I've thought a lot about suicide recently. Not for myself, but for others. Several months ago I watched a TED talk given by Kevin Briggs. He was a California Highway Patrol officer in Southern Marin. His beat included the Golden Gate Bridge. His talk is called "The Bridge to Suicide" and I highly recommend it.
Officer Briggs spent 23 years talking would be jumpers down off the bridge. He was mostly successful. Listening, asking questions. Now he speaks of his experiences and about how to relate to those on the verge of suicide. One of his most salient points was that we are afraid to bring it up. It may give our depressed, distressed loves ones the idea. Officer Briggs debunks this theory.
Obviously, someone on the ledge of the bridge has already contemplated killing themselves and they are pretty damn close. For other folks you should just bring it up directly. Make a comment that they seem to be struggling. You can say that other people in similar circumstances sometimes hurt themselves or take their own lives. Ask the person if they feel that way, too.
The most chilling aspect of the talk was the conversations Briggs had with the jumpers who survived. Every single one of them regretted the action the instant they leapt from the bridge. They no longer wanted to die. They wished to live. That's a morbid, uneasy thought.
Sometimes a suicidal impulse is a spontaneous reaction and not planned. I believe it can happen to anyone. It happened to me once. It was over thirty years ago and I was a young mother in a difficult relationship. I had no money and few prospects for making more. I couldn't figure out how to solve my problems. I couldn't figure out how to ask for help or even that I should.
I remember getting in the car with the baby, who was 8 or 9 months old, and driving towards the Golden Gate Bridge which was about 15 minutes from home. I was honestly trying to decide if it would be better to jump with the baby or leave her behind without a mother. I was that disconnected.
For some reason I pulled off at Tennessee Valley Road. I parked and strapped the baby in the snugli and walked to the beach. It was late afternoon, chilly and the light was fading. It's a mile out and a mile back and that human lump in front of me got heavy. She slept and I either thought a lot or didn't think at all. I don't remember. By the time we got back to the car it was over. I knew I could solve my problems.
I had family nearby who would have helped me if they had known I was in such distress. When I left the relationship about six months later they did help me. It's such a testament to the power of our own thoughts that we can feel so alone when we really aren't. I've never gone to that dark place again and I don't believe I ever will. I want to stay here as long as I can and see how everything turns out. I know how much my children still need me and I need them.
About a year later I went through the Marin Suicide Prevention Training Program. I learned how to talk to people on the Hotline, but I never followed through with it. I was on my own with a toddler and trying to go back to school. The impulse was there, but I just didn't have the capacity.
When the news broke that Robin Williams had committed suicide I was as sad as anyone. It just didn't seem possible that his life force could be extinguished, and by his own hand. Anyone living around here has interfaced with Robin numerous times. I have friends who went to high school with him.
The first time I met Robin was in May 1982. I was a waitress at The Boarding House and he did a run of shows there. The house was packed and it was extremely busy so I didn't see much of what happened on stage, but Robin loved to hang out in the waitress station and make a pest of himself. He was manic and just completely out of his mind. He was so in the way I finally shoved a cocktail napkin at him and made him autograph it.
In recent years Robin has seemed incredibly anxious. He and his wife used to shop in the store where I worked downtown. She was friendly and sweet, but Robin seemed very uncomfortable in his body. When not performing he could be painfully shy.
Depression kills. Obviously. We can only speculate about what finally tipped him over. He lived right on the water and it was a gloomy, foggy summer. In all of July and August we probably had three sunny mornings. It gets to you after a while. Even if it clears up eventually (and some days it doesn't) you still have missed the morning light. You can never get that back. There's a doom with the gloom, at least for me.
A light that bright, a genius so strong may have just had a "sell by" date. It must have been a wear-out to be inside Robin's mind. Aging, ailing health, battles with substance abuse - it all adds up. And, yet, somehow it doesn't. Suicide seems so selfish because it's about the one who wants to leave - not those being left behind. If Robin, with his money, resources and support couldn't get the help he needed, where does that leave the rest of us?
The shock of Robin's suicide is wearing off and folks are trying to find appropriate ways to honor him. There is a plan afoot to rename the Waldo Tunnel (which we always call the Rainbow Tunnel) after him. It's ironic because he had some acerbic lines about the tunnel. There is a video of an old bit where Williams called the Rainbow Tunnel an "ethnic detecter".
It's a fine gesture even if it won't bring him back. A rainbow is a happy image, but it may be more complicated than we realize. I recently overheard the kindergarteners talking and one little girl said this: "I know a lot about rainbows and you're not telling the truth".
Marin Suicide Prevention Hotline: 415-499-1100