Note: I try to keep things here music-related. With the recent news of Robin Williams’s suicide and the national discussion I am hopeful will emerge, I’ve decided to share my personal experience with you. If you are suicidal or believe someone you know is, call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 or visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org today.
It has been impossible to escape the news of Robin Williams’s death and the outpouring of grief from friends and fans that’s seemingly engulfed the internet. I was a fan, albeit a rainy day one. Robin was a talented and charismatic man, a great actor, comedian and humanitarian. I am a child of the 80’s and for many of us, he was a cultural icon. I wish him all the peace he could not find in this life. I wish his family the courage and the quiet they will need to pick up the pieces. I hope they will someday feel a semblance of normality in their lives without him here. That is far from assured.
I am one of the many who’ve experienced the harsh aftermath of suicide in my family. I have seen depression and addiction erase life from the eyes of someone I loved dearly. I have been the frustrated and angry family member who wished my suffering loved one would stop being such a pain in the ass and just “be normal”. I have lived in the afterglow…pondered the many times I could have been more compassionate…wondered whether my family could ever feel whole again…wondered when “the turning point” was when everything became unsalvageable, when there was no looking back. I’ve seen my family ravaged with grief and guilt, anger and denial…unending heartbreak and sadness.
There is no loss quite like suicide. It is a curse on the lives of those who remain; a black hole of regret and longing. It crosses the borders of reason and emotion. It disobeys the order of things. My life has never been the same since the day I lost my Aunt Julie. Julie was an energetic and outgoing young woman when I entered this world. She was one of the brightest lights in my life. She was beautiful, she was intelligent and she had a deliciously wicked sense of humor. She didn’t laugh, she cackled. I called her “Joo Joo”.
As the years went by, she seemed to have it all. She married a smart and charismatic man, had a baby, moved away (to my great heartbreak), had two more babies, and finally settled in Virginia. She went to school, got a great education, entered the workforce, got a great job. She was financially secure. She was in control of her destiny. She seemed unstoppable. None of us could have imagined that just a few years later she would lose nearly everything. Divorced amid much acrimony, she battled alcoholism and depression. She came to stay with us for a week at one point and I could see that this creature was not the woman I remembered. I remember the agony of seeing someone I loved struggling to find value and meaning in themselves like it was yesterday. She went home to fight for her life back. But the battle did not go as expected.
As her depression and alcoholism escalated, she alienated her children. She alienated her family. She refused to admit what was painfully obvious to all of us: her problems, her illness, her disease, whatever you believe it is, were far beyond her control. By 2005, almost entirely broken, she moved back to the west coast to be with us again. And I’ll be honest…I was fucking terrified. Terrified of her illness, terrified of the affect it would have on the stability in my family, terrified to see with my own two eyes what was only reported to me before.
It was every bit as bad as I’d feared and worse. The Julie I knew and loved as a child, Joo Joo, was gone. The spark, the glimmer, had faded. My family was divided. Some could simply not tolerate the horrid behavior that was now thrust into their lives. Some could not look away. But none of us wished anything bad for her. The illness, the Great Sick, had simply overtaken her. There would be flashes of the glory we had all grown to forget. A sinister smile, usually after a well-timed joke at one of our expense…a reminiscence of the Grand Ol’ Days…they were lovely times but all were fleeting. All were soon replaced by the darkness.
And then…something remarkable happened.
As 2005 turned to 2006, Julie finally began to take control of her affairs again. She talked often of her family back in Virginia, of wanting to be near them again. She, very slowly but surely, regained a foothold in her own life. She heard of a job in Washington DC that she was qualified for and, at one time, would have been a shoe-in to get. She applied. None of us had any expectation that she would receive a job offer…until she did. Her professional reputation had withstood the test of time and her value was acknowledged. She excitedly prepared to move home, new hope and inspiration in her eyes. She was excited to see her daughters, hopeful that the past may someday be forgiven and determined to write a new chapter that all of them would be proud of.
Before she left, my family threw her a party to celebrate this new beginning. Her brothers and sister were there, even the few who had grown to detest her behavior so greatly over the last year made it. But there were a few people missing. I was missing. Much as I loved my Aunt, as much as I tried to understand, I was simply exhausted of her. I said I couldn’t go, I gave a reason. It was a lie. I didn’t even consider it. Being around Julie broke something inside of me. I was angry at the creature who’d replaced her. I was angry for the pain she caused. I was not ready to celebrate because I had very little hope that any change in her life could last.
It was the last time I could’ve spoken to her. It was the only opportunity I’d ever have to say goodbye or simply “I love you”. I would never see her or speak to her again.
Julie’s new life was a big topic of discussion on Thanksgiving Day, 2006. She had started her job and renewed contact with her oldest daughter, who would be joining her for dinner that night. She had called my mom and expressed hope that life could be truly different. It was an infectious feeling, I was excited listening to my mother talk about it. Optimism, nearly my enemy throughout this decade of grief, was starting to seem a little safer. I went home, I had a relaxing night.
I received a call the following afternoon. It was my mother. I answered “Hello?” and could hear her breathing heavily, in great distress. “Mom?”….”Mom what’s going on?”…”Mom are you ok?” She finally replied “Pat…it’s your…it’s Julie…she…” and then trailed off. More breathing, which I now realized was an effort to fight back tears. Suddenly, my father picked up the phone in the other room. His words will live in my mind the rest of my life. “Patrick, Julie shot herself last night. She’s dead.” A wave of shock and utter disbelief ripped through me. I couldn’t believe it was real. I had always feared this. I had always known it was possible. Probable, even. But I never believed it would happen. Somewhere inside I believed my Joo Joo, my Aunt, my friend would ultimately prevail.
12 hours later I was on a plane with my Mom to Virginia. 24 hours after that I was in Julie’s apartment, surveying the scene of her final night. I could see her path through the apartment, I could almost see her thoughts as they had unfolded. I held the enormous glass jar of wine she had consumed to herself that evening. I sat at her computer and looked for anything that could provide insight into her thinking. I got more insight than I could have imagined.
There were many half-written suicide notes on her computer, maybe a dozen, written as far back as 5 years prior. Almost all of them started the same. She had simply updated them every few weeks or months for years. None were complete. But one sentence changed everything about how I saw my Aunt, how I saw myself, how I saw suicide, addiction, and mental illness. “I’ve always known it would end like this.” To this day, as I type this, my eyes well with tears. This woman who I’d grown to resent, held in outright contempt for her inability to “get it together” and given up on, was in the deepest throes of depression and addiction. She had no hope. She dreamed of ending her life for many years before she finally did. Her illness had destroyed her reason, her ability to cope, and her ability to love, either herself or others. She was consumed by darkness, by the Great Sick, a living hell that I cannot fathom even to this day.
The years that followed were not kind. My family grieved…I questioned my humanity…I mourned the loss of my cousins’ innocence and the tremendous struggle they would have to endure as young women learning to live without their mother. It was their strength, not mine, that ultimately settled my heart. All three of them have become amazingly powerful, intelligent and compassionate women whom I admire and adore to no end. The knowledge that they have overcome that loss is the only thing that could bring me a measure of peace.
I don’t know what drove Robin Williams to commit suicide. I don’t know what could have been done to prevent it. What I do know is that there are millions of people on Earth, walking among us right now, who feel that there is no other answer. There are people who silently pray for the end to come every day that they open their eyes. Every night they go to sleep. Suicide feeds on loneliness, on mental illness, on addiction. It feasts on isolation. The only cure for this many-headed beast is compassion…kindness…and action. Anger and apathy only feed the divide.
If you are suicidal, call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 or visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org today. If you know someone who is depressed and may be suicidal, do not wait. Have the compassion to tell them you care and offer to help. No matter how difficult it may seem, put aside your pride or your fears of seeming “too dramatic” and step up today. There may not be a tomorrow.
Suicide is not an answer. There is always a better way. No depth of depression, angst, or addiction is untreatable.
Join the fight for suicide prevention.