I’ve posted before about how brilliant I think Andrew Solomon’s writing about having Depression is. He draws on this experience to try and offer some insight into the tragic suicide of Robin Williams.
“When the mass media report suicide stories, they almost always provide a “reason,” which seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination. Such rationalization is particularly common when it comes to the suicides of celebrities, because the idea that someone could be miserable despite great worldly success seems so unreasonable. Why would a person with so much of what the rest of us want choose to end his life? Since there are always things going awry in every life at every moment, the explanation industry usually tells us that the person had a disastrous marriage, or was a hopeless addict, or had just experienced a major career disaster, or was under the influence of a cult. But Robin Williams does not seem to have had any of these problems. Yes, he fought addiction, but he had been largely sober for quite a while. He was on his third marriage, but it appeared to be a happy one, and he seems to have been close to his children. His newest TV series was cancelled a few months ago, but his reputation as one of the great performers of our time remained untarnished. So he would have had little “reason” to commit suicide—as, indeed, most people who kill themselves have little “reason” other than depression (unipolar or bipolar), which is at the base of most suicide.”
I would second this. How someone with Depression thinks and acts can genuinely be baffling to people who don’t have the condition. Therefore the impulse to try to understand it is natural. However, it is probably not going to lead to anything as clear cut as a “reason” because irrationality is precisely what defines Depression.
When we see someone in distress it is reasonable to wonder what has caused this pain. However, the ordinary rules of cause and effect do not apply to them. What makes someone Depressed is that it no longer takes an event like losing a job, the end of a relationship or the passing of a relative to provoke intense melancholy. When you are in the diseases grip misplaced keys, a surly bus driver or just about anything life throws at you become enough to make you despair.
This is something that even people very familiar with Depression can struggle to grasp. In the depths of my own struggle with the condition, I was struck how often close friends would ask how I was and then follow up an answer like ‘miserable’ by asking ‘oh why?’ This presupposed I needed a particular reason for me to feel wretched.
Our habit of looking for such reasons is deeply ingrained. Our difficulty coping with the fact they may not be there is part of what makes Depression so confusing and scary both for sufferers and those who care about them.
So while it is clearly a step forward in terms of our respect for people with mental health that we have abandoned the language of ‘madness’ or ‘craziness’, we also lost something. Sufferers behaviour will often seem ‘mad’ generally because it is. After all they were being logical then they would not be sufferers at all.
P.S: both this post and Solomon’s piece were written before the revelation from William’s wife that he was in the early stages of Parkinson. I suppose this could be construed as ‘the reason’ he ended his life but I think Solomon’s point is that human’s are complex and that as such simple explanations like this generally miss the point.