This is the first post I’ve written in over a year. It’s long and rambling. Be warned. I don’t really want to write it or write anything for that matter. I haven’t been in a writing mood for a long time. Not for this kind of writing anyway. I have ghosted some ebooks and written on a freelance basis for cold, hard cash, but not for fun or to express myself. Then I bought and listened to “Still on The Levee”, Chris Smither’s 2-CD set and a few days later, Robin Williams killed himself. It’s no secret that I’m a bipolar bear, as my late son, Mike, who also had bipolar disorder, used to say.
My father had it and his father had it and they both died from heart attacks in their fifties, brought on by chain smoking, constant coffee drinking and staying up when they should have been sleeping. My father confided to my mother, during the early happier years of their marriage, that he was afraid that she’d realize that he was crazy and have him “put away” as they called it in those days.
Instead, she told him to leave, one morning when I was ten and he strolled in at 4 and smirked when she asked him where he’d been. I don’t know why she asked, she knew he’d been with someone new, someone who hadn’t known him long enough to realize that he was crazy and moody and impossible to live with. There were a lot of those relationships in his life until he found a woman who didn’t care how crazy he was and put up with his moods and strangeness, because she was crazy too – crazy in love with him. She was with him when he died and I’m glad he had her and sorry I couldn’t get along with him or please him. Very few people could.
What this has to do with Chris Smither’s music and Robin William’s suicide is that I’m my father’s daughter. When I hear about someone committing suicide because they’re bedeviled by the same demons that aim their pitchforks at my backside, I can’t help but feel sad for them and worried for me and the many other demon-beset depressives in the world.
One of the things that has kept me above ground since I gave up on suicide after two failed attempts when I was in my early twenties, is the blues. I discovered them at a bar in Boston where I was smoking three or four cigarettes for every beer I downed and wondering if I should maybe slow down on drinking so I could walk home without falling over or start ordering pitchers to get it over with. I was giving it a lot of thought, thinking and drinking and not paying much attention to the guy with the guitar who was setting up on stage. Then he started to play.
The bluesman was Chris Smither and he played like the devil and sang like an angel – or maybe it was vice versa – but he was awesome. After almost fifty years, I can’t remember one particular song that he sang, but I do remember that I came to about twenty minutes later and realized that I was still holding my beer glass and hadn’t taken a sip since he started playing. Now, back in those days, anything that could make me forget to drink was a miracle and I needed a miracle that night.
It was a very black period in my life. Like my father, I was afraid that I was crazy, had just left my abusive first husband who was driving around town with a shotgun, looking for me and had his friends out doing the same, and I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I could do with the rest of my life. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t really sure that I wanted the rest of my life to be any longer than it took to drink a six pack and swallow the bottle of pills that I had in my backpack.
I didn’t want to hurt the people who loved me, but a lot of the time I thought that I’d hurt them more by staying alive and making them sad, than I would if I just ended it all and let them grieve and get over it and then get on with their lives without the complications and problems I caused for them. When I thought about the people I loved, the people who loved me, they seemed to shine bright, smiling and quick-stepping lightly through their lives. I was pretty sure they’d continue to do that after a short period of mourning for me if I offed myself.
I felt like a shadow, slowly drifting into life’s corners and getting stuck in places too deep and dark to see my way out. Then, sometimes, I’d slip through a crack in my moods into an inferno and be brighter even than normal people were, thoughts burning in my brain like manic flames, words making people laugh and think and ask me to stay with them, until I crashed and they started sighing and avoiding my eyes, instead of laughing or agreeing with me. The Killing Fog, which was what I called my depression, was back and I was socked in and thinking that the bright times just weren’t worth the pain of the dark times.
One of my friends, Kim, wrote this in her blog, Union Thug Gramma: ““Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I think we’ve all heard this quote and, to a point, agree. On the other hand, if you’ve never experienced the sheer black walls of the abyss known as severe depression, you can’t understand how just ending the pain, even if it means ending your life, can be enough at that moment in time. Luckily, many more people attempt suicide than succeed. Of course, if people know about the attempts, those survivors, many times, are shamed, laughed at, called names. So they, no WE, hide behind our secrets not allowing others behind the curtains that lead to the abyss.”
Her post is a well-written counterpoint to an editorial by Jim LaPierre, who writes for our local Bangor Daily News. He said (bold type is the line I disagree with): In my clinical opinion, suicide is the option chosen by a person who cannot see an end to their suffering. Death seems like a more desirable option than what is being experienced. In my personal opinion, the choice is the most selfish f@cking thing a person can do (outside of euthanasia).
Jim, from what I’ve read in your column, you’re a compassionate survivor of substance abuse and counsel others who have addiction/depression issues. This is why I can’t understand how you can be so wrong about both suicide and euthanasia. Selfish?
In order to be selfish, you have to be able to know that what you’re doing is hurting someone else and care less about that than you do about your feelings and your comfort. I can tell you from personal experience that when I attempted to kill myself, I was not capable of realizing that it was selfish. I wasn’t able to think about anyone else, because the Killing Fog blinded me, deafened me and numbed my brain so completely that there was no room, no way for me to think about anything or anyone else.
I’m not a selfish person. If anything, I put other people first too often in my life unless I rein myself in. I want my loved ones to be happy and if I can do anything to help with that, I will. I don’t want them to hurt and if I can stop them from hurting, I’ll do it, even if it means that I get hurt in the process.
Robin Williams wasn’t a selfish person. He was a person who felt the need to communicate with other people, to make them laugh and think and experience through his talent for acting and comedy. Chris Smithers has been singing the blues for over half a century and I wonder how many people, besides me, are walking around in spite of depression, partly because of his music and that of other musicians who turn pain into beauty with their lyrics and instruments.
Robin Williams stuck around for 63 years, which is how old I am. I wonder how many of those years were more than he wanted to give to other people. I hope to hell that Chris Smither sticks around for at least as long as I’m around, and, yeah, that’s selfish.
I need his music. Ditto for John Prine, Slaid Cleaves, Betty Soo, Mike Rosenberg, Keb Mo, Devil Makes Three, Brown Bird, Elsa Cross, Ray Bonneville, Ray Lamontagne, Kelly Joe Phelps, Gurf Morlix, Ian McLagan and Lucinda Williams and a host of others who keep me sticking my spoon into another quart of Ben and Jerry’s instead of the wall. I know some of them have problems, including leukemia and cancer in at least two cases, so I hope they overcome their health problems of all types and have long, creative lives.
As for euthanasia, Mr. LaPierre. It’s my life, and when it’s not worth living to me, it won’t be worth living for the people around me either and I’ll end it. I’m hard enough to live with now. Ain’t no way my near and dear will object to me checking out when life gets to be too much for me. Trust me.
From Can’t Shake These Blues by Chris Smither: Seems so hard, nothing left to fight it; seems so easy to just let go. Seems so dumb to get so excited; this might be the last I told you so. Can’t shake these blues…