Sunday, August 17, 2014

Depression, suicide ... it's all just sad

       When we first moved to Fort Worth, to the TCU area, one of our neighbors was a single father with a teenage son. The boy was quiet, shy, reticent really; he rarely spoke -- even when I joined him and his dad throwing a football behind their apartment.
       He seemed troubled, I thought. A year later, after they'd moved, I knew for sure.
       The boy's photo appeared in the Star-Telegram obituary section one day. There was a brief story nearby -- the 13-year-old had shot himself.
       Counselors had been brought in to talk to the kids at the neighborhood middle school he attended.
       We were shocked, of course ... but not all that surprised.
       I know some people whose deaths were by suicide. An orthopedic surgeon/team doctor -- a very good athlete when he was younger and even in his mid-30s; a couple of terrific coaches and friends, one cancer-stricken, the other with an Alzheimer's-stricken wife, both in their 60s when they died by their own hand; a sports-desk copy editor I worked alongside, smart and upbeat.
My favorite Robin Williams appearance: The next-to-last
Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, May 21, 1992.
       Good people, all of them. I remember the shock of their deaths, and the surprise and sadness I felt.
       Sure, I could give you the names. Many of my friends know them. But the names aren't important here; the cause of their death -- and how we feel about it -- is.
       The news about Robin Williams and the subsequent stories about the circumstances of his death and of his mental and physical problems touched off a national conversation and renewed awareness of mental illness, long-term or short, or of someone not being able to cope with the circumstances.
       How many athletes and movie/television stars, and other prominent folks have gone that way, some of them recently? How many people do you know who took their own lives? And how did you feel about it?
        So here's my take on it; this is what we in Shreveport Journal sports in the mid-1980s used to call the "two cents factor" -- this is my two cents' worth.
         I am taken back and, frankly, bothered by the Facebook posts I've seen which refer to suicide as "cowardly" and "taking the easy way out." I felt that way a long time ago, and then when my friends took their own lives, I changed my thinking.
         I think it's too judgmental; we just can't read that person's mind; we can't walk in their shoes. Everyone has a choice about their own life, even the choice on how it ends.
          What I believe we need here is not criticism, but sympathy, understanding. The overwhelming sense I have about suicide is sadness -- for the person, for their families. Sometimes, when people are old and sick and their quality of life is practically nonexistent, suicide is merciful. (Yes, that's the case for permitted euthenasia.)
         And there is an exception: The cases when a person the world has judged to be criminal, end their own lives. That's merciful, too ... for the rest of us. That's my opinion.
         You might not agree. I've talked to a couple of friends who don't. I understand the critical viewpoint; I understand some of it is religious-based or one's view on social issues. Some people don't think it's fair for the families left to grieve.
          Here's what I can tell you: I've seen depression.
          I've seen it in the home I grew up in. It was never clinically diagnosed, but it was there. Certainly there were good reasons for it. But when you are young, and one of the two people you most depend on is -- at times -- out of control and, let's be honest, out of their right mind, you are affected. It is unsettling.
           And I've seen it in the mirror. When I was a much younger man, I felt it. I really didn't know where I was going, what was next in my life. Marriage and children supressed those feelings, but there were times when I made major mistakes in my life that I had those old thoughts of uncertainty and, yes, despair. Sometimes I was out of my right mind (why are my friends not surprised by this?).
             My wife had a couple of those times, too -- before and after our marriage -- and I have a close friend who went through a tough time years ago.
             So I think about my friends dealing with cancer or with Alzheimer's, or with other mental and physical problems, and I just empathize. Suffering is part of the human condition, and we all must judge how much suffering we can -- or must -- handle.
              I think about those friends I listed above, and how much they gave us -- in medicine, or coaching, or newspapers -- before they chose to end their lives. I think about Robin Williams and I'm grateful, I think we all are, about all the wonderful movies and TV shows he gave us, all the laughs, the serious acting by this seemingly always-on personality.
              How could you not be a Robin Williams fan? He was so quick, so smart, so wild, so crazy, so charitable, so funny. And, yes, so troubled -- but he owned up to that ... until this terrible ending.
              I think about that teenage boy who lived next door; that maybe he never got the help/treatment he needed or if he got the help, it just did not make a difference.
              Mostly, when I think about suicide, I think about what my mother always said about her father, my grandfather, a personable, self-educated man. If he had known, my mother insisted, what the Germans/Nazis were going to do to him and his family, he would have found a way to end his life and save the misery of what was to come.
               But he didn't know. He didn't have to make that final call; it was made for him.
               So I'm not going to judge anyone who deals with depression; it's their battle; I don't think they choose to be depressed. And if they decide suicide is the answer, it's their choice. It's not ours.
              The bottom line, as I've said, it's just sad.


  1. From Jim Oakes: Your blog is right on target. As someone who has seen the terrible effects of depression, I applaud you for what you have written. ... I [learned] that depression is like cancer or any other disease and should be treated by the public that way. No one chooses to be depressed. It is a mental illness that can strike in any home. Thankfully, there are treatments that can help and even provide cures.
    There certainly needs to more understanding about mental illness and sympathy for those who suffer from it along with their families.
    Great column.

  2. From Matt Hayes: I’ve meant to tell you this. I really enjoy your writing. I like the way you develop and flesh out thoughts (don’t agree with all of them), and how you let people into your soul. It’s not often that writers can do that and it seem genuine.

  3. From Dusty Schwab: Very good read in your blog today. I agree it's just sad. I used to think like you, it was the easy way out. But when you're depressed you lose all feeling of what's right and wrong. You lose your right mind, as you wrote.

  4. From Tim Looney: Very sad. It's impossible to know what goes through someone's mind.

  5. From Kirby Ramsey: A very thought-provoking blog. Depression came to live with my family when my father died in 1964 and actually never left. It is not the same as "feeling down" or "the blues." It is a much deeper emotional place. Wiley Hilburn who wrote a column for the Ruston Daily Leader, The News-Star of Monroe, and The Shreveport Times wrote about the depression that he had experienced. He described it as "The Day of the Black Dog." It was perhaps one of the best essays on depression that I have read. Thanks for your very poignant article on a very serious and very pervasive medical condition.

  6. From Sandi Atkinson: Thank you for this article. ... I am a strong proponent of mental health being a part of a whole person. I have known two people that committed suicide and I didn’t see the signs. That bothered me. ... It’s not always like your neighbor’s son. Sometimes, like Robin Williams, we hide behind our funny masks. His death struck me very close to home.

  7. From Jimmy Russell: You said a lot in this. I think so many times if the person who is depressed KNEW that someone cared and would help them, it would maybe save some of these instances from happening.

  8. From Sylvia Pesek: Excellent piece. I've lost SO many friends to depression, whether chronic or episodic, such as that suffered by those with bipolar disorder.
    Everyone's brain chemistry is unique to that person, and we need to fund MUCH, MUCH more research into the underlying chemical imbalances that are implicated in various types of mental illness. I can envision a day when mental illness might be treated much as diabetes has come to be, with an implant monitoring blood levels of the hormones and other biochemicals that regulate moods. When an imbalance was detected, the monitor could trigger the release of the appropriate hormones in order to help reestablish proper levels and recreate a healthy balance.
    Also, I think it should come as no huge surprise that while there is a distinct difference between sadness, grief, even anguish, and true depression, there ARE some events that are so traumatic that they permanently change one's brain chemistry.
    Again, terrific piece. Those who suffer from what Churchill called the "black dog" of depression have more than my sympathy. They have my blessing when they decide that "enough is enough." But I do so vehemently wish we could get on with the research.

  9. From Larry Feazel: Until one has experienced depression, and I'm not talking about hormonal or biorythumic, but the kind that creeps in and slowly overtakes you into a hoplessness of a prison, one can't truly understand it. It doesn't come by a sovereign choice and it does not leave by a sovereign choice. It leaves one's mind out of the loop ... It is almost like mental rape. Life's lens of perspective is like looking through a pair binoculars backward. Depression actually means to be put down, as to death.