I was out to dinner with some folks on Monday night when I heard the news about Robin Williams’ suicide. We shared our sadness around the table, mentioned his movies we’d loved, talked about how talented he was, how we’d heard he’d fought depression and addiction issues his whole life.
What a loss, we said. What a tragedy.
What I didn’t say around that table was that I understood. I understood not wanting to keep going. Not seeing any reason to keep going.
When I was 16, I called a suicide hotline. I wanted to die and I didn’t know anyone I could tell and I didn’t know what to do. I had prayed and I had cried, but none of it helped. I just felt…awful. An awfulness so awful I wanted it to go away, at any cost.
I was depressed, though I’m not sure I had that word for it at the time, and I certainly didn’t understand that depression could be a chemical imbalance. I thought what I was feeling, how bad I was feeling, was all my fault - I was doing something wrong, or I just was wrong.
So I was not only depressed, I was ashamed of being depressed.
I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone about that phone call before. When I thought about writing about it in this blog, I didn’t know if I could. Forty-some years later, and I still feel so much shame about it, admitting how close to suicide I was.
I feel bad about feeling so bad.
For a long time after that, I just self-medicated. Mostly with food, later with cigarettes. So yeah, I developed a couple nasty little addictions. Not the dramatic life disrupters like drugs or alcohol or sex. Not the kind of addictions the cool kids have. But my addiction issues finally led me to therapy, got me to ask for help.
I quit smoking about 16 years ago (but honestly, I’d love a cigarette right now). The eating disorder stuff, I continue to struggle with that daily. Actually more like nearly every moment of every day.
But I still remember the first time a therapist wrote down depression as my diagnosis for insurance forms and I looked at that word, and I was kind of horrified. This is now officially a mental illness I thought. And let’s face it, mental illness, even in 2014, has a stigma attached to it. And it’s not something that most people know what to do with. Is it catching? Should I be afraid? What if I say or do the wrong thing and make things worse?
Thankfully depression has never left me unable to get out of bed in the morning, kept me from working, or landed me in a hospital, never gotten me to a big, obvious suicide attempt. (I say “obvious” because I’ve come to see that what I’ve done with food and smoking through the years as other, more subtle ways I’ve been trying to kill myself.)
I’ve been lucky, I’ve had good therapists along the way, taken some medication at times, when my doctors thought I needed to, had a good support system.
So I don’t talk about my depression much, at least using that official word for it…not only because I feel bad for feeling bad, but because I think, I’ve never really had it THAT bad, so many other people have it so much worse, what right have I got to even bring this up?
I feel bad for not feeling bad enough.
Much has been written about depression and suicide in the last few days since Robin’s death, how 1 in 10 people suffer from it, about how it’s a treatable chronic disease, like diabetes. I’m so grateful that those voices and that information have been out there. Of course, there are still a lot of people who don’t understand anything. And who have platforms to shout from. Who perpetuate the shame.
I’ve wanted to slap them. Or at least tell them to shut up and stop talking about things they know nothing about. Do some research. Seriously.
Because here’s the thing. We don’t need more shame.
Shame leads to silence and isolation and being unable to ask for help. And silence kills.
And it’s so easy to feel ashamed. When you feel broken and defective and you have people around you who say helpful things like, “What’s wrong with you?” “Buck up.” “I just never let anything bother me that much.” “Get over it.” “Meditate.” “Pray.” “Get right with God.” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “If you just stopped _________(fill in the blank…eating sugar, reading depressing books, spending too much time on Facebook…you name it) you’d be fine.” “You don’t have it that bad.” “You’re just being dramatic.” These are the messages that are rattling around inside my brain all the time already, believe me.
I don’t know exactly what happened in those last moments of Robin Williams’ life, except that he was alone. I read that Harvey Fierstein, in response to the news that his friend had died, wrote, "Please, people, do not f-- with depression. It's merciless. All it wants is to get you in a room alone and kill you. Take care of yourself."
And I don’t know the name of the person who answered my call on that suicide hotline when I was 16. But I woke up one morning this week and I realized I probably have him to thank for being alive today. He was an answer to the prayer I didn’t even totally have words for. And he became God’s voice for me, that night, God’s love made flesh, with a phone in hand. He kept me from being alone.
So whoever you are, wherever you are: Thank you for being there. For listening. For not shaming me. For helping me open my mouth, and stop the silence long enough to survive the night.
And today, I also want to say thank you to all the people since then who have been my suicide hotline, who have been God’s little merry band of representatives here on earth for me, for family and therapists and ministers and friends who have loved me and listened to me, and have helped me keep going. Who have held my hand. Who have held me and haven’t let go.
And Robin, wherever you are right now, I hope you’re being held too. I can almost picture it, God holding you in strong, loving arms. The two of you just crying together. And also, of course, laughing.
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