(photo credit: www.robinwilliams.com) I had intentions of posting something completely different today, but I had two phone calls from family members asking me about my thoughts on this recent tragedy. One family member was concerned about the “choice” that people were referring to on the internet and whether or not Robin Williams made the choice to die, or whether his depression made the choice for him. The other family member asked about depression and addiction and how they are connected. Having had these two long conversations today, I decided to share just a few thoughts on this matter and depression, addiction, and suicide in general.
Firstly, I will say that it is always tragic when anyone dies by suicide. Celebrity deaths are interesting, because we don’t know them, but we often feel we know them a little. We see them as perhaps invincible and in a way they are because their movies are available always. However, we may forget that they are just as human as everyone else and deal with the same life challenges that can cause depression in all of us: genetic predisposition, chemical imbalance, loss , lack of effective coping, and constant stress. Sometimes, when celebrities die (or anyone for that matter), it reminds us of human we really are. I will miss Mr. Robin Williams. I grew up with his movies and recently just watched “Hook” after many years. I remembered how enjoyable that movie is only to hear the sad news days later. I will always enjoy these movies. They remind me of my growing up. Thank you for them.
One thing I love about my job is seeing people change. Change is possible and beautiful. I firmly believe that change is always possible and that choice is a part of change. There are moments where the choice to change seems or feels impossible. If you question this, I would say that I hope change isn’t impossible, or then there is no point to my job which is all about change and helping people to find the change that best suits them. Often times, the change is finding new ways to cope. I often tell my clients that it doesn’t matter how you got depression, but it matters what you do once you have it. We all feel intense negative emotions at times and the goal of managing these emotions is to have a variety of coping skills that are effective. Many of us, however, have lots of ineffective methods of coping. Much of therapy is about uncovering ineffective coping and practicing new and effective methods of coping. Sounds simple enough, right? Not when you think that our brain becomes well-practiced in our methods of coping that it feels like second nature or something we just do without choosing to do. Some of our ineffective coping was, at one time, a functional or effective method of coping that as we aged, turned against us. Some methods of coping are so reinforced by others that we don’t see this as ineffective coping. Humor is an excellent example of this. When someone is funny, for brief moments, pain may not exist and others enjoy the humor. That reinforces more “funny-ness’ and over time, other ways of coping with my problems are forgotten and only is used. The problem is, humor IS effective for coping in a lot of situations, but not ALL situations and that leads to the problem. Addiction is also coping gone wrong. Again, for brief moments, my emotions are not experienced as substances (or other addiction behaviors) produce pleasure or distract from pain with other sensations. So, in a sense, it works to get rid of my pain. However, when coming down from the addictive behavior, the emotions are now more intense; my brain can’t get rid of emotions. So, how am I going to deal with the more intense emotions? If I choose to engage in an ineffective behavior, I’m driving a negative cycle and increasing my negative emotions, then negative coping, and ultimately my depression.
We can gather a few things from Robin Williams: he used humor and substances to cope and they weren’t effective for him. My guess is that the negative cycle became too much for him and he used the ultimate method for avoiding emotions and that was suicide. I tell clients that suicide is a solution to a problem that you don’t know how to solve. So much is often focused on the suicidal thinking that we forget to understand the initial problem, the method of coping, find the new solution and practice a variety of effective coping skills.
That is why I love our Fundamentals Group so much. I have been teaching a version of this CBT (cognitive-behavioral) group for over 4 years. The core of this group is how to cope and provides a variety of coping skills to practice. We talk in-depth about these negative cycles and how to find more effective coping. It would make me giddy when people would start practicing their better coping skills and seeing change. People often don’t know what they are doing that’s ineffective but when they start practicing what IS effective, they start getting better and over time, they gain insight to what behaviors actually increased their depression.
One family member asked what causes someone to get to that point to take their own life. While I don’t know from experience, I share my knowledge from having sat across hundreds who have thought about, contemplated, or even attempted taking their own life. I almost all cases, the hope of all possible choice or change is gone. But, I believe (and I HAVE to believe this to do what I do) that choice is almost never gone and if that is so, then change is always possible.