You Couldn't Save Robin Williams. Neither Could I.

the aftermath of suicide. saving robin williams

Robin Williams' suicide was only preventable by him.

Understatement of the year time: well, that sucks. As you probably know, Robin Williams likely committed suicide by asphyxiation on August 11th. It's pointless to say what he's best known for because you haven't been living in the Cave Of No Media since 1978ish.

I don't pretend to know any more about Mr. Williams than you do. I know some people who performed improv with him at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre when he lived in New York a few years ago and the reports are about what you'd expect: friendly, justifiably willing to upstage fellow performers for a good laugh, gleefully in love with a live audience, some scuttlebutt about dating a 20-something-year-old performer. Nothing out of the ordinary for one of the biggest comedy stars on the planet. And you don't get into the second paragraph of an article about him without mentioning his addictions, stints in rehab, mania and depression. As I mentioned earlier, I don't know anything you don't about Robin Williams but I'm intimately familiar with out-of-the-blue suicide.

When I was 16, my "cousin" hung himself with an extension cord in my parents' garage. As the quote marks may have led you to believe, it's a complicated situation. Cousin was my uncle's former stepson. He worked for my dad. He lived in our basement. He had a hard to describe on-off romance with my oldest sister. He was one of my best friends despite a 20-plus year age difference. Were this a YA novel, that combination of facts may have raised a red flag and definitely strained credulity in a sophisticated reader's mind; but there goes the truth again out-strange-ing fiction.

Obviously, Cousin was a strange cat. He was handsome, drove a mini-van, wore Clark Kent-ish glasses and was a very talented mechanic/layman engineer. He was also viciously depressed. Like many male depressives, he could vacillate into other very strong emotions when he wasn't explicitly being understood. His alternate mode was anger which could swerve into petty cruelty given space to fester. He saw a professional for his problems but didn't seem particularly interested in a cure; he was interested in pharmaceuticals to wrangle the lows. Like all problems put just out of sight, eventually they become manifest and I've blamed myself for almost 20 years for not saving him.

We typically spent a few days with my grandparents in Florida during the holidays. This particular holiday season, my dad asked me to go back early with my sister and Cousin because he wanted to make sure that there was no friction between them. I may have an imperfect memory of this but I think my dad asked me to not let them be alone together. We made it back to the "bucolic" Atlanta suburbs without incident and I went to my dad's shop early the next morning to do unskilled labor; Cousin insisted he'd be along shortly. A couple of hours later, a family friend stopped by work to be there when my dad called to break the news.

Naturally, I did some semblance of the stages of grief tour. I've written letters and burned them. I've seen a therapist. I've meditated. I've read Alice Miller. Intellectually I know that there isn't much you can do to stop someone determined to kill themself but that hasn't stopped me from spending most of my adult life flagellating myself over what I could have done.

I think about Cousin five days a week (even morbid obsessions deserve the weekends off). As a person who has dealt with prolonged bouts of fairly painful depression, I've certainly fantasized about killing myself. I've never shaved my arm fur with a box cutter in a hot bath or anything as emo as that; however a mild preoccupation exists. While I hate Cousin for making this a thing I "have to" think about so often, his death may frankly have saved my life.

We categorically define suicide as deplorably selfish. After almost 20 years of constant rumination, I can't tell anymore. Our strongest instinct, possibly our only instinct, is to avoid pain. Maybe we're selfish to drag the suicidal through the broken glass-strewn hot asphalt of their misery when they just want it to end.

I'd like to think that people who kill themselves aren't cowards who are just too weak to try to save themselves. I'd like to think that people who kill themselves aren't dummies who can't comprehend "it'll probably get better." I'd like to think that people who kill themselves don't leave their corpses as a final "fuck you" to whomever may find them (though I guess I'll give begrudging props to anyone who doesn't leave behind a kitchen covered in blood and viscera or take their kids with them). I'd like to think people who kill themselves aren't necessarily cognizant that pain, like matter, cannot be destroyed but spread liberally amongst the people who care about them. I may be wrong though; assigning sober rationale to someone who is mentally ill is generally a waste of time.

Several years ago, I had a close friend who discussed suicide in eerily real language with me. In hindsight, it was a cry for help or an overreaction. I guess it's hard to tell at the time even in hindsight. That episode condensed a decade plus of guilt and shame into a gnarly cramp-inducing 48-hour crying ag. I'd like to think some of those hot tears may have melted some of the guilt off my soul but, again, I can't tell.

They say, especially with men, that people who are serious about it don't talk about it, they do it. Maybe a 48-hour hold can save a person who is experiencing particular acute psychosis or can't handle a large dose of mind-altering narcotics. Maybe given men's tendency towards impulsive violence, a good chat could stave off an act of self-destruction. Whatever the case, it's been a waste of my entire adult life blaming myself. As devastated as they are, I sincerely hope that Mr. Williams' loved ones (or anyone else who's been left behind thusly) don't let this tragedy become as definitive moment in their lives as I have. 

As an epilogue (life is full of connective tissue) I recall that the last movie I saw with Cousin was the Robin Williams vehicle Jumanji. It's a movie about a boy who was lost in an imaginary jungle and emerges as a man with a chance to rewrite his own history. Unfortunately, I'm not smart enough to come up with a metaphor for the gigantic spiders or naughty monkeys.

Image courtesy of IMDB