Dear Mr. Rollins,
I read your comments about Robin Williams’ suicide, and suicide in general, and I think it’s time someone explained the reality of mental illness to you.
Let’s start with the name. Mental illness is illness. Mentally ill people are sick, just like people suffering from any other disease are sick. Do you condemn parents who have terminal cancer for leaving their children? Does dying of a brain aneurysm negate a person’s previous existence? Can you no longer take a person seriously after they’ve had a stroke?
Because terminal depression is a physical illness just like any other. It results from abnormal brain chemistry and it frequently causes its victims not just emotional devastation, but a range of physical symptoms as well. It’s not something a person chooses, Mr. Rollins. It’s something that batters him or her from the inside, unbidden and often not at all understood. It eats at your brain no less than a tumor does.
In some ways, though, it’s worse than a tumor. Nobody looks at you disdainfully for having a tumor. Nobody accuses you of “traumatizing your kids” when the tumor grows to the point when it’s inoperable. Nobody claims that you “blew it” by letting that tumor take your life.
You see, Mr. Rollins, people with severe clinical depression have no more choice in feeling unable to continue on than you have in feeling chills when you get a fever. You’re burning up, but your body tricks you into believing you’re cold; the depressed person has strength and value, but the body convinces him or her otherwise.
I won’t presume to speak for Robin Williams, because I didn’t know him and I don’t know any specifics about his health. But if it’s true that he was severely, clinically depressed, then he didn’t choose to commit suicide. Some conditions cause a person to lose agency, and depression can be one of them. Think of a woman who has had her drink spiked with a roofie: Her ability to make her own decisions has been compromised because a damaging chemical has – through no fault of her own – been introduced into her system. Depression is the evil asshole who spikes your drink when you’re not looking. It floods you with chemicals that impede your ability to control your own thoughts and actions.
Do you blame that woman if she fails to fight her rapist hard enough, Mr. Rollins? Is she somehow supposed to be able to fight him more successfully if she happens to have children?
Now I’m going to tell you a story about me because, as you noted, we can really only understand our own experiences with depression. When I was 18 I suffered my first major depressive episode. I spent the better part of a year believing that I was a waste of space, an anchor dragging down the people who loved me. I slept as much as possible. When I was awake, I often lashed out at the people around me, angry with them for putting up with me when I knew that I was a scourge on their lives. I thought about suicide, Mr Rollins. I thought about it a lot. I thought it was what I would do if I really cared about my friends and family as much as they cared about me.
I didn’t do it, and now I’m glad I didn’t. But at the time my failure to kill myself didn’t rise out of a brave choice to keep going for my family; it rose from my fear of death, plain and simple. I truly believed, in my chemically-altered state, that I was a coward for not swallowing a bottle of pills or drowning myself in a lake. I believed I was hurting my loved ones at the expense of my own selfish desire not to die. That was my reality, as much as it is my reality to see grass as green and mud as brown.
So please, Mr. Rollins, before you decide to write people off for the things they do when they’re in the grip of a mind-altering illness, remember that their reality doesn’t look like yours. Remember that you’re lucky that whatever depression you might have suffered in the past was not of the terminal variety. Real people – people who deserve to be respected and acknowledged for the contents of their lives – sometimes get sick with diseases you don’t understand. We have treatments for those diseases, good treatments, but they don’t always succeed. Not every tumor is operable.
I admire you for standing up for marriage equality and for your talent as an artist. I particularly enjoyed your work on Sons of Anarchy, and smiled my way through your appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But if you continue to stand in judgement of people for succumbing to illness, Mr. Rollins, then I will no longer be able to take you seriously. You will be cancelled out in my mind. You will have blown it.
Fuck ignorance. You’re healthy enough to be able to view the world clearly. Choose to do that, and be part of the solution instead of just another insidious part of the problem. Choose to do that for the sake of those who can’t.
Melissa Geschwind, lucky depression survivor
UPDATE: Thank you for your apology, Mr. Rollins. I’m glad you were able to see and process what so many of us were saying. Do better as you move forward and hopefully we can put this behind us and work together, as a community of humans, to destigmatize mental illness and make treatment readily available to those in need.