Groping for answers in the darkness of suicide

This is Robin Williams Week in America; we are mourning the death by suicide of an extravagantly talented man who made us laugh and think. Here are some thoughts, starting with the words of an old friend whose father killed himself: "Suicide inflicts far more pain than it relieves."

My friend said this 20-plus years ago during a long overnight drive through Virginia, after the conversation had shifted to the guy topics of middle age: depression, alcoholism, women and children, and a mutual concern that we were in the process of becoming our fathers.

I'll be more specific about the concern: It was that we were each coming to adopt the worst personality traits of our fathers.

My friend had picked up a streak of meanness and selfishness that caused him to hurt people he loved, and that left him susceptible to black moods, and the black moods led him to emotional isolation, the same desolate island where his father had ended his life. My friend worried that he would end up there, too.

His father had killed himself when my friend was a teenager. That act had given him extra burdens to bear through life — guilt, shame, bitter feelings of abandonment, nagging confusion and bills from years of psychiatric outpatient therapy. Hate is too strong a word for how he felt about his father, but he certainly harbored profound resentment, and that led to anger, and the anger to reckless behavior that approached the ruinous.

But my friend survived. He's alive today because he stayed in therapy. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He left his frustrating job, went to college at night and found a new career path. He's now enjoying retirement with his wife in a sunny clime, reading books, watching birds, taking photographs of wildlife and beautiful vistas.

I thought of him this week after the news about Williams, dead at 63 at his home in California.

Robin Williams: Mork! Popeye! The teacher in "Dead Poets Society." The therapist in "Good Will Hunting." The hysterical concert comedian. The funniest of guests on late-night television. The organizer, with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, of Comic Relief, which raised millions of dollars for needy people over two decades.

It's so completely, utterly wrong that Williams, class clown to the baby boom generation and gifted actor, thought it better to end his extraordinary life than to continue it.

Here's a man of grand accomplishment and presumably millions of dollars; his talents were still in demand, and he was still widely appreciated, even beloved. He had roles in four movies that are yet to be released. It's safe to assume he had health insurance, and certainly no problem paying for 50-minute hours or residential therapy when necessary.

And he still did not make it.

That's the scary part for anyone, and particularly men between 45 and 64 years old, the age group with the largest number of suicides and the fastest-growing suicide rate in the country. If it can happen to a man with resources and access to treatment, it can happen to anyone.

I had a friend who was like Robin Williams in many ways. He was funny, creative and energetic — a professional illustrator, actor, singer, a comic with a gift for mimicry, and an athlete. He killed himself at 42, a painful mystery for those of us who loved him.

And three years ago this month, Mike Flanagan, a member of the Orioles Hall of Fame, took his own life; he was 59 and also a friend of mine.

I thought of him Friday when the Orioles celebrated the team's 60th anniversary in Baltimore by bringing 23 retired players to the field at Camden Yards — men who had played with Mike in the franchise's last two trips to the World Series, in 1979 and 1983.

Mike's image appeared in a tribute video, but he should have been on the field. I wish I had known what Flanny had been thinking on Aug. 24, 2011. I wish I could have spoken to him when he was in such profound pain.

This will strike you as weird, but I harbored the same wish when I heard about Robin Williams. I wish I could have intervened to save the life of such a funny and talented man, really a national treasure.

I know that's crazy — a fool's business to believe you have the magic formula or words for helping someone, even a close friend, who is severely depressed.

I keep wondering what the lesson might be — what, if anything, I've learned about all this from the survival of one friend, the suicides of two others, and now the death of one of my favorite actor-comedians. Maybe it's this:

All we can do is watch out for one another, to recognize the simmering, troubled silence, crack into it and say, "Life is worth living; you need help to see that. And remember: Suicide inflicts far more pain than it relieves. Think of the people who love and care about you, and let them."

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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