No, It's A Little Selfish

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

In the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, I’ve seen a lot of people saying, “Killing yourself because of depression isn’t selfish!  It’s a disease!”
Speaking as someone who suffers from depression, depression is very much a disease, and often a terminal one.
Suicide’s also a little selfish.
Now, because people invariably want my suicide credentials at some point in these discussions, I have two suicide attempts in my past, one where I took an entire bottle of sleeping pills in isolation andcompletely lucked out in not dying.  (As I’ve often said, “A slightly stronger batch and I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”)  They both happened in different years but during the same month, wherein I discovered I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  About once a year, I am seized with an awful depression where I can barely function and usually wind up self-harming.  I suicidally ideate on a regular basis, and have for as long as I can remember.
And like all depressives, when I heard Robin Williams had died, I felt that chill of Fuck, well, if he can’t beat it, what hope do I have?
I’m lucky.  My depression comes in waves, wherein I emerge periodically to experience some very wonderful times, and I can carry that happiness back to the dark bits.  Others aren’t so blessed, and drown.
That’s why I believe people should have the right to take their own lives.  This belief is summed up in this wonderful Superman comic, wherein Superman says to a suicidal woman on a ledge, “If you honestly believe, in your heart of hearts, you will never have another happy day, then step out into the air.”  Depression leaches all the joy from life, leaves you consistently miserable, and if you’re going to spend the next twenty years in joyless penance, I endorse that escape.
But.
Let us not pretend that escape doesn’t have splash damage.
Because Robin Williams’ wife is suffering right now, and his children are suffering, and his young daughter will doubtlessly look at that final Instagram he posted of her and him together and wonder, eternally, if there was something she could have done.  By killing himself, he’s condemned them to a lifetime of pain.
And I think that’s one of the evilest tricks of depression: it lists all the people you love and convinces you, one by one, that they’d all be better off without you.  Except this is usually a huge lie.  I’ve talked to the survivors of suicidal lovers, and not a one of them felt happy that their loved one had offed himself.  They may have understood, they may have even endorsed it, but they all had a great loss in their life.  That death ripped a hole in them that will never fully heal.  Particularly if it came by surprise, which – because we treat suicide as though it’s the greatest and most shameful of evils – it usually does.
Your exit may be painless for you, but it will hurt the people you love.  Count on that.
The problem, I think, is that in American society, “Selfishness” is the biggest sin.  You’re not allowed to be greedy, unless it’s for money.  The idea that you might harm someone willingly is seen as a monstrous act, the unforgivable thing, and so people are falling all over themselves to say that Robin Williams did nothing selfish.
He did, a little.  He looked at the future, saw nothing good anywhere down the road, and decided to opt out.  And like Superman, if there was truly never going to be one more good day for Robin, well, I support that.  It’s a harsh equation, but there comes a point when the personal pain he’d endure would supersede the needs of his family – and if that’s the case, I think he should have the ability to opt out, just like any other terminally ill patient.
But what I do hope was that Robin was being honest with himself in his last moments.  I hope he wasn’t going, “Well, they’ll be better off without me” and doing that fucked-up fandango where he convinces himself they’ll not just be better off without him, but actually happy.  Because I’ve been there.  I did that myself when I opened up that bottle of sleeping pills, and I survived by accident, and man, years later I am well aware of how fucked up my entire family would have been if they’d found me dead in my bedroom.  They would have been the farthest thing from happy.
It’s a balance: Is your pain so bad that it’s worth hurting others to escape it?  And, like all pain, it’s impossible to say how bad it is for someone else.  You have to make your own decisions.  Maybe it was that bad for Robin, maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know.
But let’s not pretend it’s not selfish.  It is.  A little.  And the best I can ask of you serious depressives is to look at it honestly, to understand the hurt you’re going to dispense on your way out, and honestly weigh whether you can live – or not-live – with that injury.
I don’t think you’re a monster if you can live with it.
But I think you might be wrong.
Get help.

8 Comments

  1. scyllacat
    Aug 13, 2014

    I was just talking to someone this morning about something selfish I’d done, that hurt other people (as well as myself), and how I didn’t regret it. I don’t want to talk about selfishness with those Other People because they are condemning. They are saying that your own selfish unwillingness to face a lifetime of unhappiness is so terrible; there’s no justification for the pain you cause others. I don’t know what ameliorates that. Do they learn? Do they become more themselves? Do they mourn forever? I have lost at least one loved one to suicide and have risked many others. The pain has made me angry at them; it has made me mourn for them; it has made me hurt. It hasn’t made me think they were narcissistic assholes who were inconsiderate of my pain. And maybe I’m just picking up the script at my feet and not contributing or answering what you said appropriately. But with *you*, with other people like me, I would talk about it. Not those other assholes.

  2. Kristi
    Aug 13, 2014

    Suicide is a known complication of major depression. It’s something every provider knows to screen for. It’s something we have to document risk for just like you document risks for the complications from diabetes or high blood pressure. It’s a little greyer, sure, but it is part of the potential fallout of the disease depression.
    I think the last couple of lines you write here are the important part. I’ve not been suicidal in any serious sense before, but I have treated people that are. I’ve also had friends both live through attempted suicide and die to it. *If* they survive the attempt, many realize they can get help and can have good days. However, when they are in that dark place, they can’t see their way out. In that moment, many don’t see a choice. And many don’t live through the moment to realize they were wrong.
    There is absolutely fallout damage from suicide. I feel it’s unfair, however, to pass judgement on those that die of suicide. I guess that’s my biggest issue with most people that talk about it being a selfish act. Most of those people look down on the person that died and their family. They place judgement, scorn and shame upon those who are suffering. I cannot imagine the pain someone must be in to believe their death will make the lives of those that love them better, and I do not believe any of them need that sort of emotional baggage thrown at them. My heart hurts for him, for his family, and for all those going through similar situations.
    (I don’t believe you are doing any of that by the way. I’m just stating why I, personally, advocate the medical complication side of it.)
    My greatest hope is that situations like this will help encourage funding for better research for the improved treatment of mental health conditions. It’s so very needed.

  3. Dawn
    Aug 13, 2014

    Here’s my argument against the word ‘selfish’ in this context:
    People use the word selfish more to mean this: It is selfish of you to escape your pain and cause me pain by you not wanting to hurt anymore. I would rather your struggle and hurt every single day, even though I can’t -and in some cases won’t, help you through it… than have to have to face one ounce of pain myself. It is easier for me to blame you for the fact that I was not a better friend/lover/sister/wife/brother (though that’s not always the case, I have depression and have my own dark past with suicide, I know), than to just accept that sometimes life is a bad job that doesn’t pay enough for the shit some people endure and they just have to walk out that door.
    Is it sick? Is it twisted and wrong? Yes. Do I think a little selfishness should be allowed sometimes, oh heck yes. People are going to hurt, people are going to grieve and wonder what they could have done. But, here’s the problem: in these scenarios… someone is always in pain. Someone is always selfish and hurting. It’s just a matter of which side is selfish and which side is hurting.
    When someone has an attempt and they fail, how many times is it said, “that was so selfish of you. How could you do that to your family?” Okay… who is selfish there? The one who is in so much pain they just want to check out of this life that is like the fucking Hotel California, or the people that berate them because how dare they be so depressed that they want to leave life… how DARE they make their FAMILY have to FEEL things.
    It’s shit. We see things we want to see. It’s only selfish to the side that wants to see it as selfish.

  4. Jack
    Aug 13, 2014

    I’ve been seeing people write about this for days, and it’s pissed me off each time. I’ve been depressed for a long time, and occasionally suicidal, and I’m grateful that I know how much it would hurt my friends and family, because it reminds me not to do it.
    But my real proof that suicide is ultimately selfish is this: the father of a good friend of mine killed himself when she was a young teen. This has screwed her up for life. She has never gotten over it, and that one act has tainted everything she’s even done sense. Her sister hates their father for it, and her nieces and nephews don’t even get to learn about him. Her mother still misses him, and had to be talked out of killing herself at least once. And my friend has tried to kill herself, been locked up for it, and lost numerous relationships and friendships because of the legacy of her father’s actions.
    One person succumbed to the worst in depression, after walking himself off, and it’s screwed up a handful of lives forever after. Sure, if you think there are no more good days, do what you need to. But remember that you are doing a lifetime of pain to those who love you, and may be condemning them to the same fate in the end.

  5. Sarah G.
    Aug 13, 2014

    Thank you. Thank you so much for writing this. Because I’ve been biting my tongue since the news crossed my screen. I haven’t been able to say anything because all of my friends are doing this relentless, shrill, high-pitched mourning of Williams and they’re forgiving him and apologizing for him and telling everyone loudly how to feel about Williams’ death and it’s really hard to take.
    Suicide is selfish. It’s like the most permanent way of breaking up with someone for their own good. I have been suicidal before and I didn’t give a rusty fuck how people would feel when I was dead, except the times when I thought they’d be better off without me. I was in so much pain I just stopped caring about others. And it passed. It went away. If I had killed myself over something that went away, that would be pretty damned selfish because it would have permanently altered the lives of my loved ones for the worse.
    If you have a terminal illness you should have the right to determine when you will die. If your depression is permanent and at suicide level and you want to die to escape it, I have no problem with that. That’s euthanasia. Depression at that level is extremely painful and I wouldn’t want to be there for the next 45 years of my life. But you have to KNOW. And you should talk to your family, and your doctor, and set it up medically, exactly the same way euthanasia for cancer or other diseases is treated in the US (in appropriate states). Otherwise, again, you’re doing something selfish.
    And, past that, as the ex-friend of someone who tried to commit suicide, the understanding that I meant so little to a friend of mine that she tried to kill herself in my house, was willing to completely fuck up my life in one of the worst ways imaginable, made me so disinclined to be her friend that now we aren’t. And all the apologists gathered around her and made me the bad guy because I got angry that a friend of mine tried to leave a dead body in my house and I should be okay with that because … what? Friendship? No. I had exactly the same mental health problems as suicidal friend and I have been suicidal many times and not once would it have occurred to me to compound the hideous damage it would do to my friends to know I killed myself with leaving them with a body to clean up.
    And I have two friends who have had to deal with the suicides of loved ones occur in their homes. They’re wrecks. Permanently. We’re talking soul-deep, unhealing, permanent injuries. Grief that extends for years. One of them just stopped crying. She hasn’t cried in eight years. She can’t. The other went a little crazy. I am so angry at their dead ones for inflicting such horrible injuries on my friends.
    Yeah. Suicide is selfish. You feel that bad? Ride it out. Get treatment. Commit yourself to an institution for monitoring. But *don’t* kill yourself unless you do the euthanasia thing with a doctor’s consent and all that because depression lifts, but grief can last a lifetime.

  6. Lucar
    Aug 14, 2014

    Anyone that has worked in counseling for more than a couple of days (which I did, for a couple of decades) has dealt with suicide, and its frequent companion, depression. Like you, I was lucky. I survived my own suicide attempt uninjured, and ultimately more in control of my life than I had ever been.
    With rare exceptions, suicide does not happen in a bubble… there is nearly always “collateral damage” to the people in the suicide victim’s life who really do love them and really do give a crap whether they live or die.
    You say, “And I think that’s one of the evilest tricks of depression: it lists all the people you love and convinces you, one by one, that they’d all be better off without you. Except this is usually a huge lie. ”
    Yes, absolutely that is true. Sadly, I think you grossly overestimate the ability of the clinically depressed person to acknowledge, or even comprehend that lie.
    In my experience, a person in the grip of major depression sees only that dark monster that their life has become. They see that darkness seeping into the lives of the people that they love and care for. They often reason, with what seems to be a totally rational process to them at that time, that the best gift that they can give their family and friends is to remove that dark thing from their lives.
    This person can be incapable of the logic required to see the element of selfishness that you point to. They are convinced to their core that they are not wrong.

  7. Becki
    Aug 14, 2014

    As another person who survived a suicide attempt, I felt similar emotions reading this as I did when I first read of Robin Williams’ death. It basically came as mixed feelings, vivid memories, and attempts at rationalizing both his suicide and my mixed feelings about it.
    Perhaps, as you said, it is a little selfish. But I guess I am wondering that while he likely believed that his death would his hurt family, did he think he would hurt them less overall by dying quickly now, instead of continuing to put them through his prolonged agony, where as supportive as they might be, they can’t know or battle his demons. Could it be that he couldn’t face the idea of severe depression co-mingled with the oncoming issues that he was going to face as his Parkinson’s Disease got worse. Maybe he didn’t want to have his family have to support him physically. I can understand his not wanting to feel like even a bigger burden than he may already feel like he was.
    I remember not telling my family for some years later about the fact that I tried to commit suicide, as I did not want to be even a bigger disappointment to them as I already had been. My fears were confirmed when in a true heart-to-heart conversation I had with my father I let him know about my attempt. He made an excuse to get off the phone, letting me know he would call me back later. Later turned to be 3 weeks later, and the topic was pushed aside. Any other attempts of mine to talk about it were also brushed away.
    Sometimes, like in my case, suicide may seem selfish, but at the same time, it didn’t feel like I was hurting anyone else. It did not feel to me like anyone would be happier, but more that their lives would continue as it had been going. One of the other tricks of depression (in addition to making you think people are better off without you) is to make you think they simply don’t care one way or the other.
    As someone who has a short past doing stand-up in Los Angeles, I have come to know some comedians, most of which are fighting some form of depression. Some have taken their lives. Some have tried. All have been affected by suicide in one way or another.
    I still can’t decide if I find if it is, to a degree, selfish or not. But I do know it is not the malicious, cruel selfishness that I have been hearing, and said at such high volumes that it has made me literally sickened and unable to stay in the room.

  8. becki
    Aug 16, 2014

    As another person who survived a suicide attempt, I felt similar emotions reading this to those I did when I first read of Robin Williams’ death. It basically came as mixed feelings, vivid memories, and attempts at rationalizing both his suicide and my mixed feelings about it.
    Perhaps, as you said, it is a little selfish, but I guess I am wondering that while he likely believed that his death would his hurt family, did he feel he would spare them much more pain overall. Instead of continuing to put them through his prolonged agony, where as supportive as they might be, they can’t know or battle his demons, perhaps he should end it now and let them grieve all at once, and not be subject to years of pain. Could it be that he couldn’t face the idea of severe depression co-mingled with the oncoming issues that he was going to face as his Parkinson’s Disease got worse. Maybe he didn’t want to have his family have to support him physically. I can understand his not wanting to feel like even a bigger burden than he may already feel like he was.
    I remember not telling my family until years later about the fact that I tried to commit suicide, as I did not want to be even a bigger disappointment to them as I already had been. My fears were confirmed when in a rare heart-to-heart conversation I had with my father I let him know about my attempt. He made an excuse to get off the phone, letting me know he would call me back later. Later turned to be 3 weeks later, and the topic was pushed aside. Any other attempts of mine to talk about my attempt were also brushed away.
    Sometimes, like in my case, suicide may seem selfish, but at the same time, it didn’t feel like I was hurting anyone else. It did not feel to me like anyone would be happier, but more that their lives would continue as it had been going. One of the other tricks of depression (in addition to making you think people are better off without you) is to make you think they simply don’t care one way or the other.
    As someone who has a short past doing stand-up in Los Angeles, I have come to know some comedians, most of which are fighting some form of depression. Some have taken their lives. Some have tried. All have been affected by suicide in one way or another.
    I still can’t decide if I find if suicide is, to a degree, selfish or not. But I do know it is not the malicious, cruel selfishness that I have been hearing, and said at such high volumes that it has made me literally sickened and unable to stay in the room.

All Comments Will Be Moderated. Comments From Fake Or Throwaway Accounts Will Never Be approved.