe, but let's face it: I'm stubborn. Properly controlled, it's a strength.

I'm still working on virtues like fortitude, and that's another topic. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808)

Major Depressive Disorder: Real; Serious — and Treatable


So, if I'm such a stubborn man, why didn't I just decide to stop being depressed?

For one thing, I didn't realize that I suffered from psychiatric disorders. I figured that so many adults were cranky and obtuse because they were dealing with interior torments like mine.

For another, although we still don't know exactly what happens with depression, medicos have long since realized that it's a physical disorder: not the result of weak character or moral failings. Not directly, anyway.

"Major depressive disorder" comes with various combinations of altered brain chemistry, out-of-whack hormones, other biological and genetic differences, and traumatic events. (Mayo Clinic)

I was dealing with at least three of those factors, including a traumatic event I know happened: but which isn't in my conscious memory. And that's yet another topic. (January 28, 2011)

At the risk of sounding preachy, I'll repeat what you've probably heard before: being imperfect is okay; and so is getting help:
"...When our society characterizes people with clinical depression, it paints pictures of moody teens wearing black. It does not consider depression as it honestly is: a real illness that can hit anyone of any socioeconomic background. It can affect a parent as well as a student, the rich and the poor. Like a cold or the flu, anyone can experience it....

"...But society stigmatizes depression as just a case of 'being sad,' and tells the depressed to 'just get over it.' That leads the clinically depressed to hide their illness until it is too late, scared of what people might think, instead of reaching out for the treatment that can help return them to happiness....

"...But, just as if you were to get the flu, if you feel depressed, you should go to the doctor and get medicine and advice for feeling better. You would tell your friends to do the same...."
("Coming of Age: A lesson from the dimming of a bright star," Karen Osborne, CNA (August 12, 2014))
There's more of that excerpt at the very end of this post.

Getting a Grip About Health, Hair Shirts, and Hope


Life and health are "precious gifts." Since I'm a Catholic, part of my job is taking care of my health: within reason. (Catechism, 1509-1523, 2288-2291)

Prayer is a good idea, always: so is science and technology, used wisely. (Catechism, 1509-1523, 2292-2296, 2275, 2558)

Over the last few centuries, we've been learning a great deal about how the body works, and that's yet again another topic.

I've read and heard quite a bit about suicide, some of it about as sensible as this line from a Monty Python comedy sketch:
"...After all he only did what many of us simply dream of doing --- I'm sorry. After all we should remember that a murderer is only an extroverted suicide...."
("The Tale Of The Piranha Brothers," Monty Python, via www.montypython.net)
I take humor and suicide seriously. But although immoderate laughter is a bad idea, joy and humor are okay, and I'm wandering off-topic. Again. (Catechism, 1676, 1856)

Or maybe not so much. St. Philip Neri, the 'amiable Saint,' was known for his heavy-handed humor: like giving an overly-pious young man permission to wear a hair shirt, on the outside of his regular clothes.

"Cilice" is a fancy name for hair shirt. Think of it as an all-wool T-shirt, starched. Worn next to the skin, it's a a sort of low-impact penance. Worn over your clothes, you'd look ridiculous. (November 13, 2011)

Getting back to life, death, and all that — Human life is a precious gift, sacred. Murder is wrong, even when the victim is oneself. (Catechism, 2258, 2268-2269, 2280-2282)

We get one life, one soul, and one chance at eternity. Hope is a virtue, despair is not an option, and hope lasts as long as we live. (Catechism, 366, 1013, 1021-1022, 1501, 1817-1821, 2091)

Sin is an offense against reason and truth, and quite real. (Catechism, 1846-1851)

Sin is not a matter of liking the 'wrong' sort of music, or wearing slacks during Minnesota winters. Still more topics. (September 26, 2009)

Finally, a few words about hope and joy:
"We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives."
(Catechism, 2283)

"but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'

"I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. "
(Luke 15:2-7)
Background
Looking for more of my take on being alive? Here's a sample:
Robin McWilliams, news and views:
Excerpt from news and view:
"...When our society characterizes people with clinical depression, it paints pictures of moody teens wearing black. It does not consider depression as it honestly is: a real illness that can hit anyone of any socioeconomic background. It can affect a parent as well as a student, the rich and the poor. Like a cold or the flu, anyone can experience it.

"Clinical depression has a lot to do with the way chemicals function in your brain. Scientists have found that chemicals that help regulate your mood are severely low in people who have depressive episodes. But society stigmatizes depression as just a case of 'being sad,' and tells the depressed to 'just get over it.' That leads the clinically depressed to hide their illness until it is too late, scared of what people might think, instead of reaching out for the treatment that can help return them to happiness.

"But, just as if you were to get the flu, if you feel depressed, you should go to the doctor and get medicine and advice for feeling better. You would tell your friends to do the same. Why suffer a headache when there are painkillers? Why suffer a sinus infection when you can get a decongestant?

"Doctors have effective medicine and methods to battle clinical depression. And yet, it is a condition that makes people feel as they cannot reach for help. There is help out there -- from friends, psychologists, doctors and even kind strangers at hotlines and help lines.

"If you are experiencing major depression, you might have difficulty concentrating and making decisions...."
("Coming of Age: A lesson from the dimming of a bright star," Karen Osborne, CNA (August 12, 2014))

2 comments:

Elizabeth Reardon said...

Brian,
I think that it was well needed for you to re-visit and share this post this week! The holidays can be intense for those suffering from mental illness. As I said to our friend Joe this week, my own brother battled with this his whole life. He lost this battle at age 40 to suicide and I will forever miss him. I too posted on this the week of Robin William's death..here is his story. :) http://wp.me/p423SU-2h

Brian Gill said...

Thank you, Elizabeth Reardon. Too true: the holiday season is a stress test for many folks - and is particularly hard on some.

And thanks for the link.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.