Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Where is the compassion for Robin Williams?

This is Leif at the age of 16, in his room in our house at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, with the guitar that he designed and made.

His initial time in Puerto Rico was difficult, as he was initially not accepted by the kids at Antilles High School, and was attacked by one group of guys and beaten up. But he overcame that and found a group of good friends and a place in the school. The years in Puerto Rico became some of the best ones of his life. Although he was sometimes angry and frustrated, he was also creative, had friends, enjoyed the sea and guitar lessons. He had hope. The future looked bright. He had every reason to think life would treat him reasonably well . . . and so did we.

It was in some ways unfortunate that we had to leave Puerto Rico the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. It's tough to go to a new school as a senior, hard to fit in, hard to make friends, especially for an introvert like Leif. Yet staying in Puerto Rico would have offered him less opportunity, and he would have had to return to the USA for college anyway.

All that aside, there was no hint in these days that he would ever be seriously depressed or suicidal. There were times, as there are for all of us, when he wasn't happy, but he found much to enjoy in life and went out to meet it with open arms.

Robin Williams' suicide this week has opened a bigger public dialogue about suicide than we have seen before, it seems to me. I think it is because it's so hard for people to believe that a man who could act so funny, so silly, so seemingly full of the enjoyment of life, could be so deeply depressed that he would take his own life. It's because he was so much a part of our lives that we all feel the loss, unlike with many others who have taken the same course of action.

I've seen so many comments on Facebook, discussions, sadness, even anger, misunderstandings, blame. Some people can't understand how someone who was rich and "had everything" could be unhappy. Why didn't he just "walk away"? Some can't fathom how he could do that to his wife and children, and think his act was cowardly and selfish. Some people who have struggled with depression can't figure out why Williams' couldn't tough it out like they have. Some have no sympathy for him, only for his family members left behind.

I understand where they are coming from, but depression is no respecter of wealth or position. Nor does someone like Williams do it "to" his family . . . more likely, he was just trying to escape his own deep misery and felt he had tried everything and failed. More likely he was in such a deep hole of hopelessness that he felt he had failed his family and they would be better off without him, if he was even able to consider them at the end.

None of us will ever know the depth of his struggle, how hard he fought to escape depression and addiction. Most of us will never know what it's like to feel so terrible that we try drugs and alcohol to "self-medicate" in an attempt to either feel better, or feel SOMETHING. My father said he felt "dead inside" for the two years before he took his life. Leif listened to a Johnny Cash song that said he hurt himself to see if he could still feel, not long before Leif took his life.

I think it's time we learned to be less judgmental and more compassionate, less angry and more understanding. Some people will be able to fight depression. Some will not. Just as some people can fight other illnesses and either be cured or manage the illness for a long time. Other people find no effective cure or die younger from the same disease. It's time we recognize that mental illness is as much an illness as a physical illness, and just as devastating. It's time to stop blaming those who suffer.

It's also time to have compassion for those left behind, those who every day of their lives will wonder if there's something they could have done to save their loved ones; those who will wonder every day of their lives what put them over the edge? The eternal question of "why" will haunt them. They will not only grieve as we all grieve when we lose a loved one, they will be tormented by questions that will remain unanswered.

So my hope is that all those who are blaming Williams for "taking the easy way out" or "taking the coward's way out," or for being "selfish," will keep their compassion for his family and extend it to him. We have not walked in his shoes.

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