Image courtesy of the Guardian Liberty Voice
As I write this, seemingly the world but certainly much of the country is mourning the death of the incredibly talented and comedically brilliant Robin Williams, possibly from suicide, according to the Tiburon sheriff.
With everyone and his brother–including me on Facebook–eulogizing Williams, I’m not going waste time on that. Instead, I wanted to talk about the manner of his death, and a tiny little bit about the nature of his disease.
Now, I am not and never have been particularly suicidal. I’m too arrogant and self-interested, and obnoxiously believe the world is generally a better place with me in it than without me. But there was a time when I did, quite seriously, consider killing myself, and I’ll never forget it.
I suffer from chronic neck pain, a condition I’ve written about once or twice in various blogs here and there. In my mid-30s, I was out skeet-shooting with my father-in-law and exacerbated a design flaw in my neck–my spinal column is very narrow up in the cervical area–causing a disk to bulge into my spinal cord, crushing some nerves and causing me immense pain. And when I say “immense”, this is not typical Doug hyperbole; this is the kind of pain so intense that 12 Vicodin a day not only did not make me sleepy, but only controlled the agony sufficiently enough for me to minimally function. I would wake at 3am in pain in advance of my 4am dose; I drove my car one-handed, the other propped painfully on the arm rest. Etc. It was unbelievable. “Worse than labor pains, I’m told!” my orthopedic surgeon cheerfully told me.
I had surgery, relieving me of the worst of the pain, but since then, for the last 15 or so years, I’ve had associated pain around that area, at the base of my skull. I get regular shots in the back of my head to control the pain; I go to the chiropractor regularly; I see a pain management doctor every 4 weeks; I take an almost-absurd cocktail of drugs. By and large, the pain is controlled and “managed”, though I’m never quite free of it, even on the best days.
By and large.
But I do have occasional “flare-ups”, where the pain approaches and sometimes reaches the same levels of agony that I sustained back before the surgery. And one day, sitting on the floor of the shower, head in hands, water pouring down on me, desperately waiting and praying that the additional morphine, Excedrin, Advil, and tequila I had ingested would do something, anything, to alleviate my agony, I reached the Dark Place.
If you’ve thought about suicide, seriously thought about it, thought about actually doing it, you know what I’m talking about. The Dark Place is where you–literally–feel you can’t go on, you can’t take any more, the only way to end your suffering is to end your life.
“Cowardly”; “a waste”; “selfish”; I’ve heard all these and more with regard to suicide, and felt that way myself. But in that Dark Place? You’re in massive, unbelievable emotional (or in my case, physical) pain. You can’t imagine it ever getting better, or going away. You think of the days, months, and years of pain stretching ahead of you–decades of suffering, suffering, suffering–and you think, “What’s the fucking point?”
Think of me, there in that shower. Naked (best not contemplate that image too closely!), cross-legged on the tiles, head hanging down, the water pounding down on the back of my neck,, the pain like someone who weighs 300 pounds pressing a dull knife into the back of my neck just below my skull over and Over and OVER and OVER again, endlessly, never to stop. 15 years of pain and suffering behind me. My grandmother lived to be 90–40 more years of suffering and pain, pain, pain, endless pain stretching ahead of me. Pain and bills and pain and guilt and pain and worry and pain and workworkwork and pain and . . .
And you think, ya know, I have plenty of morphine there in the bottle. More than enough. I’ll fall asleep and that’ll be it–no 40 years of constant, non-stop, unendurable pain. Haven’t I given enough? Haven’t I tried enough? How long do I have to keep on before I get a friggin’ break?
Now obviously, I left the Dark Place. No, that’s not entirely accurate; I thought of Sami and my two kids and the other folks who–God only knows why–love me and care about me, and I held onto that thought tight and hauled myself out of that Dark Place by desperate strength, holding on to the thin reed of hope that the pain would abate, would get better, and I wouldn’t be facing 40 more years of it, ever and ever amen. And when I was done, I turned off the shower, dried off, and went and lay in bed for several hours, feeling like, well . . .
Do you remember the scene in Return of the King, when Frodo loses the ring, it’s destroyed, and he’s dangling over a river of lava, not convinced whether he should bother helping Sam haul him back up? But he does, he climbs out of his own Dark Place–40 years of longing for the ring, and suffering the hurt of losing it, the pain of the spider’s sting, the pain from the knife wound in his shoulder, the PTSD of carrying that damn thing for so long–and lets Sam lead him out. And then he passes out, waking up in a soft bed in Ithilien, Gandalf leaning over him. Remember the look on Elijah Wood’s face? He’s “saved”, yeah; he’s still alive, but he’s wounded, and exhausted, and clearly not entirely sure he really wants to go on.
Yeah, that. That’s where I was that day, laying on that bed, trying to leave that Dark Place behind.
It sucks at you, the Dark Place, like an effin’ black hole. It pulls at you with the gravity of a promise of an end, an end, dammit, to the suffering. And after years, decades of suffering, why the hell would you not want an end? Why wouldn’t you deserve an end? Haven’t you done enough, suffered enough, tried enough to get “better”, to end the pain, to leave that Dark Place behind? How much longer do you have to try before you’ve earned your rest? Earned an end to all that? And if that end is only The End, so what? How much more do you expect a guy to take?
Now look: I’m fine. I can still see that Dark Place, still feel its gravity, but it’s no more effective on me than the gravity of Neptune is on planet Earth; it may perturb my orbit a tiny, essentially immeasurable amount, but that’s it, really. I’ve seen that, for my own pain, my physical pain, there are other options, things can improve, and so my thin reed of hope is now more like a strong metal ladder, bolted to the concrete and wood framework of my life. I’m in a safe place, and I’m not worried. And if I get close to the Dark Place again, there’s this good, solid ladder.
But what about psychological pain? Pain that is unquantifiable, literally “all in your head”? And what if you’ve been suffering for 40 or more years? And have made multiple trips to that Dark Place? And are staring another 30 years of pain and suffering in the face, having tried multiple times to leave it behind, build your own ladder and bolt it to your foundation? And what if your foundation is termite-riddled bare wood on dirt instead of a good ol’ solid concrete slab? What then?
Yeah, metaphor-heavy. I’m sorry. But you see the point, don’t you? You see how a person’s genius, their ability to make other people happy, to make other people laugh, doesn’t do jack when you’re trapped in that Dark Place, and not only can’t find a way out, but can’t even imagine a way out. And even when you can, when you can bring up the image of escape, all you can think is, “And jesus yeah, I may get out of here, but what then? 30 more years of this? No!”
Robin Williams is gone, maybe from suicide. But you won’t hear from me about “what a waste”, or that it was “selfish”, or that he should have “battled harder”. Unless you’ve been in that Dark Place yourself and climbed out–and like Williams, climbed out multiple time–you really should keep your opinions to yourself. You don’t know. Even I don’t know. But from where I sit, feeling even the tiny tug of my own Neptune-distant Dark Place, I know enough not to judge.
We are without Robin Williams now, and the world is poorer for it. But I understand why he decided to leave. And maybe now you understand, just a tiny bit better.