I nod. As soon as I heard about Robin Williams’ death, I thought about Evelyn, a depressed woman whose suicidal thoughts are a consistent part of both her life and her treatment.
“I saw that animated clip online, where Aladdin frees the genie – Robin Williams - from the lamp and Williams dances around saying ‘I’m free.’ Made me think of Martin Luther King’s, ‘free at last, free at last.’ Maybe that’s what it would be like. I’d be free, free of constantly being drawn down into this abyss.”
I watched that clip myself and immediately worried about Evelyn. Definitely not a good message to give a suicidal patient. “But the genie is set free to live, Evelyn,” I say. “To live without having to be restrained in a lamp. It’s about expanding your life, not destroying it.”
Evelyn ignores my comment and continues, “I’m having hard time sleeping. I keep thinking about him hanging himself. He had everything. At least it seemed that he did - fame, success, money, family, adoration. And still he killed himself. I don’t have any of that, well not most of it anyway. What’s the point? Why should I keep going? I have nothing to add to the world. I’m just taking up space.”
“But this isn’t always the way you feel, Evelyn. There are many times you enjoy your children, your grandchildren, your painting.”
“It feels meaningless today, Evelyn. It doesn’t always feel meaningless. Can you remember when it doesn’t feel meaningless?”
“I know. When you’re in this dark place it’s hard for you to remember the good times, the pleasurable times, like playing with your granddaughter in the pool, or sitting on your back patio painting. Can you tell me what you first felt, what you first thought when you heard about Robin Williams’ suicide?”
“I was surprised. Like I said, he seemed to have everything. And he seemed like such a happy person. I guess I always thought he was kind of manic, but I didn’t know about the depression, or all his drug problems.” She pauses. “Maybe I even felt a little mad, like why should he kill himself? He’s not the one who should be depressed, he’s not the person whose life is meaningless. I’m the one who should kill myself.”
“What do you mean you should kill yourself?” My anxiety is increasing. I’ve seen Evelyn through years of on and off depression and many times when the possibility of her killing herself increased. A few times she went into the hospital. Mostly I’ve trusted her to contract with me to not kill herself. I want to talk about that kind of contract now, but hold myself back. It’s early in the session. Evelyn seems to have a lot of feelings roiling around today. I need to give her time.”
“Well, like I said, I have nothing compared to a man like Robin Williams.”
“You also said that you felt mad when you heard about his taking his life.”
“I said a little mad.”
“So it feels uncomfortable for you to be mad.”
“We already know that.”
Surprised by the sharpness in Evelyn’s voice, I realize that she’s angrier today than I realized. “Are you a little mad today, too, Evelyn?” I ask.
A few moments pass in silence.
“It’s so confusing,” she continues. “If someone like Robin Williams can kill himself, there’s absolutely no reason in the world I couldn’t or shouldn’t.” She pauses. “But that Aladdin video made me sad and not only because Williams killed himself. I felt sad that he and Aladdin were saying good-bye, that they’d never see each other again. And that’s what happens if you kill yourself, you never see anybody you love again. I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to think about never seeing my children or grandchildren again. I just want to think about ending my misery. It makes me mad that you brought them up, mad that seeing that video made me think about them. That’s why I’m mad.”
“Mad and sad,” I say, very aware that I too am feeling sad, reminded yet again of the finality of death. “Death does mean saying good-bye and, yes, that’s very sad for both the person who dies and those left behind. And you’re right, Evelyn, that is the other message in the video. Goodbyes are painful, definitely something to consider when you feel suicidal.”