Michael Shermer’s Harassment »« On the insidiousness of Depression, Suicide, and Robin Williams

The ripple effect of suicide

Drawing of Camp Counselor

[TW: Description of Suicide Attempt]

The summer I was 15, I was at a camp where we lived in sailboats for a few weeks, learning to sail. Midway through camp, all the adults and counselors were at a meeting elsewhere, on a different boat, some 10 minutes away, leaving the teenagers alone on their own boats. Most of us on my boat were on deck enjoying the sun, but my roommate was not — worried at her absence, I went to check on her.

She had cut her wrists direct across, there were pills bottles and pills everywhere, and she wasn’t moving.  She looked like me — she was pale with blonde hair.  My brain felt pinned down by the sight of her.  She didn’t move until I touched her and she started crying, saying she was so sorry over and over again, and something like it shouldn’t have been me that found her. I talked to her, tried to see how deep her cuts were and how many pills she’d taken. I cleaned it up, I turned her wrists over.

I stayed with her for a moment and then called and asked for help, shielding her from view. I felt absolutely dazed. I knew she shouldn’t be alone and I knew we needed someone who could get her help and I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to die immediately, but I didn’t know how to execute that. Which is approximately what I said to everyone. The eldest guy said, “Well we need to get on the radio, what are you fucking stupid!” And I said, “I don’t know where to radio to.” He pushed past me and messed with the radio until it reached adults.

The push is the thing that broke my daze and I cried for two or three hours. Cried quietly while staying with her until help arrived, cried explaining how I’d found her, and cried loudly and uncontrollably when she was gone. I couldn’t eliminate the image of the blood on her arms from my head, on this apparent corpse that looked eerily like me somehow more in death than in life. And then I stopped crying, I couldn’t cry anymore. The images were still there and wouldn’t go away, but my ability to feel had gone.

She went to the hospital, had her stomach pumped and her wounds bandaged, and was taken home by her parents.

The entire camp watched Dead Poet’s Society, which has Robin Williams and is partially about suicide, that night, and I didn’t want to because I knew the subject matter and that it made me cry and I couldn’t imagine what it would do to me in that state. They made me though, suggesting it would distract me.  It didn’t make me cry, though, it didn’t make me feel anything. Nothing felt real. I just did what I was told. I didn’t even get bored.

My camp counselor suggested that I was probably in shock, that he definitely was, and that it would pass and that they couldn’t really do anything for me but talk if I wanted to. Others told me it wasn’t a big deal and she hadn’t died, so I shouldn’t be worried about it. Anyway, she’d been threatening to hurt herself so she could go home, so how was it a surprise. It was just a cry for attention.  There was no comfort, no one there who could comfort me, no one I knew.

I recovered from the acute stress reaction in about a week, and it was awful.  Not feeling anything had been so superior with dealing with my anger and shame and fear, for being so “fucking stupid” and being rattled by something that “didn’t matter.” It was the first of what would be many difficult mental health experiences in my life.  It is also where my mind would dwell when I started cutting myself when I was in college, it’s where my mind would dwell when I became suicidal myself a few years after seeing it — on walking into a room and seeing what I thought was a bloody corpse, there by self-inflicted injuries, bright red on white skin.

This is part of what people mean when they call suicide selfish.  It doesn’t go away for other people either.

Comments

  1. says

    The only problem I have with the whole “suicide is selfish” thing is that the reasons are unique to each individual.

    I thought I was a burden (trigger warning on that link for suicide). I honestly believed that everyone around me would be better off without me. I honestly felt as if my not being in this world would make the entire world itself a better place. I thought I was being selfless.

    Of course, I know a lot more now than I did then. I was making assumptions about others that I could never have really known; now I do. I know that my absence would not have been better than me still being around, because they’ve told me so. I do know how suicide can affect friends, family members… if your famous, it can affect your fans, as well. I cried for at least an hour after reading about Robin Williams, and I don’t think I’ve ever even been in the same state as him.

    I’ve never found a victim, however. I feel like saying sorry would be pointless, especially as I really can’t ever know or understand what that must be like. I’m glad that you blog, however. I’m glad to be subscribed to your blog; you’e one of my favorite bloggers here. So… there’s that.

    Thank you for writing this and for everything you’ve written.

  2. ceesays says

    I think I’m missing the point here. Can someone explain? I don’t know if the “suicide is selfish” is referring to the person who tried to kill herself or the behavior of the other people who called Ashley stupid and made her watch a movie instead of trying to actually help. I know which one i’d pick, but I’m not sure that’s what’s meant. help?

  3. chrisdevries says

    People say “suicide is selfish” because the person who kills him/herself hurts all of the people they loved in life, those who love them. The decision to kill oneself is taken for a whole variety of reasons but typically the person who does so is in a very depressed and anxious state and they make unfair and inaccurate assumptions about how other people perceive them. Perhaps they believe that they have nobody who truly cares about them, or that they are a burden on their loved ones, or that everything they do turns to shit and people would be better off without them. This kind of thinking is not limited to people who are clinically depressed, but it is basically ubiquitous amongst the severely depressed who engage in suicidal ideation. If these individuals don’t get the help they need (both pharmaceutical and via some form of therapy) they can progress to an actual suicide attempt. Death can feel like a blessed relief and it is easy to rationalise that nobody in the depressed individual’s life would care if they died anyway for any or all of the aforementioned (bogus) reasons, and many more than I could ever name.

    Suicide feels selfish to those left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, but people who commit suicide are not in their right mind (with rare exceptions). These people need help, and if they don’t get it and end up dead, loved ones can feel guilty that they didn’t see the signs and intervene so they protect themselves emotionally by simplifying it to a “selfish” deed, when in fact it is an illness that led to an unfortunate (and quite possibly even unforeseeable) death. Obviously each case is unique and individuals’ motives, beliefs, and acting skills (which can hide deep emotional pain) vary considerably. With better mental healthcare and awareness hopefully more people will get the help they need before they commit an act that cannot be undone and that will leave painful scars on everyone in their life. Other countries are making these improvements; the USA needs to follow their lead.

  4. ceesays says

    3, Chrisdevries: Yeah. Any time I’ve been suicidal, one of the biggest things driving me is the isolation I feel. My default belief is that I have to be on my very best behavior with people or else I will drive them away. When I’m suicidal, I’ve already driven everyone away, weeks before. There is no one to be affected by my death, no one who will be sad, plenty of people who will be relieved that they don’t have to pretend to be nice to me when I show up. I cannot imagine that my death would shatter anyone’s life when i’m suicidal. I expect that upon hearing that I killed myself that people would say, “Really? She lived that long? I’m so surprised.”

    So what keeps me alive? I promised to tell my psychiatrist when I feel like this. That I won’t wait until my next appointment, that I won’t put on a better face to hide it. It’s really hard to make that phone call. I don’t call when I probably should, so when I do call, I guess he knows it’s pretty bad.

    I usually wind up in the unit. No. I always do. even if I have to stay in a unit that’s not my usual, I’m in a hospital bed in a few hours. I wind up on my usual unit and my doctor visits me every day to help me remember that he cares. The nurses who remember me from last time are nice. And I stay away from people until I’m presentable – when i’m not suicidal any more, when I feel like I can be that funny person who laughs and entertains people.

    But when I’m more than mildly depressed, when I’m convinced I’m alone, I disappear from their lives. Sometimes it takes me years to come back into their view, and most of me is always surprised when they seem happy to see me.

    I agree with you about not being in my right mind when it gets really bad. But it’s hard to notice when I’m there. It’s weird to talk about. I’m not sure I can explain it well. but when I’m deeply depressed, I understand the truth. I know it to be true. I am convinced, and I don’t notice that usually I’m rarely convinced of anything.

  5. Ed says

    I’ll have to second what Mate said in #1. When I’m deeply depressed, I feel like people would be better off without me.

    Now, sure, I realize that they would be sad if I died, But I imagine it being more like he sorrow people usually feel when someone with a painful terminal illness or issues related to extreme old age dies. That there would be a sense of the inevitable, relief that my suffering is over and a perhaps unspoken relief that any inconvenience and expense I was causing by not being able to function properly is gone as well.

    I underestimate the extent to which people perceive me as a healthy productive person whose problems are solvable. On the other hand, I sometimes live in terror of becoming unable to function, getting in debt from medical bills and the poor financial decisions I’m more likely to make when going through a bad episode, becoming not only unable to benefit other people through work but losing the ability to be a person anyone would enjoy being around.

    If I had to become dependent on family, some would see me as a moocher. There is a very vocal branch of the extreme right where I live, so if I ever had to depend on government assistance I know I’d occasionally deal with people who would see me as some kind of parasite.

    So before using the “selfish” line, remember that here can be partly altruistic intentions behind the suicide of a depressed person, and to the extent that it is self-interested it isn’t so much selfish as wanting release from a very high level of suffering. Selfishness means excessive self-interest, and I don’t see where trying to escape a condition of utter misery is wanting all that much.

    I’m not advocating suicide, but trying to get people to see it from the point of view of the person considering it. Treatment can often help, but if the whole subject is shameful that keeps people from talking about what they’re going through.

  6. lanir says

    I saw the other end of it when I was growing up. The suicide I didn’t see, the family I did. At first I was just shocked that someone I knew had done that but then seeing the personal devastation that caused his parents and the hurt but also confused way his younger brother reacted (they hadn’t gotten along terribly well), it was just a mess. No matter how bad things got for me later in life I couldn’t seriously consider doing that myself. I think I might have reacted much more like you did if all I saw were the other parts. None of the family, just the person committing the act and the mess on that end.

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