Because I'm the Mom

How mothering pervades all relationships in life.

Whose Pain Wins? Did Robin Williams Have a Choice? Says Who?

"I'd love to kill myself. But I'm a Mom. I don't have that option," she wrote.

I keep reading people making the angry comment – nobody has the right to render any verdict or make any pronouncements, or to even say anything about the suicide of Robin Williams.

The idea, I guess, being that everything is judgmental or unknowing or unknowable and only he understood his truth. Or that only a select few who have been in some kind of higher, deeper, bleaker pain than the rest have a right to a seat at the suicide discussion table. I'm fascinated by our urgent impulse to create an order, a pain scale, out of this.

 Who wins in the Hierarchy of Pain?

I’m interested in the mindset of framing this in terms of 'rights.' And I resist - and wish everybody else would, too - the urge to create some kind of hierarchy of pain and suffering that only certain poor souls achieve. How do you measure pain? Why would we even try? Who wins at that? And isn’t it interesting that the impulse for so many is to grip tightly onto this special, super-secret club of those in this otherwise unknowable pain. I’m interested in that assumption.

Whose abyss is the blackest, bleakest, absolute worst?

Some folks are hyper consciously aware of having been to the abyss - whatever their personal abyss is. It may be chemical. It may be clinical. It may be both. It may be spiritual. It may be inevitable. They may have resources. Or none. Or somewhere in between. They may seem this way or that way. We can all project whatever we want onto movie 'stars' or barristas or whomever. It’s all stories we tell ourselves.

And yet, it's all stories we tell ourselves. It's all fiction.

Suffering is suffering. And there's the rub. Since there’s no real way to measure whose suffering is the suckiest of all, and since different folks make different choices about how they manage their suffering, we’re all left making up storylines about what really happened, what was felt, what was possible or impossible, what mattered, what meaning is there to be made of it.

Choice wars: Is suicide a choice? Is suicide selfish?

We make choices within our suffering - and we can argue about what real choices are there, or how can anyone facing this or that kind of abyss be considered to be making a choice at all? Who knows? Does intention matter or even count? What if midway through the leap a person wants to change his mind?

 “Suicide is a luxury. I’d love to kill myself. But I’m a Mom and I don’t have that option,” one commenter I saw posted.

I’ve seen this argument bubbling up, the idea that Robin Williams had more of a choice than, say, the mothers of his children – or many mothers of children – because Moms feel we don’t have that option. We may feel just as bleak, have our toes dangling over that very same abyss, but something pulls us back in because of our kids.

I know. Other folks will argue: No way! They must not be in the Really Big Suicide Pain because the fact that anything at all intervenes means they’re not in the true grip of this disease.

I find this idea compelling. Many of us know women, for example, who have suffered through unspeakable torment and who would certainly qualify for the Top Honors in the Pain Hierarchy. And they feel - if you could measure it on the pain-o-meter, the biggest-ticket kind of pain humans can endure. And boy, oh boy do they yearn to die, to sleep, perchance to sleep forever, to be relieved, to relieve their loved ones of their burden, to sink into the delicious abyss if I just did this one thing…. But they don't because they think of their kids and that's just the big-ass suicide buzzkill of all time.

Four times as many men commit suicide as women

So while I'd argue they feel just as tortured as say, someone who DOES kill himself, they have something else that kicks in. Maybe it's a choice. I can tell you it sure doesn't FEEL like a choice. To be a mother who wants to die but has this deal with herself that it's not on the table - the death exclusionary clause so many mothers have. Well, if it's a choice, it's a bitch of a choice within a choice.

I don't know what's selfish and what's not and I don't feel like it's useful or helpful of enlightening or compassionate to moralize. I guess there's a moral interpretation you might think I'm imposing - like - well, WE want to die, too, but we CAN'T cuz of our kids! It's just a different form of being trapped, as opposed of making a 'better' choice. I mean, it's empirically better than the alternative, but it doesn't feel better. In certain ways it must be liberating NOT to have to check off the - but I have kids - box when considering suicide. Or to believe they'll be better off, or to be so far deep in the abyss they don't even exist for you. Nothing but pain. I get that. Even in there, even in there, we all make different choices. Thought choices. Feelings choices. Action choices. You're still in there even when you are long, long gone. And maybe you'd argue, oh no you're not. YOU must never have reached that Ultimate Pain Source of All Pain levels because if you had you'd know you're NOT still there.

The place beyond the pain

There's a place after the pain. Beyond the pain. Where you're already dead and so the suicide is simply a confirmation, a physical, concrete enactment of your already being deadness. I get that. There is that place. That beyond so bad I'm already dead place. I don't want to talk or write about it but I want to simply acknowledge its existence and power.

So then what. Does it only mean you were in that kind of pain if you successfully kill yourself?

What if you don't even try. Ever. What about the non-attempters? Where are we in the hierarchy? Why am I even asking? Is it true that "only those who have reached their deepest limits can understand this" as folks keep saying? If they're your deepest limits and you reach them, you sit in them - for a minute or a month - and you somehow keep working and parenting and breathing - but you know where you are. YOU KNOW EXACTLY where you are. In your grief/pain zombie coma. You are still here. I think. dance with that pain, that already-dead pain abyss. Sometimes. It's too exhausting to spend too much time there. But enough. Time there. Then what? Are you - am I - less selfish? Is it simply the physical act that makes us mad? That it worked? That he didn't get caught and saved? That it worked?

I guess it’s about perspective – from which precipice we enter the conversation.

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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