In the wake of the immortal Robin William’s suicide, many of us may be scratching our heads wondering how someone so funny, and happy, and full of life could suddenly just decide to punch out. Could it have been a fall from grace, age, depression, anxiety, all of the above? Is it ever so simple?
Perhaps no other scholar has captured the suicidal mindset like Princeton university psychologist Roy Baumeister did with Suicide and Escape from Self. He explains suicide in six not-so-simple steps. Let’s break these steps down using a little satirical humor in honor of the late great (Captain, My Captain!) Robin Williams.
Step 1: Falling Short of Standards
“It is apparently the size of the discrepancy between standards and perceived reality that is crucial for initiating the suicidal process.” –Roy Baumeister
Imagine you are king of Whereveristan. And you’re a damn good king too. You receive accolades galore and everybody loves you. The kingdom is prospering and everybody contributes it to you. Indeed, you are kingly material if ever there was a thing. Now imagine your throne (high horse) collapsing right beneath you. Everything starts to go wrong. The kingdom is in disarray. And suddenly you are usurped and left to twiddle your thumbs along with the peasants. Depressing, sure, but no suicidal ball ever got rolling without a little depression.
(Note: being “King” is a metaphor for anything from gang leader to top comedian, from professional athlete to president, from good parent to good student. It could even be a metaphor for an ideal self that never even existed.)
Baumeister argues that suicide risk is actually heightened by such idealistic predispositions as perceived wealth, power, and privilege. Of course it’s all relative. But he explains how an emotional fragility arises in people with such a disposition, due to their already unreasonable standards of happiness, and when setbacks occur –and we all know how life is chock full of setbacks– their over-fragility leaves them shattered without knowing how to put the pieces back together again. Like Humpty Dumpty, only imagine Humpty is your heart. But the fall from grace is only the tip of the suicide iceberg. It just gets things going.
Step 2: Attributions to Self
“I can’t deceive myself that out of the bare stark realization that no matter how enthusiastic you are, no matter how sure that character is fate, nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room with the clock ticking loudly into the false cheerful brilliance of the electric light. And if you have no past or future which, after all, is all that the present is made of, why then you may as well dispose of the empty shell of present and commit suicide.” –Sylvia Plath
So there you are, King Nothing, trying to figure out what went wrong. Sure, you still have money, but so what. Nobody looks at you the same anymore. It must have been something you did. You must be rotten is some way. Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, and inadequacy wash over you as you eat your fish head soup on the corner of Poor & Poorer. You feel exposed, humiliated and rejected by everyone and everything. You feel trapped, stuck between yourself and yourself. There is no hope.
According to Baumeister, self-loathing and self-criticism is a common denominator in most suicides. Suicidal people tend to dislike themselves in an existential way, typically due to unrealistically high expectations and irrational beliefs. But in a way that cleaves them off from what they perceive as an “ideal humanity.” Confidence is shattered due to the emotional toll that the setback took, and a state of despair creeps in.
Step 3: High Self-Awareness
“I don’t want to live. . . . Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain. I know how silly it sounds . . . but if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay that’s the rub. I am like a stone that lives . . . locked outside of all that’s real. . . I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave, but to be not dying, and yet . . . and yet to be behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can’t, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but to not reach or to reach wrong . . . to do it all wrong . . . believe me, (can you?) . . . what’s wrong. I want to belong. I’m like a Jew who ends up in the wrong country. I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.” –Anne Sexton
After you finish your soup, you receive a letter from your mother. She goes on about how much she “loves you anyway,” but so what. She is only two towns away, but she might as well be an ocean apart. She’ll never understand you anyway. You’re so cut off from the person she raised, so beyond that. And in light of recent events, that person is irrevocable, just as all future preferred selves are now unreachable caricatures, like cartoons in the brain.
According to Baumeister’s Escape theory, it is this incessant and merciless comparison with an ideal self that fuels the fire of suicidal ideation. The feeling of being irredeemable is crippling, like your soul just barely made it out of an existential crash but is now a quadriplegic. The impact is soul-crushing because of the high level of self-awareness coupled with the emotional fragility that comes with comparing the current self with the past self that “had it all” or with a future self that “could have it all.” Most suicide notes have self-references and first-person pronouns, thereby linking high self-awareness, although aversive, to most suicides.
Step 4: Negative Affect
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” –Seneca
Everywhere around you, the Kingdom is moving on, prospering even. It’s a big shiny bright light that just makes your dark light seem even more poignant. Sure, people notice you, say they love you, and even thank you for your past contributions to the kingdom, but it all feels more like a slap to the face than anything else. Your social exclusion and ostracism trumps all.
Your shame, your guilt, your self-blame, is all a multi-headed monster called Anxiety, a viscous Hydra that just grows and grows. You just want to wipe the slate clean. Yes, a complete and total loss of consciousness. That would end the psychosocial pain. Sleep? Only temporary. Drugs? The same thing. There must be another way to escape.
According to Baumeister, negative suicidal states are generally acute rather than prolonged experiences. Shame is perhaps one of the most crippling human experiences. It gives rise to a plethora of other issues: guilt, self-blame, and multiple anxieties. They can come on like an avalanche. Acute anxiety and depression seeks unconsciousness, and so suicide, unlike sleep or drugs, can feel like a permanent fix to a negative emotional state that seems unbearable. It just so happens that you’re the one experiencing the anxiety, and so you are the one that needs to end it.
Step 5: Cognitive Deconstruction
“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” –Mahatma Gandhi
As your crown melts in the fireplace, you systematically begin to shut down the world inside you and all around you. You begin to simplify things to their base elements. Meaning is squeezed out of everything, and you slip into a kind of idle mental labor, thereby avoiding the flood of shameful anxiety. Even time slows down. All humor is lost, crushed between the sandwich of time. You decide to write a letter of clear self-expression, pouring your thoughts onto paper so as to fill the void. It’s written to your mother, but it’s really written to everyone and everything.
At this stage cognitive rigidity sets in, all meaning is rejected, and everything is constricted to immediate goals. Temporal narrowing, according to Baumeister, is a defense mechanism that prevents a person caught in the throes of suicidal ideation from dwelling on the painful past or the bleak future. This narrowing of time is a way to avoid the suffocating, unhealthy feelings attributed to the downward spiral. Baumeister speculates, “Thus suicidal people resemble acutely bored people: The present seems endless and vaguely unpleasant, and whenever one checks the clock, one is surprised at how little time has actually elapsed.”
Step 6: Disinhibition
“To run away from trouble is a form of cowardice and, while it is true that the suicide braves death, he does it not for some noble object but to escape some ill.” –Aristotle
Everything is nothing. The void is an infinite Now swallowing all things. Your kingdom is not a kingdom. Everything is burning in the fireplace right now: all pasts, all futures. This final act is the culmination of all acts. Nothing can stop you. You tip your mug and drink to the dregs. You settled on hemlock, a suicide fit for a “king.”
Another tragic consequence of cognitive deconstruction (and usually the last) is disinhibition, where one overcomes the intrinsic fear of death by acquiring a temporary loss of inhibition in regards to meaning. This disinhibition temporarily disallows self-preservation. It also overrules any thoughts of how others will feel, or how “wrong” it is to kill oneself. But the gulf between suicidal ideation and full-on acts of suicide is constantly in flux. Up until the very end, there is always a chance to turn back. Most people snap out of this cognitive disinhibition. But very few do not. And it’s tragic.
“What’s wrong with death sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humor. Death is not the enemy gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, indifference.” –Robin Williams, Patch Adams
In the end, suicide is no joking matter. Or is it? Would Robin Williams agree? I think he would be the first to make a joke out of it. Humor can be a suit of iron, or it can be a way to soften the blow, or it can even be both. It is one of the few truly flexible dispositions of the human condition. It is far-reaching, both inner and outer. It can even save us from disinhibition, but not always. Sometimes even humor isn’t enough to drown out the pain of depression and anxiety.
But humor is always a buffer. It is always a safe haven for the perplexed. And, have no illusions, we are all perplexed. Every time you’re able to find some humor in a difficult situation, you win. Like Rumi wrote, “The cure for pain is in the pain.” Indeed, a healthy sense of humor can get you through just about anything. But even if it doesn’t, at least you’re laughing. Robin Williams’ wisdom and sense of humor will live on in our memories. Even if it wasn’t enough to save him, it could very well be enough to save one of us. Rest in Peace, Captain, Our Captain, and thanks for all the laughs.