Bipolar Advantage

Being bipolar without disorder.

Robin Williams' Depression and Suicide

We need to change the way we see depression before it takes more lives.
Alex Lickerman, M.D.
This post is a response to The Six Reasons People Attempt Suicide by Alex Lickerman, M.D.


By Eva Rinaldi → Flickr
Robin Williams killed himself yesterday. I tried to kill myself August 8th of 2005 so I know perhaps a little bit about how he felt. My best friend Santiago killed himself in November 2005 so I also know what it feels like for those who are left behind to sort it out.

I have been contacted by several people since the news of Robin Williams' suicide. His action has brought up a lot of painful memories and they wanted to reach out and talk about it. I read this morning that Robin hanged himself and that's the same thing Santiago did, so I feel compelled to reach out too.

I have often heard that we should process the pain so that it eventually goes away. But I don't think it actually works that way. I think we become comfortable with the pain while it gets covered over by recent experiences, yet it remains for the rest of our lives.

When I got home from Santiago's funeral I made a recording of my feelings at the time. I posted on the internet but was afraid to listen to it myself. I listened to it just now and it brought me back to the feelings I had at the time. I remember thinking it was going to bring clarity to people but now I see that it was really a record of my own confusion.

I have thought of Santiago many times in the last nine years. I feel the pain just as strongly each time but as my understanding has grown I notice that it doesn't make me suffer as much. I now see the pain is a beautiful part of my love for him and hope that the pain never goes away. I am not being masochistic in this regard. I want to hold onto all of the feelings that my thoughts of Santiago bring out. Without the pain of loss I wouldn't be able to feel the pleasure of love as strongly either.

I've spent a lot of time today thinking about my own suicide attempt too. I remember it like it happened this morning and imagine it's the same for everyone else. The pain was so unbearable that I thought the only way out of it was to take my own life.

I was told at the time that I should avoid anything that would trigger such pain in hopes to never experience it again, but I don't think that's how it works either. I followed a different path and it has made all the difference.

Looking back on my life I could see that depression had come multiple times. Projecting into the future I could expect that it would likely come again. So instead of focusing on how to avoid it I decided to focus on how to understand it so deeply that it would no longer control me.

It was incredibly hard at first. Each time depression returned I found that my understanding didn't live up to my expectations. I suffered greatly, yet each time it became a little bit easier. After a few years of yearly episodes I find myself in a state that was every bit as deep as my suicide attempt yet I was no longer in danger. I had begun to understand depression in a way that I had not seen in anyone before.

As I became comfortable with depression and I started to see things in it that I had not noticed before. Depression changed from a dark and painful experience to one that was rich in detail. As my awareness of the details expanded so did my understanding of what to do with them.

While it was still incredibly painful I was no longer debilitated by it, I could function normally as if it was just another normal day.

And that's when things dramatically changed for me. No longer suffering and no longer in fear of another episode, which was caused by my lack of understanding, I started to explore depression at a far deeper level. I found insights in the experience they were previously not available to me.

I was inspired by a quote by Saint Teresa of Avila where she said “The pain is still there. It bothers me so little now I feel my soul is served by it.” I interpreted that to mean that if God is in everything we should be able to find Him in all states. This led me to find depression to be an ecstatic experience just as much as any other state.

As I started to share these insights with others, many of them felt the same now that the idea was presented to them. They began to understand depression in a much deeper way and are no longer suffering as much either. It doesn't happen overnight, but the more they pay attention to the state instead of trying to avoid it the easier it gets.

I wish I was able to help Robin, Santiago, and the millions of people we have lost to depression. But if I can help just one person it is worth all of the suffering I endured in the last 58 years.

Unfortunately, the current paradigm says that it's not possible to understand depression in a way that removes suffering and enhances functionality while still feeling the pain. Too many are attached to that paradigm and refused to even try. But the ranks of those who no longer suffer and can function during depressive states are growing and researchers are starting to take notice.

We may not all get to the point where we see ecstasy in depression, but deepening our understanding can help all of us to remove suffering and increase functionality. Many may still seek methods to avoid depression but when it does come, a deeper understanding can be the difference between life and death.

Tom Wootton founded Bipolar Advantage with the mission to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives.

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