Robin Williams killed himself.
Hearing that Monday brought back a white hot pain in my heart and sent me back to June 17, 2010, my little brother’s 22nd birthday – the morning that I found out he had shot himself the night before.
The first call came from a friend and fellow reporter who broke the news to me that my brother was dead, but he didn’t want to be the one to tell me how. He told me to call my mother, and when she told me, it was like the world went silent all around me.
I honestly don’t remember much after that. Everything is white noise. I found out my brother was dead on his birthday, and I sat next to my dad as we buried his son the day before Father’s Day.
People are often at a loss when it comes to suicide.
My brother had his struggles, but I thought his life had been going well. He was an honor student at West Georgia Tech, was excelling at work and had many friends.
I was shocked by my brother’s suicide, and at the same time I understood. I had struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts many times over the years and when it felt like the world was caving in on me, it was at times a struggle just to keep going. I imagine it’s how an addict feels – wishing for the sweet relief of a drug, but in this case the relief, the end of pain, is death.
The best way I can think to describe it is like being in a burning building. Imagine being in a room and you can see the exit, but it’s surrounded by flames that burn your face from a distance. Boards give way around you as the structure fails.
Getting out will be hard and require pushing through that terrible heat, flames licking at you and the possibility the room itself will cave in on you. Smoke is making you light-headed and you don’t know what awaits on the other side - maybe just another room on fire.
You’re tired, in pain and only want to rest. Lying down and drifting away from smoke asphyxiation doesn’t sound so bad. Peaceful even.
In the mind of someone with suicidal depression, their life is the burning building, and each challenge is a room. Everything is closing in, everything is falling apart. At that moment, there is nothing outside except more pain, darkness and sadness.
What that mind-frame doesn’t give the suicidal person is the proper perspective of their life to others, they just see the end of suffering. However, for all those who care about a person who has committed suicide, their suffering is just beginning. They receive a lifelong sentence of guilt, pain and doubt.
Not a day a goes by that I don’t think about my brother and wonder what signs I should have seen, what actions I could have taken to prevent his death. My innate duty as an older brother was to look after him and protect him, and it’s one I can’t help but feel that I failed.
It’s the same kind of pain that I see in my parents’ faces. For our little sister, I’ve seen her struggle as she faced so many challenges in the already confusing world of being a teenager and soon transitioning into adulthood.
When I think of them, I feel that my first action if I ever saw my brother again would be to punch him in the face for all the pain he’s caused.
Many may see that side of suicide, calling it a selfish act. It is, but it’s a selfish act made in a vacuum of seemingly inescapable despair in one’s own mind.
People wonder how someone like Robin Williams, who projected the funny man and seemed so outwardly happy, could commit suicide. It’s a reminder that there is no obvious face to those who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
There are those who have learned to mask their pain, and are afraid to let anyone in. They either silently carry out their plan because they don’t want anyone to stop them, or they’ve been running from burning rooms too long. Internally, they’ve struggled and fought, now exhausted in a moment of desperation and hopelessness, they give in.
Suicide should not be condemned. We should not attach shame to it.
It’s often an action amplified by mental illness or personality disorder – Williams reportedly had bi-polar disorder – and even if a person does not appear to be “crazy,” or “unhinged” doesn’t mean they’re not suffering. Because there is still a stigma attached to seeking help with depression or mental health issues, there those who choose to keep it hidden and not seek the help they may need.
This unfortunately can lead to self-medication in order to cope and dull the pain and sadness. Williams was undergoing rehab trying to maintain his hard-fought sobriety.
Suicide is preventable, but it is by no means certainly preventable. People can reduce the risk if they reach out to someone they suspect may be suffering. It requires diligence and a willingness to discuss things we are uncomfortable with, but it could make a big difference.
For those struggling, don’t do so in silence. Support is available and don’t be ashamed.
I urge everyone to check out the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www.afsp.org for some great resources on the matter and ways to get involved. Also, the American Association of Suicidology offers many resources at suicidology.org and sponsors National Suicide Prevention Week, this year Sept. 8 to 14, which surrounds World Suicide Prevention Day, which is Sept. 10.
Some great resources on mental illness are available at bringchange2mind.org, which strives to end the stigma of mental illness, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness at nami.org.
We need to continue talking about this problem and address issues like mental illness. Otherwise, nothing will change.