I was deeply saddened to read about the death of Robin Williams this week. I loved many of his films, which have followed me from childhood, through the teenage years and early adulthood, and into my thirties, but I didn’t know him. I can’t claim any connection to him or his family, and it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that I’m heartbroken or grieving at the news of his death. The public mourning and eulogising following any celebrity death always seems disproportionate to me, and even more so in light of the enormously high number of deaths in recent weeks in Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, West Africa, to name just a few.
More than the fact of his death, it is the way in which Robin Williams died that makes me sad. I feel sad that he got to the point of feeling that suicide was the best course of action; that there was nothing in life that could make living seem preferable to dying; that the many people who loved him would be better off without him. I’ve thought those thoughts, and have truly believed that the world would be a better place without me in it, but that’s not why I’m writing now. In fact, I’m not really even writing about Robin Williams – there has been so much written already, by writers far more eloquent than me, and with more reason to write about his life and death.
In the immediate aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, the media speculated almost incessantly about why he had killed himself. He was ‘battling’ addictions, depression and anxiety, was in debt, and was forced to make films that he didn’t want to make, in order to pay the bills. This speculation all but stopped when his wife revealed that Robin Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“Of course!” the media responded. Of course that explains why Robin Williams would choose to end his life.
I don’t want to belittle the seriousness of a diagnosis like this, or to downplay the difficulty of facing a future with the certainty of progressive disability.
What I do want to question is the collective mindset that living with a serious illness or disability is worse than death.
I have had too many people tell me that I’m brave for staying alive despite my physical disability. They express surprise that I seem happy, and something verging on disbelief when I tell them that I am happy most of the time. They tell me that they would kill themselves if they became wheelchair-bound. Another instance of malfunctioning internal filters (that link will take you back to a post I wrote last week).
Do a little thought experiment with me:
Think about the things that you love about life. Think about the people in your life, about your work and your hobbies. Think about the big things that make your life wonderful, and the little things that can turn a day around for you. Think about books that you’ve read, music you’ve heard, places you’ve been, films you’ve watched. Think about your past, about the stories you love to tell, the things you’ve achieved, things that make you smile, and things that make you proud. Think about the future, your plans for holidays and upcoming celebrations, bigger plans (maybe you have a Five Year Plan?), things you want to learn, see, and experience. Now think about who you are, and the things that make you who you are.
What would happen to you if you became ill and/or disabled?
Some of the things above would change, but some of them would stay the same. You might find that you can still find pleasure in life – maybe in travel, food, learning new skills, or in good company. You might still be able to do many of the things that make you who you are, and you may be able to learn, grow and develop in ways you had never imagined.
I don’t want you to think that it is easy (is your life currently easy?) but I want you to believe that it might be possible to enjoy life even if you were to become seriously ill or disabled. I want you to think critically about the media assertion that you would be better off dead, or that it would be perfectly understandable if you killed yourself in such circumstances.
We will probably never understand why Robin Williams decided to kill himself. The reason may have been his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, but it might have been something else, or lots of things. It may have been that depression had simply sucked all the life out of his life, until there was nothing left.
To say that life with a disability is not worth living is to vastly oversimplify. It weaves a misty tapestry of fear and myth around illness and disability, telling disabled people that their life is hardly worthy of the name, and telling able-bodied people that they should count themselves lucky not to be disabled. It’s hardly a strong foundation for an inclusive society, is it?