Thursday, August 14, 2014

August 14 2014. The incredibly sad death of Robin Williams—and the issue of suicide. It has been all too common in my life.

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

John Adams

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.

Albert Camus

Perhaps the saddest irony of depression is that suicide happens when the patient gets a little better and can again function sufficiently.

Dick Cavett

They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice... that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.

Arthur Schopenhauer

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.

Mahatma Gandhi

I find it hard to think of humor where suicide is concerned, but the thought occurs to me that the above headline could suggest that I kill myself regularly.

Relax—I only do it occasionally.

Have I thought about it seriously? Yes, I have—though I find it hard to assess how serious I was. But let’s put it this way—I’m glad I don’t have ready access to lethal medications—the easiest way to do the deed. Yes, I know there are many options—and the one I personally prefer is the Ancient Roman method which involves slitting one’s wrists while in a hot bath. I have always loved having a hot bath so it would seem like a good place to die. Indeed, you could read while ex-sanguinating.

Reading in a bath is one of life’s great pleasure. Probably best to pick a short story.

I doubt very much I would ever hang myself. My first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN was inspired by my coming across a freshly hanged young man—and it affected me deeply. It still does. The feeling I remember most was the rush of compassion I felt when I caught the upper half of his body after a policeman cut him down. Someone else had caught the feet. I had deliberately opted for the upper half. I had found the body, so felt quite proprietorial about it.

For a moment I held him in my arms—suffused with an overwhelming desire to bring him back to life—an irrational aspiration if ever there was one. His neck was hideously elongated—and blood and mucous had spewed from his mouth. He was a repulsive mess and clearly very dead.

Nonetheless, he gave a loud groan as we laid him on the ground.

It was just the air from his lungs—but I have rarely been so startled or seen such fear.

Later, I told the coroner—as a reflex—that the body had been cold when I found it. The answer came out without thought—probably prompted by the numerous books I had read where dead bodies are frequently described as being cold (to emphasize the concept of death, I suppose). Did I correct myself? I can’t remember.

The reality was that the body wasn’t cold at all. The wrist I had felt had been warm. The victim had hanged himself—if that is really what happened—shortly before I had arrived. If I had started my walk earlier I might have arrived in time to save him—or to see the deed being done.

I am very, very glad I did not see the actual hanging. The consequences were bad enough.

That traumatic incident apart, suicide has touched my life directly on more occasions than I care to think about. In fact, it has taken place more than once in my own family. I don’t think I’ll give any more details. I used to keep track of the total number of suicides that I have known personally, but now I prefer not to think about it. It’s too upsetting. I do recall that the total was well into double figures.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard about Robin Williams—but—like many, I’m sure—I felt incredibly sad. Still, I understood. I have seen too much depression firsthand not to understand its power. It grips, it controls, it distorts, and it seems seems extraordinarily difficult to escape from. In fact, I have rarely encountered people who have managed to break free—despite state of the art meds and lengthy therapy. In the end, it kills.

Creative people seem to be particularly prone to suicide. I don’t know whether that is statistically true—but such is my impression. Certainly, most of the suicides I have known have had that background.

My first serious girlfriend, Liz Davis, a talented actress, killed herself. No, I was not the cause, I am relieved to say. In fact, she did the deed a good quarter of a century after we had been an item. She had ended up living with an uncle of mine—something that had blown my mind when I had fist heard—and then after he had died of Alzheimer's, she announced she was going to kill herself. He had been the love of her life—and she couldn’t live without him.

A number of us invested great efforts, over many months,  in trying to stop her. 

It made no difference. When she felt the time was right, she took a lethal doze of meds, drank most of bottle of spirits, and asphyxiated herself with a plastic bag. She was serious about the process—and entirely successful. She was yet another depression sufferer.

Like most people, I get depressed from time to time—and I certainly have a creative temperament—but, fortunately, I don’t suffer from depression. Or if I do—I’m unaware of the fact.

Writing is my medication, and I find it hard to think of a more powerful one. It’s so demanding that you really can’t remain feeling down. Instead, you are forced to focus on the all consuming activity of converting thoughts into words. The process has an energizing positive effect—even if you end up feeling exhausted.

My sense is that I’m very lucky. In other ways, I have the kind of mindset which could well make me a candidate for suicide. I think deeply, am concerned with world problems, lead a stressful life, and have experienced considerable tragedy.

On the other hand I have clear goals, a ferocious zest for life, and love what I do. I also walk—which is another uplifting activity. And I’m blessed with a profound sense of disrespect linked to an ever reliable sense of humor. On top of that I have exceptional friends—and they make all the difference. Sadly, they don’t seem to when serious depression is involved.

So if I’m found hanging, don’t believe I’ll have done it myself. It will be murder—and almost certainly an agent or publisher—or a member of the MICC (Military Industrial Congressional Complex). Go find the bastard and make him pay.

The last suicide I was involved with was Jo Curran’s tragic death in December 2010. She was the friend of a friend I helped to look after when she was dying of cancer. Instead of waiting for her condition to kill her while she was in acute pain and possibly paralyzed—the cancer was eating her spine—she decided to take matters into her own hands and kill herself under Washington State’s Death with Dignity Act.

Together with her daughter, I helped to hold her up while she drank the lethal dose—and then, together with a small group of friends—watched her until she finally died. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I felt it would be disrespectful if I did. I cried.

She died with considerable dignity—but I was still traumatized by the whole experience.

Though Jo retained her feisty sense of humor until the very last—and on the surface the occasion itself was surprisingly cheerful—it’s a terrible thing to see someone you have become fond of take their own life.

The most beautiful rainbow appeared after Jo died. She had that kind of spirit.

Rest well, Jo and Robin.



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