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When Suicide Hits Home: Robin Williams, and My Friend Shelby

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Like a lot of people, I was bowled over by the news of Robin Williams’ death last week. Ironically, I had just wrapped up one of the best summer days ever, when I first saw it – standing in the middle of a water park in Denver with my family, pulling my phone out of the locker, and there it was.

And then came the shock, the tributes, the tears, the idiots, the outrage at the idiots, the non-stop news coverage, a national conversation on suicide and depression – a man’s once-private pain on display for all the world to see, and strangely enough, the man at the epicenter of so much sadness, was responsible for providing more laughs per capita than probably anyone else in history.

I pulled out that same phone early the next morning and got a bigger shock – an old friend here at home had quietly passed away that very same day, right about the time the world was focused on Robin’s passing. Unfortunately, that was not the only similarity – she passed in much the same way as he. By her own hand, after a long and vicious battle with depression, and although without Robin’s millions of worldwide fans and admirers – more than her share of loving family, friends, and two beautiful children to boot.

Shelby was one of the first people I met when I moved to Casper in the late 1990′s – a co-worker of mine for a stretch. These, and most, radio stations have always been a fun place to work – but our little bunch in Casper was over the top at the time, with a motley crew of invincible twenty-somethings at the helm. We worked hard, we played hard, and we did the majority of it together – the same people we spent the day with were the same group of friends that often spent most of their downtime together. An equally fun and dysfunctional circus family of sorts, and while I can’t speak for the group – I’d wager they were some of the most memorable times of our lives, certainly mine.

Being young, some of us single, in close proximity to each other most days of the week, and without a human resources department to forbid such back then – some of us even went beyond friendship and treaded into the murky waters of workplace romance on occasion, with various successes and failures. Shelby and I had a little of each – and after eventually realizing that we were probably better suited for being friends, we stayed so, even after life and geography spread most of our original gang apart. (And in an interesting twist, I happened to fall in love with her friend and roommate, another co-worker of ours, who is now the mother of my daughter and wife of 14 years and counting.)

Life has a way of being strange, and the world has a way of being small.

I wish I’d been a better friend, that stayed in better touch, asked tougher questions, and was more insistent on getting the answers. We saw each other around town at events occasionally, traded emails and Facebook notes, bumped into each other at the grocery store, shared photos and bragging sessions about our kids – but never really cut through the surface-level stuff, most of the time. We came together a few years ago when a mutual friend of ours lost his battle with addiction, and vowed to be more connected, realizing that all of us were perhaps less invincible than we used to assume, and that life might indeed be a little shorter than one would hope. And we made good on that vow, for a bit. Inevitably, years went by, and life continued to…happen.

I’m certainly no expert on depression – but I should have noticed the severity of hers more than I did. I’m the child of bipolar parents, with both ends of the spectrum – a mother that can lean to the manic side, and a father that’s struggled more with the dark, debilitating side of clinical depression – so much so, that he even made preparations to end his life in a particularly bad stretch years ago. For whatever reason, he was able to pull things together at the last minute, find some semblance of light at the end of the tunnel and remain with us – and even though he’s in a much better place today, he’d be the first to tell you that it’s an ongoing battle.

When I got the news earlier this week, he was my first contact – and he had some interesting insight as I was struggling to understand how people like Robin, like Shelby – so loved by so many – could get to such a place where this was their only perceived option.

“Most people equate depression with a super-deep sadness, but in my experience that’s not accurate. Best description I ever heard was from William Styron, who compared severe clinical depression to being in a tight room where the temperature gets a degree warmer every day and a little more of the oxygen is pumped out. Emotional content is pretty much zero, except for an all-sapping weariness and a vague fear of so much more of the same to come.”

I’d like to hope that from some of this bad could potentially come good – but I’m convinced that’s only going to happen if all of us take a close personal inventory of ourselves, and those we know and love, and step out of the comfort zones, and into the extreme discomfort zone – shining uncomfortable lights on dark and unknown places, and doing so in a way that goes beyond good intentions.

In Shelby’s case, I’ve replayed in my head these last few days every grocery store conversation, every social media update where I knew something didn’t seem right, every dinner plan that got scuttled due to life’s demands and busy schedules – and know that I could have done better, and been more direct. Survivor’s guilt? Maybe. Could I have truly made a difference or changed the outcome? I’ll never know. But I do know that I could have been better equipped in my understanding of her condition.

My aforementioned father, a writer by trade, had a weekly column recently on the subject – with some personal perspective on how to help those you care about:

“Severe depression cuts off those mental abilities – reasoning, and envisioning better times – as completely as a hand clamped around the windpipe of someone trying to breathe. The metaphorical heat rises, the oxygen gets more and more scarce. If you’re in that frightening place, or have a friend or family member who is, it’s crucial to seek professional help immediately. Pleading with someone to ‘look on the bright side!’, and ‘You need to get out in the fresh air and exercise!’ are insulting to the basic humanity of someone in the grip of clinical depression. You might as well be saying those shallow pleasantries to a person with a broken leg, or who’s on life support. Today, there are more – and more effective – anti-depressant medications than at any time in human history. The downside is that medicines affect each individual brain differently, and finding the right one can take weeks, or months, at a time when each single day and night seems like years to the depressed person. Just one more reason time is of the essence.”

I’m not a professional, but there’s plenty of resources to find people who are, some listed at the bottom of this article. For Shelby, for Robin, for all the rest we have lost, and the ones sadly yet to come – we owe it to them, and ourselves, to better our understanding, and to insist on reaching out, turning on those uncomfortable lights, and having those hard discussions, now. No guarantees of tomorrow.

There’s a quote that’s attributed to various people and occasionally shows up in different forms, but it’s never been more appropriate:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

To those fighting the battle, I wish you continued strength, and offer you an ear to bend. To those who have lost theirs, I hope we can honor your memory by doing a better job of helping others through the darkness.

 

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