I’m a big fan of Henry Rollins. Growing up, thanks to an older brother who felt a duty to expose me to things other than radio pop, I listened to his music, his spoken word albums, and delighted when I saw him acting as well. I also had a wicked crush on him in junior high. He is someone I generally like. He wrote a blog post for LA Weekly about suicide that I want to respond to, and it seems more useful to do so here than to try to contact him directly or respond at the link.
You can go ahead and read it if you want (I don’t begrudge him or LA Weekly the hits) but I’ll be excerpting bits if you don’t feel up to it or don’t want to be exposed to more of his opinion than you must. I go back and forth between talking about him and to him, sorry, while I wrote I was just going with how it best felt to present each response.
Okay. So. He starts out a little befuddled about the reaction both among the press and the general public, then continues with an assertion of confusion about how it could happen.
When someone with this level of exposure dies in this way, it is confusing. An Oscar-winning actor, well-paid, with a career that most performers could only dream of — how could anyone so well regarded and seemingly fortunate have as much as even a single bad day, much less a life so unendurable that it has to be voluntarily voided?
Hank. You are a celebrity. Have you never had a bad day? I find this unlikely and your assertion hypocritical. You’re denying Robin Williams his humanity by expecting him to be content 100% of the time. Or at all, actually. How many people seek in vain for happiness, and you think that just because he’s known and has money he must have it? Does this mean poor unknowns can’t have happiness? I urge you to consider your words more carefully.
He goes on to say that he believe Williams to be a good man, but
But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.
Again I urge Henry to look at what he is saying and how he is saying it. Is the relationship between parents and their children more valuable than any other relationship? Does my brother’s relationship with his wife matter less than his relationship to my nephews? Is my love for those boys less because they’re not my children? Is the love between my brother and I less important because he’s not my dad or I’m not his mom? What about friends, are they less important because they didn’t come out of my womb? And yet people with spouses but no children, people with siblings, people with no blood relations but a lot of friends who are so close they’re family commit suicide too. Are you saying that it’s better for them to do so? That the loss of those people is less than the loss of parents? Because it’s not. The loss of any person is as terrible as any other. Even when terrible people die, that has an affect on people who knew them in some way. Hitler had a fiancée and briefly, a wife. You don’t think that if she had survived him she wouldn’t hurt as much as any other half of a relationship?
He continues, talking about his own experience with a depressed friend and how he can’t understand what she went through, or what anyone goes through, further noting that he “gets it but” doesn’t. Let me clarify for you, Henry-you don’t. If you haven’t experienced how depression changes you, and when I say you I mean Henry Rollins not a general “you,” then you don’t get it. You can’t. You can sympathise and empathise, but you can’t truly understand.
Then he says
When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of distain.[sic]
First off, I know you mean disdain, and I wouldn’t point it out at all if I didn’t see you as a person who has a strong respect for language and whose body of work is largely about communicating.
Secondly, this is bullshit.It’s a pretty common reaction (“suicide is the coward’s way out”) and I hate it. But I understand it, it’s a way to minimize your own pain by transforming it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t crap though. You seem to feel you weren’t really affected by Williams death (this is not spelled out in the essay but is implied in the beginning when you are confused about the nation mourning his death) but you obviously were. You see suicide as self-negation. Sometimes it is. Sometimes someone hates themself so much they literally murder themself. And self loathing is a part of almost any depressed person’s life (I can’t say all, because I don’t know every single depressed person, but all the people with depression that I know have at least a sliver of self loathing in their psyche) but most of the time, suicide is not an act of self-negation. It’s a desperate, last ditch effort to end pain.
The next paragraph goes on with
I no longer take this person seriously. I may be able to appreciate what he or she did artistically but it’s impossible to feel bad for them. Their life wasn’t cut short — it was purposely abandoned. It’s hard to feel bad when the person did what they wanted to. It sucks they are gone, of course, but it’s the decision they made. I have to respect it and move on.
This is a big contradiction. If you view them with disdain, that isn’t respecting their decision, thinking less of them for choosing it. You accept that it happened but not that they had a reason for making that decision and did not do so lightly. Yes, they did what they wanted to; they ended their pain. That doesn’t mean that the pain never existed, or that they never existed. It means they tried every other way to end it and none of those methods worked. I’m sure you’ve experienced emotional pain in your life, I don’t think you could produce any part of your large body of work without having experienced both pain and joy. However, you have not experienced depression, so you don’t know what it’s like. When you’re depressed, you have highs and lows like anyone else, but your lows often last longer and are much lower. Even when they aren’t lower, they are constant for months, sometimes years at a time. It’s sort of (and I stress that this metaphor is VERY loose) the emotional equivalent of a migraine. If you’re a migraine sufferer, you aren’t exempt from having non-migraine headaches too. Some sufferers even have constant headaches punctuated by severe migraine attacks, and I am modelling my metaphor on them. So when your depressed, good days are the ones where the pain is low enough that you can go to work, hang out with friends, get stuff done. Maybe not get everything done, maybe not do all the things you want, but you did a lot. Great days are the ones where you don’t have a headache at all. Bad days the pain is at or above 6 or 7 on the 1-10 pain scale that every migraineur (and anyone whose been to the ER for pain) knows very well. The worst days are the days when being conscious hurts so much it’s a 4 billion on the 1-10 scale. It’s so bad it’s off the charts. Your body is reacting to the pain. With an actual migraine whether it is just a bad one or one of the worst ones, you’re likely seeing things, vomiting, wishing you could die because the pain is so intense. This is common and generally accepted as part of living with migraines/migraineurs. With depression, it’s a loss of motivation, an inability to eat (or a tendency to eat your feelings so you don’t have to feel them), a desire to hurt yourself so you can feel a pain you can understand because your emotions don’t make sense to you or because you don’t feel any emotions at all and you want to make sure that some part of you isn’t numb, an inability to sleep, a tendency to sleep as much as possible, and to hurt so much you wish you could die because the pain or the absence of any emotion whatsoever is so unbearable.
Now obviously, you can understand those words and the sentences that they create. You can intellectually understand, or there would be no point to describing it. But you can’t understand how it feels to experience this. And that’s why your opinion on this doesn’t matter to me. I’m a suburban white girl, and I can have opinions on racism in Ferguson, but when a black person from Ferguson tells me how it is, I shut up and listen because they understand it better than I do. I hope you, too, choose to shut up and listen to those of us who understand depression better than you do.
Robin Williams didn’t die of suicide. He died of depression. An illness. He hung in there for 63 years. He fought his disease for as long as he could. If he had died of cancer, that wouldn’t make him less of a person. This doesn’t either.