I wanted to write something beautiful about a man I didn’t know but in some way feel like I’ve known all my life. A man with an infectious smile, a man who spent his life bringing joy and laughter into the lives of millions. I have been struggling to find the words for days, since the time I first saw the headline flash across my computer screen, “Robin Williams, dead of apparent suicide.”
My eyes froze upon the image and accompanying headline and I gasped as the air seemed instantly sucked out of the room. A soft and whimpering “Nooo” slipped from my lips as my hand quickly flew to cover my mouth in disbelief.
Tiny tears stung my eyes stopping just short of sliding down my cheeks as I remembered some of my favorite character’s played by Mr. Williams: the Genie in Aladdin, Mork on Mork and Mindy, Mrs. Doubtfire, Popeye, and Peter Pan, to name just a few. Sorrow silently fills my heart as I imagine the pain and darkness Mr. Williams was carrying, the sense of complete and utter hopelessness, the cold and crushing emptiness.
I closed my eyes for a moment, steeling myself as the all too familiar words surfaced and floated across my mind.
Another one slipped through the net. Damn.
Death is always a difficult and confusing time for those of us left behind. It can be much more so when the life was lost to suicide. We experience shock at the suddenness, sorrow at the loss, confusion as we try to comprehend the incomprehensible, and maybe even anger at the victim. People who don’t understand depression, anxiety, substance abuse, PTSD, and other suicide triggers tend to call the victim selfish or cowardly. Telling a depressed individual to “just get over it” or “cheer up” is as ridiculous as telling a cancer patient to just stop being sick or asking “why don’t you just get rid of your tumors?”
We are left with questions. What can we do? What should we have done? How can I help a depressed friend or loved one? Why couldn’t s/he see how much we cared?
I don’t have all the answers but I’d like to share a few thoughts from my own experiences which may bring a little light to a dark and misunderstood issue:
Why can’t my friend see how much I love her? Depression does not allow the sufferer to see what you see. It is part of the disease. There may be a part of your friend who knows and understands how much you love her and care for her but depression brings a much stronger part to life which is unable to see the love or simply doesn’t believe it is real. Logic is invisible in the face of emotions laid open, raw and bleeding from the relentless attacks of the disease.
How can someone who has everything (family, friends, money, success) kill himself? There is no one answer for this but just as above, depression does not let the sufferer see reality. Further, depression does not allow the sufferer to feel love, joy, happiness, etc. There may be brief moments when the individual has fun and appears happy and even feels like they are OK but this is often a product of an effort to appear normal or for even a moment get a little relief from the chronic emotional agony that is depression. However, just like a person with a terminal illness, just because a depressed individual has a good day does not mean they are cured or are somehow in control of (or faking) the disease.
How can I help my depressed friend/loved one? Don’t try to “fix” them. When your friend wants to talk, be there to listen and I mean listen. Don’t try to think of ways to fix their problem or tell them they shouldn’t feel sad or remind them of all the good things they have. This is not helpful because it is about what YOU see and what is meaningful for YOU. Just listen, be supportive but don’t try to fix it, and don’t minimize it (“oh it’s not that bad” or “it could be worse…”). If your depressed friend or loved one comes to you to talk you are likely part of their safety net. Trying to fix them or minimize their problems can make you feel like an unsafe person to talk to (put a hole in the safety net).
What should I have done (to prevent a suicide)? It helps to remind yourself depression is a disease, and unless the disease is effectively managed (or cured) you can’t prevent symptoms from taking place. Suicide is a symptom of depression. It may be possible in some cases to postpone an impending suicide but the only way to prevent it is to get help and manage/cure the disease.
If you or someone you love is suicidal you can call 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline…someone is always there to listen. They are trained to help you. You are not alone.
Many events/issues lead up to the suicide attempt. There is not one magic thing you could say or do to end suicidal thoughts or plans. You may be able to postpone but the only way to prevent is to deal with the disease itself. Please also remember many people contemplating suicide work very hard at appearing normal and happy because they don’t want to be stopped. Remember, logic doesn’t play a part here. This is a disease which affects the way the mind perceives and responds to information.
If you are considering suicide please remember this:
You are not alone, reach out to a friend, parent, clergy, doctor, police officer, therapist, relative or call the hotline: 1-800-273-8255. I know you can’t see it or feel it right now but you do matter, you are worth saving, you are loved and you deserve to live. You have to trust me on this, I have been where you are. There is hope but you have to reach out for it. People can’t help you if you don’t tell them what is going on. No one can read your mind. Give them a chance to help, ask.
“Please, don’t worry so much. Because in the end, none of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting. And if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky when the stars are strung across the velvety night. And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness, turning night into day, make a wish, and think of me. Make your life spectacular.”
-- Robin Williams as Jack in the film, Jack
I see your multi-colored, hazel eyes staring deep into mine
questions, confusion, fear, and anger shoot back at me like
which tear jagged holes in my soul
my words are twisted into tools of hatred and destruction
I feel powerless against what lurks inside you
"Why are so hard to love" I say as a look into your
multi-colored, tear-filled eyes
You have no answer, just blank and desperate silence
I shake my head in defeat,
and turn away from the mirror.
I wrote that poem. Just now, as I caught myself spiraling
down the old, familiar drain which leads to the foulest reaches of my desperate darkness. This time, I catch myself. I peer over the crumbling edge, looking into the darkness just long enough to retrieve this poem and remind myself that depression is always lurking, it is dangerous, it is deadly.
I wasn’t always able to catch myself; many times I sunk down so far I nearly lost my way out. My soul writhing in its death throes as I attempt to exist in a place filled with pain, fear, questions, sorrow and desperate hopelessness. There is no logic, no truth, no meaning, no life. It is not a place I would send my worst enemy.
I have always avoided talking about it. However, silence is quite deadly. The cultural stigma which shames the depressed prevents those afflicted from seeking help. I am not merely sad, I am not wallowing in self-pity, I am not seeking your attention, I am not selfish. I can’t “just get over it.” I am uncomfortable writing this but I feel the message is too important. As I said before, silence is quite deadly.
A large part of my ongoing healing process involves developing my self-awareness. Being aware enough of what is happening to me to recognize when my thoughts are heading in the wrong direction. To recognize when I am not safe and use tools I’ve learned over many years of work to bring me back to a place of
relative peace. Writing is one tool. Work with horses is another.
Horses are excellent teachers of self-awareness. Their
survival in the wild depends on their ability to listen to their bodies. The horse is hungry, she eats. The horse is restless, she moves. The horse is in pain, she rests. The horse senses incongruence in another being (say one thing, do another), she
retreats. The horse senses danger in the tension of the environment around her, she turns to her herd mates for
The horse brings this self-awareness to the horse-human relationship. Many people believe this is why equine assisted psychotherapy is so effective. The horse is very good at pointing out incongruence in the people around her. My own horse will not tolerate incongruent behavior in me. Putting on the “brave face,” leaving my problems at the door, or otherwise presenting myself as happy when inside I am not (you know, the way society expects us to behave) will produce several undesirable behaviors in her. If she is free she will move (or even run) away from me; if she is tied or otherwise confined, she will dance around, fret and generally show signs of discomfort in my presence. In extreme cases she will become very nervous, pawing the ground, stomping her feet and calling out to other horses. If I acknowledge how I really feel, she will go back to normal. It is really quite amazing to experience.
Someday I hope to develop an equine assisted therapy program for depressed individuals to work on building their self-awareness. I will add this to my growing list of projects. In the meantime, if you are depressed or have symptoms of depression, find someone to talk to: a best friend, a therapist, a pastor, a counselor, a family member – anyone you feel comfortable talking to. It helps if you can find someone who understands depression as a disease vs. someone who subscribes to the “just get over it” lie.
If you have access to a horse on a somewhat regular basis, be aware of how the horse responds to you from day-to-day. When you observe an unusual behavior,
don’t assume it is a problem with the horse – it seldom is.
She may be trying to tell you something. Take a look inside yourself and be honest about what you discover – it may be a very important step along your path to healing.
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!