Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Addiction, Depression, Suicide - Thoughts on the Suicide of Robin Williams

The untimely death of Robin Williams has forced many of us to ponder some nasty realities.  Amidst the numerous tributes and expressions of condolence (as well as the ugly political opportunism by some right-wing folks, including some typically thoughtless and cynical remarks by Rush Limbaugh), there have been some posts that actually offer some worthwhile things to ponder.  They have stimulated this blog.

Addiction to various substances (alcohol, addictive drugs) and behaviors (gambling) is an awful thing to experience when it happens to close friends and family.  If you haven't experienced this first hand, it's likely very difficult to understand.  A friend of mine said his experiences with his family member left him feeling completely powerless to know what to say or do that would cause the addicted person to get off the self-destructive path they're on.  Unfortunately, it's not up to us to change their behavior - it's in their hands.  They have to want to get over their dependence on the behavior so badly, they'll do whatever it takes.  I dislike 12-step programs that say the victims are powerless in the face of their addiction.  That's ultimately self-defeating and in many cases is often just an excuse to push religion on addicts.  But by no means do I want to diminish the power of addiction.  If addicts can't break the grip of their behavior, it's not necessarily a sign of weakness - it's a sign of how powerful the grip of these addictions can be.  Solutions to the problem of addictions remain elusive. Why do people feel the need to escape from the world via their addictions?  I suppose the reasons are many and varied, but the typical result is that their behavior makes their self-esteem fall still farther in a nasty positive feedback loop that can end in total disaster and death.  Friends and family may only be able to look on in horror as this downward spiral unfolds.  In my circles, there are several such situations that have gone on and are still ongoing.  The friends and family members likely need support as much as the addict!

The war on drugs is just as ineffective and counterproductive as was prohibition of alcohol.  As I see it, you can't solve this problem at the supply end.  If you remove one supplier, there are dozens willing to take that place, because there's so much profit in it.  The path to a solution has to be at the demand end.  How can we keep people from abusing certain behaviors that in and of themselves are not necessarily destructive?  I wish I knew.  I wish someone knew.  Rather than waging war on the supply side, and jailing people for their addictions, we should be using our resources to do the research into the challenge of preventing people from self-destructive behaviors on the demand side.

Depression and addiction aren't always associated, but depression apparently often leads to the sort of need to escape reality that addicts seek.  Not all those who are depressed are addicts of one type or another, but their suffering is real and often in silence - until it's too late.  There are many causes for depression - it can be a fatal illness, sadly.  Those suffering from depression in its many forms, including bipolar disorders, desperately need support but may shun the very people who could help the most.  Frankly, it's depressing to consider depression!  But if we can't face the issue, and it's as widespread as it seems to be, then we won't ever find a solution and tragedy will continue.

And of course, depression often leads to suicide attempts.  I've known people who have committed suicide and those of us left behind struggle to understand why someone we know and love would cause us so much pain.  We ask "Why?" "What could I have done to prevent this?"  Suicide ends the pain for the person who kills him/herself, but the pain goes on and on for the friends and family, who often struggle with their guilt over what they could have or should have done to stop this tragedy.  Thus, suicide is a selfish act, but for the person seeking to end their own personal pain, it seems there as if there's no other way for them.  There's no point to casting blame on the person who committed the suicide, but it's easy to understand the agony and even anger on the part of those left behind.  I don't pretend to know why a popular and successful public figure commits suicide - it seems all too common.  Wealth and fame aren't always good things, I guess.  Some of those left behind become so depressed over the suicide of a beloved friend or family member, they also give in to their pain.  Again, I can't pretend to have any solutions, but suicide always is an occasion on which survivors are forced to reflect.

What's the meaning of a life?  I've written about that here and here, but I can't claim any particularly satisfying or deep insight.  I know that as I get older, every year I lose more friends and family.  What I'm left with is their legacy:  the things they accomplished during their lives, the humanity we shared, the joys and sorrows we experienced together.  I don't believe in some cosmic purpose for life, so I see the search for that to be futile and not worth the effort.  If there's any meaning to our lives, it's how we go about creating a meaning for us as individuals through our friends and family, our professional work, our charity, our giving back for the blessings we have, and so on.  If the suicide of Robin Williams is to have any positive outcome, it will be the people moved by it to give something back to humanity for the gift of their lives.  I'm convinced we help ourselves the most when we push our "selves" to the back burner and seek to use our abilities and learned skills for the benefit of as many as possible.