The most asked and wholly unanswerable question following a suicide.
I asked that question almost four decades ago when my cousin Russ killed himself with a shotgun blast to the temple when he was 19. I didn’t know any better. I was only 17 and couldn’t imagine why anyone would take their own life.
I did not ask that question a few weeks ago when I heard about the suicide of Robin Williams.
You see, I’ve learned a great deal about chronic depression over the years, mostly from my younger sister, who has battled it since she was about 12. She was a lone warrior for many years, growing up in a family and a world where such things were not discussed openly.
Lord knows my parents tried to understand and eventually agreed to let her see a psychiatrist when she was 19. My father was a proud and private man and simply couldn’t process the idea of his daughter spilling her guts to a complete stranger.
A frantic phone call from my mother one afternoon telling him to hide his shotgun changed his mind.
I was tone deaf to her depression for so many years. When she bailed time and again on plans we had made because she couldn’t get out of bed, I took it personally and thought she was selfish and lazy.
A glimmer of light appeared one day on the phone when she said to me, “Addison, this would be easier for you to understand if I had cancer or a broken arm – something you could see.”
She was right and I can still choke on the shame and regret for my lack of compassion during that time in her life. But I did begin to “see” her illness through a very sober lens when she told me she was going to undergo ECT – electroconvulsive therapy – a “last resort” treatment where seizures are electrically induced to provide relief from among other things, major depression.
Yes, that got my attention in a big way. I had chilling visions of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and tried to imagine how desperate my sister must have felt to agree to undergo such an intense procedure – twice.
There was a period of a few years after that when the phone ringing late at night would stand me still. I knew it would be someone on the other end telling me that she had taken her own life.
Today, my sister says she is one of the “lucky” ones because in her late thirties, she was led to a psychiatrist who had done a lot of work around the connection between the thyroid and chronic depression. He put her on a drug combination that pulled her out of the abyss she had lived in for over 20 years.
She vividly recalls the overwhelming awe of experiencing what “normal” feels like after only a few days on the regimen. Is she living happily ever after? No, she still struggles not infrequently with bouts of depression, but she has not experienced suicidal depression since then. This may be as good as it gets for her, but she’ll take it.
My wife, a psychotherapist for over 25 years, explained to me that medication treatment for chronic depression is “like trying to hit a moving target” because what is effective today may not remain effective over the long term.
In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, my sister and I have had some long and insightful conversations about depression. His death rattled her to her core – that someone with all of his success and resources – could not survive his demons.
She’s told me some things I never knew before – like that her earliest memory of depression was when she was in the first grade. She didn’t have the language for it then but she just knew she was different and that she “wasn’t having fun like the other kids.”
My heart ached for the little red headed girl that loved Hello Kitty and Snoopy and followed her big sister around like a shadow.
She pulled out our cousin’s suicide letter and read it again. Our beloved Aunt Phyllis gave it to her many years ago, knowing that my sister might understand her son’s words in a way that the rest of us could not.
I read it again, too, this time with the wisdom of years and tears and I kept coming back to one line again and again. Russ wrote, “I am not actually seeking death but only an alternative to an unhappy life.”