Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Hamster Wheel

Robin Williams is dead, evidently by his own hand.  I was never a big fan, and as time went on I got tired of the types of characters he played and the way he played them.  According to the first reports, Williams had been "battling depression" for a long time, and that may have had something to do with my Robin Williams fatigue: there was too little joy in his persona, too much struggle against the engulfing darkness.  I don't say that to blame him, understand, only to say what I found unappealing in his work.  It is of course terribly sad that he suffered so much for so long.  No one should have to go through that.

Leaving aside Williams as a person, because I know nothing about him as a person, it has been interesting to see what people have been saying about the force that evidently drove him to  take his life.  What I've seen shows how confused a concept "mental illness" is in ordinary discourse.  (And not only there.)  The first commentaries I saw stressed the importance of Getting Help: If you're experiencing depression, people wrote, Get Help!  All I know about Williams is what I read online, but it would be surprising if he never did seek help.  He was married and had a family, as a star he had a professional network of friends and coworkers and agents who would have known about his problem, and he would at least have been under considerable pressure to see a therapist and get medication.  I suspect that people who repeated the Get Help mantra weren't really talking about Williams, or even about people with clinical depression, but just saying what they needed to say, as others would have urged prayer and fasting.

So, for example, someone wrote in a comment thread:
i don't believe he truly intended to commit suicide ... he was in active treatment for severe depression and they were messing with his meds ... and we all know every psycho-med carries the danger of 'suicidal tendencies" during adjustment periods ... personally, i'm happy for him - he's free from all this bullsh*t here which is probably what contributed to his lifelong depression
I don't know how this person knew what treatment Williams was getting for his depression, but suppose it's true.  If so, then all the urging to Get Help seems like dubious advice.  It's known that "every psycho-med carries the danger of 'suicidal tendencies'", and not just during adjustment periods but throughout their use, but also that they are not much (if any) more effective than placebos over the long haul.  Williams did Get Help, but it didn't help him, didn't make the pain go away.

That last sentence is odd, though, isn't it?  If you believe that clinical depression is a medical condition, then it has nothing to do with "all this bulls*t here, which could not have "contributed to his lifelong depression."  His depression, like all clinical depression according to the psychiatric model, was the result of "chemical imbalance" in the brain, not of anything in Williams's life.  If he'd lived in the Garden of Eden before the fall, he'd still have been miserable.

So too, some other people wrote about their feeling that they could have saved Williams if they'd been there, that they would have seen his pain and let him know they loved him.  Perhaps he killed himself because people didn't show him how much they cared?  So, for example, a friend wrote:
There is nothing worse in life than feeling unwanted....... As we all mourn Robin Williams, I wonder if that is one thing in life that drives people over the edge - feeling all alone in the world, with nobody and nothing to live for. Because if there is a bridge, however tiny, to someone who cares or something that has a meaning, can one really make that one final, irreversible step?
Another person wrote:
And it's true. Depression will sneak up on you and when you least expect it, it will get the upper hand. Phone a friend or find someone when it get so hard.
If Robin Williams felt unwanted, it could hardly have been because people around him failed to let him know they cared.  I've known a few people who might have been clinically depressed, but who in any case couldn't or wouldn't believe that others loved them, despite the love and support they received from their friends and their family.  Again, I'm not making a moral judgment here: I've been depressed at times myself, and I know how impermeable those bad feelings are to the real world.  I've felt worthless and hopeless, and all the concern of people who respected and loved me couldn't get through.  In time those feelings passed, and I can't claim that it was because I suddenly realized that I was loved and respected; I don't know why they passed, so I'm not bragging any more than I'm condemning Robin Williams, or the friends I've known who were trapped for whatever reason in the sealed glass jar of depression.  This doesn't mean we needn't love and support others, or that they needn't love and support us; it means that a failure to build bridges was not the cause of Robin Williams's suicide.

The point is that it's worse than useless to blame other people for Williams's suicide if he was, in fact, clinically depressed: it's morally (and medically, for that matter) wrong.  In the first place, everyone has failed someone else at some point in their life.  That includes Robin Williams and the legions of other depressed people.  Demanding that everyone be perfectly, self-denyingly supportive of other people at all times is a hopeless counsel, because it's impossible.  I learned this from Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur, by the way: no one can meet another person's every need and wish.  (Have you never met someone who blamed you for failing to know what they wanted, presumably by reading their mind?  No, I didn't say anything about it, but you should have known!  If you don't know, I'm certainly not going to tell you!)  Dinnerstein was writing about children in relation to their mothers, but I think this generalizes to adults.  Demanding total self-sacrificing service to others a great way to foster guilt, if that's what you want to do, but 1) it's not what I want to do, and 2) it won't work, because the demand is impossible to satisfy.

I've noticed this before, and it's ironic: both the medical model and the touchy-feely Culture of Therapy claim to suspend judgment, but they don't in fact do so.  Especially the Culture of Therapy is built around blaming people, both the victims (who clearly don't love themselves enough) and those around them (who failed to be perfect egoless mommies).  Robin Williams killed himself because he didn't Get Help, or didn't believe in the love of others, or because others didn't love him, and left him to suffer.  That his pain had nothing to do with him as a person, or with the failings of his family and friends, is not really acceptable; it must be someone's fault.  (Not God's, though -- God isn't responsible for anything.)

And let's not forget that in much mourning there is great anger at the deceased for going away.  That anger lurks under the blame in Williams's case, you don't have to dig very far to find it. As in this monumental declaration:
Depression can go fuck itself.
We loved him, but he didn't listen to us!  He didn't Get Help!  Other people didn't love him enough!  He felt unloved, like he was the only person in the world, because other people didn't build bridges to him!  We have to find somebody to blame!  Bad wicked Depression did it!  He went away and left us!  Depression took him away from us!

There's also a denial of death in this, as in so much mourning.  Everyone dies, but most people talk (at least some of the time) as if death is not inevitable.  A suicide like Williams's complicates the matter, because it was not inevitable that he die at that moment; he chose it.  (Couldn't that be seen, contrary to the person I quoted above, as Williams making his own decision to end his suffering?  Who is making these decisions?)  But people react just as unrealistically to 'natural' death.  It might be magnified in the case of a celebrity like Williams, whom millions thought they knew and loved without ever having met him.  I've seen several posts where once again, lines that were written by others for him to speak onscreen are ascribed to him.  Even if by performing he identified himself with his roles, even if he took a kind of responsibility for them in that way, this confusion of the player with the play is troubling.  We love you, Robin! but love based on a projected image isn't really love.  It's about what the other represents for us in our fantasies, regardless of his or her own feelings or needs.