Suicide and Depression: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
by John M. Phillips
The news of Robin Williams hit this country hard. Why would he do it? He was someone who, to most Americans, had everything, yet was isolated and depressed enough to feel he didn’t have enough to keep living. And that is the point of this blog.
My great grandfather was a lawyer, as was my grandfather. Both died young of natural causes. From what my mother told me, these men lived with a desire to not judge the book by its cover. It is a difficult quality (and getting more difficult by the day when inter-connectivity makes it so easy to judge and hate). In my mind, these men were like the fictional Atticus Finch. In the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch told his daughter:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – spoken by Atticus Finch, written by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Meanwhile, on my father’s side, there was some alcoholism, depression at least one occasion of suicide on the lineage. I remember hearing that my dad’s only brother drove out to a deserted parking lot and killed himself. He was afflicted with physical and emotional illness. The family hasn’t and doesn’t really discuss it. It was a dark secret no one was willing to even whisper.
In college, I had a roommate, named H.G. We all knew H.G.’s dad committed suicide, but H.G. was one of the most full of life people you’d ever meet. I remember having parties at the house, and one in particular. H.G. played the intro to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” over and over again. The significance of this eulogy which was played over and over escaped me:
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.
Electric word, life,
It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time,
But I’m here to tell you!
There’s something else-
A world of never ending happiness,
Where you can always see the sun, day or night.
So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills,
You know the one- Dr. “Everything’ll Be Alright,”
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left,
Ask him how much of your mind, baby.
‘Cuz in this life,
Things are much harder than in the afterworld
In this life,
You’re on your own!
And if the elevator tries the bring you down,
Go crazy! Punch a higher floor!
The clues were there. A few years later, H.G. killed himself. He was no longer living with us, but some of his things were still around. I kept a knife he gave me for many years. I think of him and my uncle often.
In my own practice as a civil defense lawyer, I was taught to look past people’s darkest days and to find weaknesses in their cases… and in their lives. You dare pick up your children with a back injury? You work despite brain injury? How about this medical record where you said you were fine? We used surveillance, picked on doctors, found relatively obscure medical records from decades ago or hired experts to give opinions we knew they would give. GEICO, State Farm, Travelers, Coca-Cola and more paid me to make the case better. I was fairly fond of it as it was emotionless and good work. I was a scientist in my mind, putting facts together with utmost skepticism. It was compassionless. As long as I never… ever… for one instance… climbed into the victims’ skin and walked around in it. And then, one day, I did. Conscious and compassion took over.
Once I walked around in the shoes of people on the other side of the table and learned about their lives, I left defending claims forever. For the last four or five years, we exclusively represent people amidst their darkest days. An injured mother. Parents of a deceased child. An out of work father. A man who is fighting to keep his home and not show his family the consequences of his daily suffering. A mother who can’t lift her child. We all become friends. Many are people going through things you can’t always see. We counsel clients on those dark days. We offer a hug or a shoulder to lean on- passion combined with compassion.
So, back to Robin Williams. He said it, too, in Dead Poet’s Society:
“I stand on my desk to remind myself that we must always look at things in a different way! Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quite desperation’, don’t be resigned to that, break out, dare to strike out and find new ground!” ~Robin Williams speaking to his students in the movie, “Dead Poets Society”
As I said on social media to my friends last night, I am here for you all. If it’s a late night phone call or a beer or steak, I am here. I meant it. If you are living with quiet desperation or depression, tell someone… Tell me. Let light into the dark place. Call or reach out any time.
We all must be less cruel, less skeptical and climb into the skin of those around us. Be bravely compassionate. Love without condition sometimes.