17 Years Later… Just another suicide?
Listening to people describe Robin Williams the past week I would’ve thought they were talking about my dear friend, Sean. Like Robin Williams, he was the kind of guy who could walk into any room and change the energy in a powerful way – there was something special about Sean. He made everyone feel good about life. And he made you laugh.
Magic, juggling, music, filmmaking, and stand-up – what astounds me is he mastered every one of them. Sean wasn’t a jack-of-all-trades master of none – he obsessed until his craft was perfected and then kept going.
We met at a summer camp in Wisconsin as lifeguards on a lake. As part of his act for the weekly campfire he juggled three flaming torches while standing on another guy’s shoulders, also juggling three flaming torches. He was profound – a born entertainer.
Seventeen years ago Sean tied a whip around his neck, draped it over a door, tied it to the handle on the other side, then sat down until the whip was taught. Although he could’ve stood up at any moment, he sat there until he was dead from asphyxiation.
Why? According to one of the notes, “the world would be better off without me.”
Sean struggled with manic depression his entire life. Only those close to him knew about the demons inside, his many earlier suicide attempts, his hospitalizations, his therapy, and his refusal to try medication. When I first learned about all this I had known Sean for over three years. Never would I have guessed any of this, but once we became close I encountered his illness first hand – at times it was terrifying, the way a mind could turn on itself. Simply hearing about his struggles was overwhelming. I still remember the very moment he told me about them the first time – it was on Venice Beach in 1996 while I was visiting him (he was a student at USC).
We both shared a passion for cinema and there aren’t many days where I don’t think about him – I now work in film and live in Venice… two constant reminders (which I appreciate).
This is not an easy disease. From the outside those inflicted appear just fine. But inside there’s a darkness not easily kept at bay. Actually, if you want an understanding of what it’s like to experience this type of mental illness, check out Mayra Hornbacher’s amazing memoir, Madness.
Sean, like Mayra in her memoir, thought he could control his wild mood swings. That earlier bit about Sean’s refusal to take medication is worth noting and something David O’Russell got right in Silver Linings Playbook. Sean was afraid those medications would flat-line the very things that made him special. Whether true or not it was a dangerous game. Even Sean felt like it was his mind – he should’ve been able to control it. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Like any other disease there are treatments the mind requires when it’s not functioning properly.
Since Williams’ death there’ve been scores of stories and video clips floating around. I watched the one from the Golden Globes where Robin Williams thanked Christopher Reeve. It was emotional, but what really struck me was the moment when he thanked his wife, Marsha. Robin quickly addressed the fact that she’s forced to deal with a lot living with him. The look on her face says it all. It’s not easy.
After getting close to Sean I wondered how he managed to keep this darkness hidden away from most of the people he knew. Although I questioned how, I never wondered why… Not many people really understand this illness.
Reading the comments and headlines the last couple days I now fully understand why most people hide away their illness. “Why don’t you just put a smile on your face – it’ll make you feel better.” That’s the kind of crap people say to the clinically depressed. It’s akin to wishing cancer cells away. Much has changed in the 17 years since Sean’s death, but it’s still stigmatized by those who lack understanding. Naming names only gives the morons more publicity – suffice to say that the comments floating around reflect the collective ignorance of our country when it comes to this illness. Hopefully, Robin William’s death will help the on-going effort to lift the veil of mystery still covering this disease and its varied manifestations. The more people open up about the struggles the more normal it’ll become. There should be no shame in seeking help, in talking about this illness openly.
At this point Sean is just another statistic, but it would be great if there were fewer deaths like Sean’s every year – not more. I don’t want to be so banal to think that Williams’ death is going to become some altruistic teaching moment for the rest of us. But I hope it opens at least a few eyes. If you’re suffering, you deserve to get help. And if you know someone struggling, let that person know you give a shit. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Learn about the disease. Do everything you can. If you care, do what you would do if they were sick with anything else. Wake up – suicide isn’t a choice.