Within hours of receiving the breaking news alert that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I commented to my sister that I wasn’t surprised, that I had sensed before I explicitly knew that he was depressed. I was at a loss to explain myself when she asked me why. A day later I spoke with a friend who has bipolar disorder and she immediately grasped where I was going with this. For her, the signal was that manic energy. For me, it was the freely associative quality of his genius. For both of us, these signals were intensely personal, because they were personal to us. It made terrifyingly perfect sense to simultaneously wish he hadn’t done it and forgive the impulse. I say “impulse” but the language is wrong; suicidal ideation, like depression, isn’t a fleeting sadness but a chronic, gnawing desire, a void in the gut that whispers and speaks by turns. The verbiage should be less about “battle” than Sisyphean endurance in the face of being slowly hollowed out. As others have stated, depression is the absence of feeling, the beast on your back sapping the meaning from everything, visible only to those who are similarly weighed down.
I’ve been mourning Robin Williams along with the rest of the world. I don’t want to rehash any of the pieces I’ve read, which alternately touch on suicide contagion; the Academy’s problematic tweet; the romantic notion of Pagliacci; the comforting narrative of depression (along with terminal illness) as something that can be “fought” or “battled”; the slow emptying-out of the word “depressed” itself, which is used interchangeably and wrongly with being sad. Instead, I’d like to address something I haven’t seen yet, which is the other comforting narrative that (re)productivity and accomplishment are enough to “defeat” depression, the implication being that if a (re)productive, accomplished individual is unable to pull themselves up from the dark place, they were too fragile for this world anyway, or else they were afflicted with some other disorder preventing them from recognizing that the answer to “What’s the point?” lay in their spouses, offspring, curriculum vitae. It’s a false narrative, linked to capitalism or social control or the biopolitical regulation of bodies, but ultimately it’s meaningless to the ones at which it’s aimed.
According to outsiders, I’m a productive (if not reproductive) individual. My summer has run like this: I passed my qualifying exams; I revitalized myself a little at Computers & Writing; I successfully taught two sections of writing in a summer bridge course at Columbia; I’m wrapping up an online course for Rutgers; I’ve stressed over insurance changes, job changes, medication changes, inventing new workarounds while living on the cusp of disability without being officially recognized as such; I’ve had flareups and been convinced that my heart muscle is actually tearing, gently, and I’ve just taught myself to ignore the pain, or I’m looking to avoid responsibility for the outcome. My interactions with my Columbia students suggest I’m a successful teacher, and if the tweets, cards, and emails are any indication then I have established a fanbase for life along with the hashtag #manivannanism. I have two pieces forthcoming, both solicited and awaiting my final confirmation, and both in highly visible arenas (The Fanzine and The New York Times‘ “Room for Debate”). I should be proud. I should be grateful. I should have a feeling that isn’t the absence of feeling.
The narrative that’s frequently imposed on me is one of overcoming, akin to the war metaphors applied to depression and chronic illness. The narratives of overcoming and productivity, replete with their problematic language, suggest that survival is desirable because it is agonistic and the victors are deserving. “But you’re in the top percentile of XYZ test. But you’re one of the top students in XYZ program. But you’re one of the most intelligent people I know. But you’re a good writer and you have so many stories left in you. Etc.” To sum, you’re a valuable member of society, and shame on you if you take that away from everyone else who stands to benefit.
I had a psychiatrist tell me once that there couldn’t be anything wrong with me because I spoke with such poise and I arrived in my professorial suit and tie. I looked so functional. I looked so productive. Why on earth would I ever harm myself, let alone consider suicide?
To cite one of my forthcoming pieces: “Is survival my punishment for having survived?”
I’ve avoided publicly reflecting on this subject, but the more creative work I publish, the more I realize it’s out there, saturating everything I do. Since high school, I’ve nodded along to the narratives linking victory over depression to becoming invested in productivity. I can say with ease now that it’s a false narrative linked to the social and political disciplining of bodies, but in high school all I grasped of it was that filling time could fill the void. I worked three retail jobs and took four college classes and I went home at night and there was the urge, unmaking my bed. Since productivity by way of education and consumer culture didn’t work, I wrote thousands of pages in my MFA program while the Sri Lankan war ended, and I convinced myself I made sense of my experiences, and I learned how to cope, but still, there was the urge, waiting with me on the subway platform, readying me to jump. I left my qualifying exams ready to quit something, be it the program, my writing, teaching, or the world, as the only proactive response to the void that had any shred of sanity. I can analyze it any way I want to with the tools I now have available. I can turn it into an anti-capitalist rant. There is no making sense of the the looming “What’s the point?” The problem is the void doesn’t close, however productive you are, however you fill the hours, the creature remains. There’s no ineffable solution, no objective Answer. There are quick-fixes. Workarounds. There are coping mechanisms that need to be discussed more, in the context of care and self-care rather than productivity, accomplishment, talent, doing battle with an enemy that can ostensibly be tamed.
We should try harder to recognize the language that tacitly attempts to shame depression and suicidal ideation away, that merely perpetuates the familiar stigmas and diminishes the desire to learn to seek help. (Note that I said “learn to.” Seeking help is not instinctive, which is perhaps another story for another post.) And we should trade counting CV items for publicizing concrete workarounds that are shortchanged because they are less than ideal in the public eye. Viewing self-injury photos to preclude doing it oneself. De-escalating through less permanent, less life-threatening forms of self-harm, ranging from rubber-bands snapped against the arms to immersing your hands in ice water to fingernails biting your palms. But this means viewing it as a less-than-heroic process, praising instead of hiding the sordid, lonely details of recovery, and accepting that, unlike the battle metaphor, there are no victors, and the process is permanently ongoing.
Robin Williams was prolific in almost everything he did. His free associations and energy made sense to me because I live there, too. The rhetoric around the aftermath is as familiar as the creature that lives with me. And we’re back to the same old story: there ought to be more narratives of self-care and instructions for daily coping, which can only exist if mainstream attitudes change. We only endorse what we fully approve of, and we only excuse what demands absolution. Depression and suicide still carry the familiar stigmas. I’ve taken as the title of this post a line from The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred’s refusal to further facilitate Bruce’s course of self-destruction. Aimed at Robin Williams, I’d like it to mean that his death will motivate us to confront the terrifying reality of suicide and the failed narratives around it. Aimed at myself, I’d like it to be a reminder that I shouldn’t have to suppress my feelings and that I also have to accept it as a process, and one that does not end with a funeral. It’s a reminder that his action makes perfect sense emotionally and no-sense logically and the two can never be reconciled; they shake hands with a strangling grip over the rift they’ve created and exist like that in an uneasy truce.
We bury depression all the time, and with it, the possibility of bodies to bury, too. Depression is not an agonistic test of an indomitable spirit. It’s continual endurance. When the coping mechanisms fail, it’s not a selfish or malicious choice. It’s the void having enervated everything. Today is a good day, and I can’t in good faith say there’s something to live for. What’s terrifying to me is that I read the news and the urge stirred. It always already could have been anyone; it always could be me.
Sometimes nothing works. Rather than misconceptualize and stigmatize depression further, let’s at least take the opportunity to alter our rhetoric and understand it as something that is not selfish, that cannot be won, that is a story of self-care and self-management that is hurt rather than helped by shaming narratives that say, you should be grateful, this is nothing, you’ve overcome so much, tomorrow is a better day. Tomorrow is a day like any other day. It’s an experience, not a battle, not a competition of productivity. Let’s please just accept that and make the connotations change.
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.