Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Not a Cure for Depression

As a survivor of full-blown depression, I thought I should write something in relation to the death of actor Robin Williams. My first brother and I are old enough to have watched "Mork and Mindy" as kids, and my brother, were he still a kid, would have taken news of his death really hard.

I don't know how it was for Robin Williams, but depression has never removed my ability to make serious moral decisions. It has made me cry a lot, and feel like a huge failure, and to suddenly escape conversations at parties to fall dead asleep on the hostess's bed. It prevents me from bouncing back from disappointments all that easily, and it urges me to quit just about any difficult endeavour. And like tens of thousands of people, I take prescription anti-depressants. But the one and only time I ever said anything remotely suicidey--and it was at a really bad time--it was to my best friend who indirectly, and in the nicest way possible, i.e. by talking about another friend, told me she would never, ever forgive me or anyone she loved who did that. And I'm glad she did. It was the spine-stiffener I needed at a moment of moral weakness.

Depression is not an excuse for suicide, although suicide may come to look like the only way out if the depressed person isn't careful with their thoughts. Perhaps in some people's case depression so interferes with their moral freedom that they really aren't culpable of their self-murder. But I am not aware of myself ever being THAT sick, even at my loopiest. I have always known (A) that sudden death of a family member is absolute hell on the rest of the family and (B) that one suicide can lead to other suicides and (C) that things ALWAYS get better eventually and (D) that suicide is a mortal sin.

Now Father Ron Rolheiser writes in his syndicated column once a year every year to say that suicide is not necessarily a mortal sin, and we should not put away the photographs of our loved one's who commit suicide, but accept their suicide as the sad result of a bout of depression and celebrate their lives. I think the idea is that suicides have "lost their battle" with depression the same way cancer victims "lose their battle" with cancer. Instead of being shunned as murderers, as they once were, suicides are bathed in a heroic glow. And I can most definitely see the appeal of that, especially as someone who "battles depression" myself.

However, whenever I read Father R's annual suicide piece, I get the impression he is writing to us merely as family members and friends of suicides, not as potential suicides ourselves. In fact, I often wonder what the cumulative effect of Father R's suicide column might be, not on a grieving family member, but on an unhappy and trusting mind in a very bad moment. One way to read Father R is that he thinks we can just jump from this world straight into the arms of Jesus, for Jesus will never, ever let us fall. So why not jump?

I believe it is salutary to hope and pray that God forgives the serious sins of others while never assuming that he will forgive one's own serious sins without contrition, confession and penance. And I certainly hope that God will forgive the serious sins of Robin Williams (as I hope he will forgive the serious sins of Auntie Seraphic), particularly this shocking last one. Poor man. There may indeed have been a staggering lack of moral freedom in his case. Certainly he seems not to have taken comfort in the thought that at the age of 63 he had amassed an impressive catalog of life's work, had sired three children, had proven himself to be a great comedian and a good actor, and had touched the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

So there you have it. Like many other people, I am saddened that Robin Williams is dead, particularly because he killed himself. And as a fellow sufferer of depression, I understand that depression is a physical condition, not a moral failing, that attacks your grip on reality. But at the same time, I feel it necessary to state, for the sake of readers tempted to do what he did, and for their families, that suicide is a sin, and although we can hope and pray that God will forgive it in another, we can never assume God will forgive it in us. Although depression is not a moral failing in itself, and it may attack one's freedom to make moral decisions, one is not morally off the hook. You can say "No" to evil and "Yes" to good: it's just harder.

Update: I've just been talking with someone whose life was saved by some very tough talk from a dear friend. It really costs a lot for someone to tell someone they deeply love, "If you commit suicide, you will go to hell" and mean it. It is an incredibly compassionate thing to do, especially as it leaves the poor Christian vulnerable to accusations that he/she WANTS his/her beloved friend to go to hell. And thus the compassionate person is labelled a "judgemental" and "hateful" person--and he or she doesn't care, just so long as his or her beloved friend doesn't kill him or herself.

When someone commits suicide, they are sinning against everyone who loves them. How culpable they are when they do that can only be determined by their therapist, or the courts, or God. Those sinned against may do some serious mental gymnastics to excuse the person who hurt them for their sin. "I forgive you, I forgive you, may God forgive you," seems to me the most natural reaction of a panicked, grief-stricken Christian who still loves his or her loved one and hopes against hope the loved one is okay. The thought of a loved one being in hell is awful--intolerable! Indeed, there are people tortured by the idea of anyone at all in hell, and they find the easiest way to cope is to turn off their brain and pretend there isn't a hell after all. However, the authentic Catholic response is to pray for the dead, to do penance on their behalf and to hope, not assume, that God will have mercy on them. Turning off our brains and parroting "He's looking down from heaven smiling" and "He's at peace now" is a sin against reason, however comforting it might sound.

I don't think I am a cruel or insensitive person, and like anyone who suffers from depression, I think about depression and how to cure it a lot. It takes prevention, medication, all kinds of effort usually invisible to others. Depression is a common complaint; apparently one in four American women in their 40s and 50s take anti-depressants. Imagine if they all just ended it. What a bloodbath! Imagine if I just ended it. You regular readers would feel unsettled, hurt, angry, disappointed, betrayed. "How DARE she call herself Auntie Seraphic," you would harrumph, and rightly so. Let's not even imagine what my family would think, especially the little ones. I would rather suffer from a painful disease for forty years than hurt my little loved ones like that. My uncle's (natural if too-young) death when I was nine hurt my brother and me terribly, and I will never, ever forget my grandmother weeping through Mass that Christmas.

The fact is that "mental illness" does not necessarily make us adults as incapable of sin as three year old children. It's not a comfy moral place where we can do whatever we want, safe in the knowledge that our self-appointed nannies will scold anyone with the brass to "judge" us. Those of us who are catatonic or living in heightened states of irrational terror or anger, okay. Those of us who know what we are SUPPOSED to do to live normal, rational lives but from laziness or whatever do not do it are, however, culpable of sins of imprudence or whatever else. (That reminds me; I must take my pill. Gulp. Okay.)

Today I am annoyed not at suicides but at people who are getting high from their public expressions of compassion and approval for people who commit suicide and their scoldings of those who think suicide is a rotten thing to do. These nanny-types seem to think we are adding to the suffering of the suicide's loved ones, but if anything we are pointing out the real harm done to these loved ones and dreading any future suffering of the suicide. ("To die, to sleep - To sleep, perchance to dream," said Hamlet. "Ay, there's the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come...') Really, the only thing anyone can say to the loved ones without sounding like a twit is "I'm so sorry for your loss." But when talking generally about suicide, and its implications, I think it is best to use our reasoning faculties.

The whole world seems to be talking about the Robin Williams suicide (probably because suicide is such a contrast to his funny, life-giving persona), so the forces of intellect and truth are being forced once again to engage the army of cheap sentiment and woolly thinking.


Sheila said...

I think the sort of depression that actually leads to suicide must be a good deal more extreme than anything I've ever experienced. After all, the instinct to preserve one's life is one of the very strongest there is. It seems there MUST be some level of insanity to override this instinct.

I considered suicide as a teenager. (I wish I had considered solving some of my problems instead, it would have helped!) But all I had to do was think about how my mother would feel, and I was made quite ill by the thought that I had even *considered* it. I think most of us feel that way. If that doesn't do it, fear of death itself does. The mental state where these ideas *don't* stop you must be a very crazy place, and I hope never to go there.

It's hard to praise Robin Williams and speak well of him in death while at the same time not sounding like we're encouraging suicide. But it can be done, and I've seen it done a lot in the past two days. He *lost* a battle, and though maybe it isn't his fault that he lost it, it was definitely a defeat. When I heard he had died, I felt sad. When I heard it was suicide, I felt even sadder. I wish he had won the battle instead and lived.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Seraphic; this is a very difficult point to make and to present, and you did it! Thank you for the beautiful post.

Let's be sure, in all of our discussions of Robin Williams that we pay tribute to Life, and to Hope, to wonderfully irreplaceable inter-dependence of families and friends, to the awesome gift of free will, and to the mercy of God, as much as we recognise and pay tribute to his particular gifts as an actor and comic.


Seraphic said...

Thank you, Maria! It's a difficult stance to express, so I'm glad when it's understood in the spirit meant.

Anonymous said...

I too have struggled with depression and suicidal ideation. I had a friend in high school who killed himself, and I remember how utterly devastating his death was for his family. That experience lead me to conclude that it would be better for me to suffer for decades that inflict suffering on all my family and my friends.

But I think that as depressed as I was, I never lost hold of my rational faculties. I could make a kind of cost-benefit analysis, and I couldn't see how the uncertain benefit of ending my life outweighed the cost to my family. I think that for some people, depression robs them of their ability to reason.

A girl that I was close friends with in middle school killed herself. I only learned of her death a couple of years ago, when her mom sought me on Facebook because she was yearning for contact with her daughter's friends.

K had struggled with severe depression since she was a teenager. She kept it in check with antidepressants, but when she got married, she stopped taking her meds, which weren't safe for use during pregnancy. She was pregnant when she committed suicide. Her death devastated her devoted husband, her parents, and her sister.

I remember K as the kindest, sweetest, most moral eleven year I have ever met. I cannot believe that such a person would knowingly inflict such suffering on her loved ones. I have to believe that depression robbed her of her ability to see things clearly. Perhaps she really thought the baby was better off dead. Perhaps she really thought her husband would be happier a widower than married to her. Perhaps she thought that any hell would be preferable to the one in which she was living.


Seraphic said...

Poor woman. (And poor husband!) I certainly believe some people are so ill, they really are not to blame for their actions and they will not have to atone for them in the afterlife.

Seraphic said...

Some few people, that is. Not absolutely everyone who ever popped a pill.

Heather in Toronto said...

I agree that there is a world of difference between saying, "That poor troubled man, may the Lord have mercy on him and bring him peace," and just saying, "He's at peace now." The latter comes close to saying that suicide was indeed a good way to cure despair, which is very dangerous to the impressionable.

The coverage I saw on the morning news the day after his death seemed pretty appropriate. Several repetitions along the lines of if you are in distress PLEASE get help because there ARE better solutions than self-harm.

Sarah's story of K is so tragic. What a terrible scourge mental illness can be, and so difficult to treat effectively sometimes. Thank God that for most people at least it CAN be managed.

Lindsay said...

Robin Williams actually starred in a movie called "What Dreams May Come." I saw it before I was living as a Catholic, but I remember it being an interesting examination of a secular afterlife. In the movie, Williams's character and his two children die in a car crash, leaving the wife/mother alone. He wanders about a very colorful afterlife looking for his children, and eventually, his wife commits suicide. He is happy until his advisor of sorts tells him that people who commit suicide don't go to the same afterlife, so he won't get to see her. My memory is fuzzier on this point, but I think he pulls some strings or something so he can be with her anyway. It's interesting to think about considering his real-life death.

Seraphic said...

Okay, I did get a comment that I'm not posting. I sympathise with it; it's just that it's TMI from a searching Single. The internet is forever and my readers seem to recognise each other in the real world.

Seraphic said...

I'm still not publishing it. I have already stated that some poor souls are not culpable of the sin of suicide. They are just that sick. In some cases, only God can know for sure. In other cases, people clearly give into weakness or to escape earthly justice, etc., causing grief to their families and trauma to emergency service et alia.

It really is not a good idea to publish the painful details of serious mental illness on a blog popular in your religious community. You might not care now, but you might later. I have almost always suppressed comments that I thought might come back to bite the commentators. The ones time I didn't, I got a smirky email from a male reader about my "naughty" readers.