The suicide of acclaimed US comedian/actor Robin Williams has prompted a worldwide reaction, naturally centred upon regret and sorrow, but it has also brought into focus a number of profound general issues relating to the act of killing oneself.
In Williams’ case, of course, some of them relate to the nature of celebrity. We ordinary human beings are seduced by the media into believing that everyone working in the entertainment industries are super-humans who habitually circumnavigate the world appearing on TV chat shows, each cocooned in their personal bubble of effortless brilliance combined with an enviable multi-millionaire lifestyle. Williams’ tragedy, as illustrated by the emerging tales of money troubles, addiction and depression, demonstrates the ultimate reality that human beings are only human beings.
About ten years ago, at a dinner held after a talk about sailing, I sat next to one of my father’s oldest pals. We duly caught up on each other’s news and then, well into the evening and out of the blue, he asked “Do you know what my biggest concern in life is?”
It turned out to be the quest to amass a horde of pills big enough to end his life. Both of his now-middle-aged offspring had emigrated with their families to Australia – he hated travelling there to see them and they rarely, if ever, returned to the UK to see him. A widower still hale and hearty in his late 70s, he had no immediate intent to top himself, but he didn’t want to end his days as a burden to anyone, including himself.
His thrust was that – ‘in the old days’ – one’s local GP could be relied upon to make a home visit to the old and/or infirm – who had either had enough of life and/or were in extreme terminal discomfort and distress – and slip them something, no questions asked.
The problem these days, said my fellow conversationalist, was that 21st Century ethics and takes upon the Hippocratic Oath now meant that doctors, under ever-growing scrutiny, were reluctant (through to unable) to provide this time-honoured service to their patients. Furthermore, new restrictions upon chemists as to how many pills they could supply to any individual in one – or indeed several – goes meant that it would now take many weeks (if not months) for anyone wishing to ‘do the deed’ themselves to acquire the means.
[I should add at this point that – then or now – I have no idea whether what he was saying is actually the case.]
I acknowledge that there exist religious and non-religious opinion-formers who hold to the firm view of principle that suicide is a crime against humanity and/or God (for those who believe).
Such individuals would deny the right of those who, for whatever reason and/or degree of justification, ‘have had enough’ and want out – normally on the basis that any relaxation of the law would be the thin end of the wedge on the downslope to those who are disabled and/or vulnerable being systematically encouraged or coerced to go down this route.
Personally, both by personal experience and inclination, I feel there’s a distinct difference worth respecting between the position of someone who has either had a long life and/or is suffering from a progressive and terminal disease/condition, on the one hand … and those who – well before they have lived their supposed ‘threescore and ten’ – choose to end their lives due to the sheer pressures to which they feel subjected, on the other.
A good friend of mine committed suicide about twenty years ago – the full circumstances have never been made known to me, but my ‘sense’ is that his reasons were money troubles and depression, the latter probably caused by the former.
Like many of his friends, I was stunned and moved almost to the point of anger by the news of his death. Anger because I felt the stupid bugger should surely have known me – and others – well enough that, had he made known his financial or other plight to us, individually and/or collectively we would have rallied round to get him back on an even keel.
The fact he hadn’t, whilst intensely annoying and frustrating, must have been down to innumerable factors preying upon him, including perhaps his perceived anticipatory shame that lifting the phone to make that call for help would prompt. I guess that, when you’re in the state of extremis he must have been in, the fact that none of those he might have contacted would have thought the worse of him, is irrelevant. To those who commit suicide under the weight of sundry mental pressures upon them, it seems all that matters is how they personally feel inside.
I heard on the radio overnight that some commentators – both celebrity and academic – have been attacking Robin Williams for committing suicide, on the basis of the act’s selfish inconsiderateness, if not actually stating ‘cowardice’ … in the context of those family and friends that are left behind.
Although I would not dismiss such criticism as unworthy, no individual can ever know what is or was going through another’s mind.
Someone who considers taking as drastic an action as suicide might never have given a thought to what chaos, pain and hurt he might leave behind. Equally, he might have thought long and hard about all those implications – indeed, if he had, the fact he still went ahead with the act must surely be testimony to just how bad he must have felt.