He Died Alone

robin-williams
He Died Alone
On the one year anniversary of the death of Robin Williams

There’s a lot of news these days. Where I live, trauma is a part of the story, substance abuse is a part of the story, mental health and illness a big part of the story. The story is difficult, subtle and nuanced, many layered.

In the group that I lead on Monday and Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) outreach on addictions, we are familiar with these subjects in an intensely personal way, especially suicide and other self-defeating behaviors, and whenever it comes up it tends to take over the meeting.

The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.

I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at our table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat, laughing. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing one eye crying.

Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise.

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge around our tables, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table is vigilant. Daily. We call it a daily reprieve.

I suppose it’s well known that drugs and alcohol were part of Robin Williams’ story, depression was part of his story, and celebrity was part of his story. Depression is present in almost all addiction, and celebrity is an added obstacle to working oneself well.

I didn’t know him but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown.

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other.

I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time.

We don’t have an antidote. We have a program. We have each other. I think lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a higher power. It’s a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. We have today, and that becomes enough.

Addendum

I wrote the above piece in another form just after the death of Robin Williams. I think it was a good piece, it led to much conversation. In it I made no great claim to understand what happened to him, only I knew this for certain: he died alone. From that came a strategy: basically, talk talk more talk.

Not long after I wrote that piece, we did a community teaching on mental illness, mental health, suicide and other difficult subjects that we may not talk about easily. In that teaching, I offered up this pledge:

What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. We did that with drug addiction starting over thirty years ago, we need to do that with depression and trauma and suicide and the other challenges to life that dwell within, the inner world when it goes dark. Take up a candle, light it, give that light to someone else.

Don’t let nobody go dark on our watch.

I wrote this pledge, and I took it:

The Pledge

I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.

I will be a reminder in every way I can to my family, friends, and community: we have these problems, they are difficult, but there is no shame attached to them and we live in a Big Tent. 

We can live with our problems.

I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:

Talk, talk, and more talk.

I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:

I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the phone.

I’ve been using this pledge at all our sessions. It’s not sloganeering; It’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help and some relief.

Let’s get to work. Spend some time listening and talking, tell your leadership and your intimates and your trustables about this kind of suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community. I’m starting with my little community, we are devoted to breaking the shanda barrier.

Next session: Sunday, August 16.

The 1 PM session is dedicated to strategies for professionals and organizers, amateurs and activists. We’ll begin the discussion: what to do. As a community.

At 2 PM, we offer up some preparation for the Days of Awe.

Don’t respect the silence. Then push.


*shanda* means shame. 
There is none.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman