I’ve wasted two days bouncing a topic around in my head, but never committing it to physical reality, but here goes nothing.
For the last couple of days, I’ve had a blog topic rattling around inside my head, but I just wasn’t ready to put the words on the screen, but the time for false delicacy has passed. The truth is, Robin Williams has been on my mind quite a bit. It’s true that I pretty much love everything he’s ever done, since Mork and Mindy and a stand up routine he did for HBO. But the reason he’s taken up residence inside my head really has little to do with his career, and more to do with how and why he chose to leave the stage.
Like both of my parents, Mr. Williams chose the time and day when he would take his last bow and exit, very quietly, stage right. No amount of intervention or suicide prevention hotlines could have, in my opinion, made a difference for Robin, my mom or my dad. Before you decide that I’m being fatalistic and harsh, hear me out.
When I first began writing about my parents’ suicides and the impact it had on me, I did a bit of research into the statistics. What I found at the time was that there were significantly more successful adult suicides than teen suicides. One of the explanations given at the time was that when an adult decides to end their life, they are more certain that it is the right decision, and as such, use methods which are not only more likely to be successful, but wait until there won’t be anyone around to stop them, or interrupt the process of dying before it is complete.
The next part will be a little graphic, so if you’re sensitive, you might want to stop reading now.
Cases in point: My mom waited until my dad had left for work before taking a handful of pills and securing a plastic bag round her head. My father wasn’t expected to be anywhere the day he smoked one last cigarette before sticking a pistol in his mouth. And Robin Williams waited until his wife was gone before putting that belt around his neck.
What I’m saying is that all three of them, and tens of thousands like them every year were simply ready to go and didn’t want to take the chance that someone who loved them would do their best to convince them that they really needed to stay around for a few more years. The truth is, they, like so many others, knew exactly what they were doing, why they were doing it and that the work they’d come here to do was complete, or as close to it as they could get.
I am so grateful that my parents were simple people who never sought the spotlight.
As I see posts and news reports about Robin Williams’ family, my heart goes out to them, but I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. My grieving may have been very lonely and took a lot longer than it might have, but I’ve been given the space and time to work my way through it without having it thrown in my face repeatedly. Certainly, people mean well, but I’m not sure how I would have handled the constant public reminders while I was sorting through the morass of emotions through which I waded both when mom died and again, ten years later when dad made his own decision.
I have long held my own theory with regard to the statistics of suicide and those thoughts were echoed in an article Tony Dokoupil wrote for Newsweek’s May 22, 2013 edition in which he states:
And this assumes we can even rely on the official data. Many researchers believe it’s a dramatic undercount, a function of fewer autopsies and more deaths by poison and pills, where intention is hard to detect. Ian Rockett of West Virginia University thinks the true rate is at least 30 percent higher, which would make suicide three times more common than murder. Last fall the World Health Organization estimated that “global rates” of suicide are up 60 percent since World War II. And none of this includes the pestilence of suicidal behavior, the thoughts and plans that slowly eat away at people, the corrosive social cost of 25 attempts for every one official death.
Not to mention those who poison themselves slowly with alcohol. I also found that the “25 attempts for every one official death” is a bit skewed because younger people tend to have more unsuccessful attempts and older people tend to, if you’ll pardon the expression, get it right the first time. Mr. Dokoupil actually supports this theory when he says:
In America in the last decade, the suicide rate has declined among teens and people in their early 20s, and it’s also down or stable for the elderly. Almost the entire rise—as both the new CDC and GBD numbers show—is driven by changes in a single band of people, a demographic once living a happy life atop the human ziggurat: men and women 45 to 64, essentially baby boomers and their international peers in the developed world.
However, I think the quote from this article which most strongly resonated with me was from Dr. Thomas Joiner who also lost his father unexpectedly to suicide:
It’s not painless or easy, like pulling the fire alarm to get out of math class. It takes “a kind of courage,” says Joiner, “a fearless endurance” that’s not laudable, but certainly not weak or impulsive. On the contrary, he says, suicide takes a slow habituation to pain, a numbness to violence. He points to that heightened suicide risk shared by athletes, doctors, prostitutes, and bulimics, among others—anybody with a history of tamping down the body’s instinct to scream, which goes a long way to unlocking the riddle of military suicides.
One thing I’ve never believed of either of my parents was that they were cowards. Indeed, I have always believed that despite the result, they showed an incredible courage in not only choosing to leave those they loved behind, but to ensure that there would be no going back, no lingering, and no distraught family members hovering at their bedside hoping for a miracle, because there would be no lingering, no hope for recovery. They would be gone and would leave us with the task of grieving and of closing the final chapter on their lives. If you’ve ever watched someone who spends days, weeks, months watching a loved one wither away from cancer, you know that committing suicide is truly an act of compassion and courage.
Don’t take this to mean that I advocate suicide or believe it is the answer to everyone’s ills
This is not a treatise advocating self-harm in any way, shape or form. It is, instead, my own point of view in both trying to understand the whys, but also to recognize that the pat answer of “depression” is, in and of itself, not the entire picture, nor should the family of someone who chooses to end their life be forever stigmatized and even blamed for not being able to see the future and stay the hand of their parent, child or lover. Their lives never were and never will be in our hands.
I’m going to close this rather lengthy post with a final quote from Dr. Joiner because, frankly, I just couldn’t say it any better myself. (on a side note, the three variables he mentions are depicted in this diagram)
These days, Joiner’s thoughts have shifted toward prevention. If he’s right about suicide, the ability to foil one of the three variables is the ability to save a life. Smart clinicians can do it, but it’s not easy to get people into treatment. There’s the cost, for one thing, but more than that, there’s the shame and the stigma. Suicide is the rare killer that fails to inspire celebrity PSAs, 5K fun runs, and shiny new university centers for study and treatment. That has to change, says Joiner. “We need to get it in our heads that suicide is not easy, painless, cowardly, selfish, vengeful, self-masterful, or rash,” he says. “And once we get all that in our heads at last, we need to let it lead our hearts.”
Even more than usual, I beg your indulgence as I share my gratitudes for this evening.
1. I am grateful that there are those who are working diligently to alter the perception of suicide.
2. I am grateful for the years I’ve had and the writing I’ve done which have given me both perspective and compassion for the decisions my parents made.
3. I am grateful for the challenges with which I’ve been presented to allow me to learn both compassion and kindness and to make me see that crawling into a hole and feeling sorry for myself is not the way to make the world a better place.
4. I am grateful for my friends and those few family members who have been there for me in the years since my mom’s suicide and for all that occurred in the years since, helping me feel untainted and in fact, blessed by the lessons I’ve learned from my experiences. Also for those who willingly shared their own experiences and feelings with me.
5. I am grateful for abundance: understanding, compassion, kindness, caring, love, joy, friendship, inspiration, peace, harmony, health (mental, physical, energetic and emotional) and prosperity.
And now for some shameless self-promotion:
I’d love it if you’d visit my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SheriLevensteinConawayAuthor?ref=aymt_homepage_panel and my website, http://www.shericonaway.com. I’ve created these pages as a means of positive affirmation and would be very grateful if you’d “like” them or leave a comment! Thank you!
Attribution added April 18, 2016
While discussing the topic of suicide in one of my Facebook groups, I realized I’d forgotten to link the article used. In re-locating it, I discovered they’ve added more photographs of famous suicide victims and additional material since I last visited the Newsweek site. If you’d like to read the original article, you can read about Dr. Joiner’s Theory of Suicide here