When the news rippled out on Monday that Robin Williams had committed suicide, even I thought — for a moment — “but he had everything.” As if suicide is a “choice.”
I say “even I” because I know better. My mother was seriously depressed for much of her life. A close friend’s husband committed suicide years ago, and he had everything, too. Then there was our neighbor’s son, whom I babysat for — I heard it was a psychotic break.
When it comes to illness, what you have doesn’t matter very much. At a certain age, it sometimes seems like everyone’s running over the hill, and some people won’t make it, and who those people will be — who will be felled by an aggressive cancer, a sudden aneurysm, a rare infection — seems almost random. Sure, there’s genetics, preventive care and exercise, and sometimes we can comfort ourselves by finding out that a lost friend never got colonoscopies or that a lost relative still smoked. But often there is no reason at all. My friend Kath used to laugh about how much I worried that a stray lump or an ambiguous test result was a sure sign of aggressive cancer. She never worried about rare aggressive cancers, until she was diagnosed with one; she died months later.
News of my friend Dotty Lynch’s death also hit the wires on Monday. The longtime political director of CBS News, Dotty belongs in heaven if anyone does. In her decades in politics and journalism, she managed to handle some of the biggest egos in the business, always with sheer brilliance and amazing grace. The melanoma just wouldn’t quit. And while you might be comforted to know that Dotty was a fair-skinned redhead, there are plenty of fair-skinned folks — John McCain comes to mind — who have not been slowed down by repeated bouts with melanoma. Why Dotty?
Not for a second would anyone suggest that Dotty had a choice in the matter.
So why do even those of us who know better spend even a second when we hear of a suicide saying things like “He had everything” or “How could he do this to his family?”
Suicide isn’t something you “do” to your family. It is the terminal stage of what is often a lifelong illness. Why some people end up at this stage of despair and others, like my mother, are crippled by depression for decades but cling to life, no one knows. Some people respond to treatment; some are able to live with deep depression, as some people live with illnesses that kill others. I inherited my mother’s blue genes. I have fought depression and have been helped by wonderful doctors. My depression, at least, has never been coupled with suicidal thoughts.
But even the best doctors can’t help some people who are ill. Indeed, even the best doctors don’t necessarily know when their own patients are in danger. I remember, so many years ago, when my friend’s husband became deeply depressed. She consulted his psychiatrist, who advised her that he was not suicidal. It turned out he was mistaken. So, I imagine, was whoever didn’t tell Robin Williams’ wife that he needed to be hospitalized, that his illness was beyond his control or tolerance.
Robin Williams brought joy and laughter to so many of us. And my friend Dotty… Well, Dotty was ahead of her time, a brilliant pollster, an amazing analyst, a wonderful person. I might say they both lost their fights with illness, but terminal illness is not an opponent you can vanquish. It’s not a fair fight. And to suggest that either of these people “lost” a contest misses the point. They were winners. But even winners get sick.