Henry Rollins Shows His Ass, Gets Told, Owns It

So, in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, Henry Rollins wrote a piece in LA Weekly called “Fuck Suicide,” in which he basically engages in a bit of “tough love” victim-blaming. This caused the world to drop on Henry Rollins’ head (here’s a fairly representative sample). Henry Rollins, to his credit, has offered up a reasonably decent apology, and plans to follow up in the same forum where the original piece ran. So that’s good, so far. Apologies are hard and hard to do well, and I think he hits the basics (and for those who don’t know, here are what I think are the basics).

A number of years ago a girl who I knew in high school committed suicide in college, in a way that at the time I thought was astoundingly dramatic. For years, when I thought of her at all, I was kind of pissed off at her. I thought of all the people she hurt with her actions, and I thought that fundamentally, what she had done was selfish and stupid and designed to get her attention that she thought she was owed and now would not be able to appreciate because she was dead — not that I thought she had thought about what would happen after she committed suicide. So that was my thinking about her, like I said, for years.

And then somewhere along the way, and I don’t remember when precisely it was, I realized that someone in this scenario was indeed an asshole, it’s just that I was putting the finger on the wrong person. The asshole was me. Because in fact I knew nothing about what was going on her head, or how much pain she may have been in, knew very little about depression or how it works on people — basically I knew nothing, period, about anything relevant. All I knew were my own opinions, based on my own life experience, in which neither suicidal thoughts, nor depression outside of a few occasional bad days, had ever featured. I wasn’t qualified to judge. Life is one long process of discovery about just how little you know about pretty much everything, and that includes people and the insides of their heads.

When I think of this young woman now, I mostly, simply, feel sad. I wish there would have been a way she could have seen her way through to sticking around. And I’m sorry that I spent years generally being pissed off at her. It was wrong of me, and it didn’t do either of us any good.

This is my way of saying that I get why Henry Rollins wrote what he did, and why he was the asshole in that scenario, and why I’m pleased, in that vague way that one is when thinking about people more famous than you, whose work you’ve enjoyed, that he’s accepted that he blew it and is trying to walk it back. As I’ve said many times, we all show our ass from time to time. I certainly have. What you do after you show your ass matters.

82 Comments on “Henry Rollins Shows His Ass, Gets Told, Owns It”

  1. Spot-on, John.

    I’m not suicidal, nor have I been, but I have a lot more empathy for folks who are, or who have been now that I’m looking more clearly at the contents of my own skull.

    If you’ll allow the link here, if you think it adds to the discussion, I recently wrote a non-fiction piece designed to let others along for the ride in there. http://schlock.us/fine — “No. I’m Fine.” It’s a short read, and it’s absolutely free. And be warned, it might hurt.

  2. What I find interesting is that Rollins and Zelda Williams both had roles in the recently-finished third season of The Legend of Korra–he as the Big Bad, she in a minor role that seems a setup to recur in Book 4 (if Nick lets it happen).

    Given the lead time on animation, I imagine that they were done with the voice work months ago, and of course they probably never saw each other when they were filming (the characters never shared scenes or dialogue), but…given Rollins’s point about a parent’s suicide hurting the children, it’s a weird confluence of timing.

  3. I was like that too at one point, where I thought Suicide was a selfish act. I don’t feel that way anymore. Unless someone has dealt with depression or other issues, they need to STFU about suicide

  4. I do understand the anger at a friend’s or family member’s suicide. I also know that a person who commits suicide is in incredible emotional pain and this violent act against oneself seems like the best option at the time. It isn’t.
    I also wonder what the suicide’s last thoughts are. My sister did not leave a note so I will always wonder what exactly triggered her to commit suicide. Thanks for writing about this topic.

  5. If people only knew the deepest darkest place a person can go in their own heads. I haven’t tried suicide, but I was right on the verge. Trust me the last thing I was thinking was about the people that would be left behind. Now I look back and wonder why no one could hear my screams (somewhat silent, but still hints here and there), or why they didn’t care enough to just give me a hug.

  6. Thanks for this post. I owe someone an apology and haven’t had the courage to do it. I’m going to take care of it today.

  7. I’ve been grieving for nearly a year now after the death of my dog in September and my father’s passing in May. Of the classic stages of grief I’ve found anger to be the easiest stage to fall into and the hardest to get out of. I think this is even more the case when the person lost isn’t someone really close to you–and especially when it’s a suicide–because you can be mad at the person and no one’s going to call you on it. Whereas if I get mad about about my dad my friends and my family point out that I loved him, this is normal, etc.

    My $0.02.

  8. @Howard Tayler: I saw that piece via twitter a few days ago. I read the the title and maybe a sentence or two and knew instantly that now would be a VERY bad time for me to read it (see above). I’ve been telling everyone “No, I’m fine” for a year; the typical response is “Uh huh.”

    But I also know someday I’ll be ready to read it and I’ll probably be glad I did.

  9. From what I’ve heard from people who have seriously considered suicide, many ARE thinking about others. They believe that they are such a burden on their loved ones and community as a whole that it would be better for everyone if they were not in the picture. While my friends were completely mistaken, they were in fact being selfless– so much so that they were almost willing to make that sacrifice.

  10. This: “But I need to put a pill in my mouth in order to not want to cry right now about how I need to put a pill in my mouth.”

    And this: “Knowing I’m not in my right mind doesn’t put me back in my right mind any more than knowing I’m barefoot pulls a splinter out of my foot.”

    Thank you, Howard.

    Sometimes sharing stories means more than we can imagine. Especially when they’re just… out there. Even if you’re not a well-known blogger, famous writer, whatever, you never know who might find a particular story at the exact right time.

    So, thank you. Both for sharing that, and for reminding me of the importance of sharing. I’ve not posted either to my fiction website or my personal blog in a long time because of the sick little voice that tells me “Why bother, no one cares, no one wants to read what you have to say anyway, so just keep it to yourself.”

    I don’t know that this changes that, but it makes a crack in the wall.

  11. “And then somewhere along the way, and I don’t remember when precisely it was, I realized that someone in this scenario was indeed an asshole, it’s just that I was putting the finger on the wrong person. The asshole was me.”

    This might be going off on a tangent but, I think there’s something else to realize about this scenario, and that is: you are not IN the scenario. Not only is it not about you, it has nothing to do with you.

    And maybe you do know that in this particular case (it’s your blog, of course it’s about you, etc etc). But very often I’ll see other scenarios, and many of the people of the lowest difficulty settings are talking from an unstated given that their opinions are part of the scenario. So that particular statement has caught me.

  12. Howard Tayler: that’s phenomenal. Thank you.

    Our gracious host: thanks to you especially, both for the post itself, and more generally, for the civility you’re able to maintain here.

  13. Well – I have had my beatings with depression, it’s a swing between feeling hopeless and that the world is against you and you are angry at everything including myself. Sometimes when people are grumpy, keeping to themselves or generally annoying it may be because they are depressed.

    Personally I don’t think that it’s one single state to be depressed. You can have the feeling of the world resting on your shoulders, and still appreciate some absurd moments in life (at least that’s the case for me). Another question is – do depression actually act as a driving force for people? Some people are driving themselves hard to be successful but they never feel satisfied or really happy. Is depression a side-effect of being creative (or is it the other way around?)

    As another issue I start to worry about the ability for people to write fiction these days when I see an article like this article: “High school student arrested for writing story about shooting dinosaur” ( http://blog.sfgate.com/sfmoms/2014/08/21/high-school-student-arrested-for-writing-story-about-shooting-dinosaur/ )

  14. Adam- Thank you for posting the link to Xiphias’ excellent blog on this topic.

    Scalzi- Thank you for bringing up the topic today. Good timing.

  15. Sometimes, suicide seems the only solution, like in case of terminal illness. If I get terminally ill, I hope I’ll have enough courage to go that way instead of suffering for months/years. But sometimes, suicide is “selfish and stupid” no matter how depressed a person is. I don’t know about Robin Williams but years ago I knew a family where the husband committed suicide. They were immigrants, a family with two young children. Both parents were professional, educated people in their country of origin in Eastern Europe. After their immigration to Canada, the husband couldn’t find a well-paid professional job he expected to find. The family struggled financially for a year or two, and then the husband killed himself. He left his wife unemployed with two young children. I think his action was unforgivable. It happened many years ago, and I’m still mad at him. All emotional considerations aside, his death left his family much worth than it was while he lived. He should’ve soldiered on for a while, at least until the family was financially secure and the kids grown beyond kindergarten. Williams at least left his loved ones money to live on.

  16. My nephew committed suicide. I understand the anger because I was angry about a lot of things, including myself. There was a part of me that felt responsible.It happened in a year that was just awful – I lost him, my grandmother, my mentor, a good friend and yes, even my cat, over an eight month period that year.

    A group of friends in an on-line forum were discussing suicide a few months later and one of them commented that they would be angry because it was so selfish and all the person had to do was ask for help. It made me think about my nephew, really think about it in a way I hadn’t been able to in the beginning. I think by the time you get to the notion of killing yourself you are so far down the hole that it becomes next to impossible to see any sort of light. You have to believe that you are beyond help. You have to believe that this is the only solution that makes sense – except, of course, you are so far down the hole that sense isn’t sensible.

    I contrasted where my nephew was – how desperate and said and in pain he had to be to want to end it all with my dear friend who had cancer and wanted against all odds to live. It mad me profoundly sad that at 21 that beautiful kid couldn’t see all that was ahead of him, that the pain was so overwhelming that he just wanted to stop feeling and this was the only way he could see doing it. How can I be angry with him for that? It was just so tragic. I was no longer angry, I was just so very sad. I still am, nearly a decade on. But it was a hard won understanding.

  17. I actually wasn’t made at Rollins for the original piece.

    It’s not that I agree with him – he was pretty definitely wrong. But I’ve read most of his books and seen him do his spoken word thing and it’s pretty clear to me (as he mentions in this apology) that Rollins has suffered from depression. And I’m also pretty sure that being pissed off about thing is how he survives it.

    More than that even is that he works his stuff out in public, so he does indeed show his ass fairly often. And his original piece read like that to me – not a man with real contempt for suicides, but as someone hurt by it and try to work what he does feel.

    As opposed to people who just pricks.

  18. I appreciate that this conversation continues because I think it is so important. I’m glad that people are thinking and feeling and reacting to stories about depression, suicide, and what it means. Even, or maybe especially, when it triggers others to counter and tell their own stories. The more we talk about it, the more likely someone is to be able to see a story that relates to their own situation. Thanks to Mr. Taylor for the link to his story above and to Adam for sharing that link to Xiphias.

    In my case, I was a teenager when I attempted suicide. I didn’t send out signals or ask for help. In fact, aside from one quick thought that I dismissed as coming from nowhere, I didn’t even think about suicide (or that I was depressed) until the night I attempted. Then after my (thankfully failed) attempt, I didn’t tell anyone what I had done for quite a while, either. Of course, the first person I told was my romantic partner, who was angry that I didn’t tell them and broke up with me. But then I told a friend, who got me connected to people who could help. And my life got better little by little.

    I share this to say that a suicide attempt can be an impulsive act, whether or not someone has had thoughts about it in the past. In this way, young people can be more at risk because the part of the brain that works through consequences hasn’t fully developed and impulses seem more compelling than they may later. If you can help someone find a compelling reason not to follow the impulse, or if you can separate them from the ability to follow through on the impulse, it may pass. Not a permanent solution, but a delaying tactic to keep them going one more day and hopefully help them find resources and one reason to fight through the pain until they can find more reasons and more days that are good than bad.

  19. While I like both his acting and his music, I’ve never thought too highly of Rollins as a *person* – for a supposed “Punk” he’s incredibly reactionary, and I simply can’t stand the whole Straight Edge-demeanor.

    But I have to hand it to him in this case: That apology was a true sign of introspection and human dignity. I guess I have to revise my opinion of the man.

  20. Olga Godim

    Unfortunately, being poor does not magically cure people suffering from illness; if it did then doctors everywhere would have noticed by now.

    In the real world poverty makes people more, not less, ill; the thesis underpinning your claim that it’s selfish for poor people to commit suicide is the denial that depression is actually an illness at all.

    You may not wish to admit that in so many words but that is what you are arguing, and your argument has no basis in science. Inflicting that sort of unscientific nonsense on people struggling desperately with a potentially fatal condition can, and does, do great harm.

  21. Ok, I’ve been depressed to the point of suicide once in my life, and what I know is that nothing anyone could’ve done would’ve made a difference. Really. Far as I was concerned, there wasn’t anybody else. I found my own way out, but it was damned close for awhile; I have no judgement for anybody who makes the choice to stop that pain.

  22. Oh, and Howard? It takes serious guts to put something like that on the page, Dude, you rock!

  23. As a chronic depressive of long standing, I find Angela’s request for exclusion to be if not offensive, then certainly insensitive and/or counterproductive.

    Just before coming here I was writing one of my friends, who is under treatment for bipolar disorder, still sorting out body-image issues from the last misstep in that plan, getting past the wreckage left behind by a long relationship to a thoroughly toxic man-child, and presently in a depressive phase. The thrust of our dialogue is about her tendency—which is hardly hers alone—to hide and tune out when she’s in one of her depressive stretches… even from people who care about her.

    In my own life, I’ve got a number of family members bitching at me because my anxiety is causing a great deal of trouble that I cannot fully contain without help from others. I don’t blame them for being annoyed; it only takes several yards in their shoes to be that magnanimous.

    …The ultimate point is that for every depressive, there are people they haven’t driven off, at least some of whom are frustrated by being forced to watch inertly. My father sometimes describes himself as “helpless” (though his perspective is unique where I’m concerned).

    My point is that no, you don’t have to be a depressive in order to have an informed opinion… which in any event is informed by your own perspective. It’s okay for me to hold forth about MY feelings; not so about anyone else’s, in the absence of a request from them for my opinion.

    I cannot possibly know what Hell looks like to them, even though my own hell is pretty exquisitely detailed.

  24. What if you ask for help and no one cares, or helps? In that case, ending the pain seems like a reasonable thing to do. Why should people insist that you keep on living, if they are not willing to help you live?

  25. Ah, the good old days, when “Black Flag” meant an American hardcore punk band formed in 1976 in Hermosa Beach, California, established by Greg Ginn, the guitarist, primary songwriter, and sole continuous member through multiple personnel changes in the band. They are widely considered to be one of the first hardcore punk bands. After breaking up in 1986, Black Flag briefly reunited in 2003 and again in 2013.

    As opposed to now when “Black Flag” evokes ISIS or ISIL, the Islamic terror group.

    Footnote: In Arabic, the group is known as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The term “al-Sham” refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in this entire area.

    The standard English term for this broad territory is “the Levant.” Therefore, AP’s translation of the group’s name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

    Suicide rant, or suicide bombers, take your pick.

  26. M.A.

    I’m glad you made it out of the swamp, and I second your appreciation of Howard Tayler’s very powerful piece.


    Thank you for this; it’s important in a number of ways. Keeping the conversation going matters because there is so much disinformation about mental illness which needs to be challenged if we hope to help people.

    And then there’s the point that we are told fairly frequently that having the Internet fall on your head never changes anything, usually with the unvoiced ‘stop complaining’, so it’s good to know that sometimes it can change things for the better…

  27. If I never have to see another person claim that suicide is “selfish” it will be too sodding soon, wow. Wow.

  28. @ Stevie – I know that poverty doesn’t make you less depressed. I’m poor and I have a diagnosis of clinical depression. It’s hard to fight it. But I also know that some people stay alive through pure determination, while suffering from cancer and other debilitating diseases, because their families need them. The man I talked about didn’t think about his family when he killed himself. I think about my children when I don’t kill myself, no matter how sad and dismal I feel. If he was alone, it would be his choice, and I would respect that. But he was a father. He should’ve considered his children first.

  29. Who is he apologizing to? Victims of suicide? They probably aren’t listening. Their families? Wasn’t his entire point that committing suicide creates problems for the person’s family? This seems very much true. I don’t have personal experience with suicide, but I know a few who do. None of them are particularly happy about the outcome.

    Is he apologizing to people with depression or suicidal tendencies? His message that suicide is selfish and wrong is perhaps aimed at them, though isn’t that a message that should be sent? Suicide is wrong and selfish. If we didn’t think suicide is wrong, why do we set up suicide hotlines? Why aid suicidal people at all? It’s hard for me to categorize suicide as just a “your body, your choice” type of situation. In any event, people with suicidal thoughts who choose not to commit suicide seem to be the exact opposite of the people he is criticizing.

    An apology has to have some point – who did he wrong? How does his apology help them?

  30. Olga, you don’t know what that man thought about or didn’t think about before making that decision. If he left a note that you read, you may know what he decided to disclose there, but you do NOT know what he may have considered before taking that final step.

    But your comment does bring up the only upside I can think of to regarding suicide as selfish: it helps people who are not selfish not do it. This has worked for me; I’ve been known to say “I’m not quite that selfish yet” (though with this blog post of John’s I’m going to stop doing that. I think about the damage I’ve seen done by other suicides and how much it would hurt my friends, and I don’t do it. That got me through some of the worst times of my life.

  31. Olga: Have you considered that he may not have been able to think about his children? Did you read the link I gave to Xiphias’ LiveJournal post? If not, please go read it before you pass judgment on the man you have described here.

  32. Thank you, Howard.

    As someone who’s been sucked into that black vortex, all the way to the edge, but managed to pull back just as I was considering methods: It’s not rational. Consideration of the hurt to others, mostly my brain didn’t let me think of it much. I certainly couldn’t feel it or feel the love for me I knew they had, until the key link that slammed my brakes on showed up. So even if someone’s completely wrong about the impact of their loss and their ongoing value to others, the decision is being made from that perspective, twisted by a brain that’s seemingly trying to get rid of them. And that among other things potentially has accepted an “out of sight, out of mind” model of how others view them.

    I find it makes more sense to me to imagine it as a mechanism of a primitive tribal culture trying to survive, or a herd of animals. If I am apparently fundamentally damaged and feel I am a drain or do not belong, my subconscious does whatever tricky things it needs to do to convince conscious me to take myself out. That includes ignoring the negative consequences or massively downplaying them. In retrospect it was bizarre, how much I just couldn’t think of, drowned out by pain or simply walled off; my subconscious may have thought it was being selfless, but the rest of me was being hoodwinked and tormented into going along with it.

  33. Some stay alive through sheer determination. Some do not. Some cannot. Cancer, depression, other illnesses. It is an individual matter. We are not all built the same. Good on you, Olga, if you have had the strength thus far. Not everyone has it. I hope you always will. If that changes, I hope the people in your life do not judge you harshly.

  34. I also find Xiphias’s post to be an accurate description of how it felt for me, that inability to feel happiness. Knowing that I should feel happy about things but didn’t made it worse. Thank you, Adam, for the link.

  35. I like a lot of what Rollins does. He’s a pretty funny guy, and the radio show is pretty good, but I feel like this is a point where his tough guy persona led to something pretty problematic. Glad to see that he recognized his mistake and owned it.

  36. Olga Godim

    I have an exceedingly unpleasant, progressive, and incurable, lung condition, which was gold standard diagnosed when I was five years old; since then I have spent so much of my life in hospitals that I have lost track of the number of hospitals, much less the number of times I have been admitted to each hospital.

    My lungs are colonised by a strain of multi-resistant, hyper-mutating pseudomonas aeruginosa, and, not only do we not have fully functioning antibiotics which we can use to kill them off, but also there are no antibiotics in the research pipeline. John’s near future ‘Lock In’ may look scary but by contrast with the global threat of the end of the Antibiotic Era it looks like a stroll in the park.

    You say you know people who stay alive by sheer dogged determination; oddly enough, that’s what some of my doctors say about me as well. They usually say it very, very quietly because they know my reaction: down the years I have known many, many people who have fought just as hard as I have done, and yet lost their battles. I was lucky, plain and simple.

    It’s nonsense to suggest that if they had tried harder it would have been fine, and the willingness to make fatuous comments like that suggests that the people who make them haven’t a clue of what life is like at the really sharp end, and are desperately trying to pretend that it couldn’t possibly happen to them.

    Unless you have remarkable telepathic skills you have no idea of what was happening inside the mind of the father who killed himself, and yet you presume you do in order to lecture people about it.

    I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I acquired as a result of being blown up by an exploding oxygen regulator when I was 36 weeks pregnant. I had already spent nine weeks of the first trimester in hospital because they couldn’t stop my lungs bleeding. Nobody ever suggested that if I just tried harder then my lungs would stop bleeding.

    Once the PTSD kicked in some of of the more ignorant suggested that I should just stop freaking out and be happy that we got out of there alive; the group of ‘people who escape from a fire being fed by pure oxygen’ is exceedingly small, mainly because people don’t, so there was a distinct shortage of support groups. People were, on the whole, completely clueless about what PTSD actually is.

    And so it became very clear to me that culture treats different illnesses in different ways, and some of those ways are wrong. No-one looking at an x-ray of my lungs could be in any doubt that I have a massive problem; no-one who knows anything about PTSD talking to me would doubt that I do indeed have it.

    But in the absence of pretty shiny medtech accurately diagnosing PTSD, or depression, or the gazillion mental illnesses that humans suffer from, and providing cures, we need to stick with making science the starting spot, and that means accepting that this is not a democracy. Your views are not as good as those of people who have devoted their lives to it, and your prejudices have no place in an effort to help people who desperately need help…

  37. Dear Jonathan,

    Uhh, massive derail attempt.

    Please try to stay focussed.

    Or, at least let others stay focussed. This is too important a topic for diversionary gambits.

    pax / Ctein

  38. On top of how great this post is, and all the excellent comments (as usual on the Whatever!), thank you John for this wonderful quote:

    “Life is one long process of discovery about just how little you know about pretty much everything”

    It’s going to be my new email epigram. :-)

  39. “I think people who commit suicide are so selfish! All I ask of them is that they spare me some bad memories, and that they spend the rest of their lives in tortured misery and despair until they die anyway! Get over it, you just need to not be unhappy!

    “Like I say to people dying of untreatable, terminal cancer–you think you’re so sick, but just get off the chemo and suck it up! You just need to not be cancerous!

    They’re the selfish ones! I guess that’s why suicidal people don’t want to talk to me, their self-centeredness. Hey, what’s on TV? What, repeats again? God,that’s so depressing!”

    That’s how you come across when talk about how selfish a person who killed his/her self is.

  40. John, your points on apologies are very well said. To those that say, ” Suck it up.”…”Count your blessings.”…”There are others worse off than you.” I say, “Piss off, you don’t know what you are talking about, and you certainly don’t know the person/people you are talking to!” To be in a place that you think the world, or those that love you, would be better without you, is a war.
    Wanting to not feel that way and wanting to not feel that way. Two sides of the same coin.

  41. Olga,

    As you know from dealing medically with depression, it’s a matter of brain chemistry, hormones, and even genetics. Everybody’s brain chemistry is different, which is why different drugs and combos of drugs work differently on people — what is a workable cocktail for one person to control their depression can cause extreme behavior changes and suicidal thoughts for another. Adding to it is that depression can be accompanied by other conditions — bi-polar disorder that involves both depression and mania, schizophrenia which involves hallucinations and sensory overload, addiction, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders, dementia, post-traumatic stress, post-partum hormonal effects, etc.

    All of these, in addition to how much treatment the person can get and how drugs may work on them, effect how much control the person has over their brain function. The situation of parents who not only kill themselves but their children is an example of this — those people because of their disease see their children as extensions of themselves rather than separate people and cannot imagine futures for them outside of the now. And that is a major component of suicidal depression as well — the person is stuck on the current or the past and cannot envision a future in which the pain might be lessened, when those around them won’t be burdened with them, and they can have a future. They can’t see a horizon.

    That you can, in your children, is a wonderful thing. That you can see that you being there for your children helps them, rather than have the idea that your continued presence will only hurt them, is a wonderful thing and it’s great that it gives you strength. But others with different brain chemistry can’t, even if some part of them rationally can understand it, their brain chemistry literally won’t allow them to function that way. As much as we’ve learned about the brain, we still don’t know how to easily fix that, for each person’s different brain situation, nor do our societies and governments devote all the resources needed to dealing with that.

    These past few weeks we’ve all been watching celebrities and friends pour buckets of ice water on their heads for the ALS charity drive. The problem for ALS sufferers is that their disease isn’t profitable to research and design expensive medicines for. So the money that is coming in they desperately need, since it’s a terrible terminal disease. And it highlights the problem that societies so very seldom invest in people, regard all people as assets we should be trying to help. And even when we do invest, it can be tricky because we don’t know how bodies and minds will be able to respond.

    When we lose someone to mental illness, we realize that we have lost an asset and we’re angry that the person didn’t hold on to the rope just a little bit longer. But sometimes they can’t hold on to the rope. And that’s the problem that we need to tackle — helping all the sufferers with their different brain chemistries to hold on to the rope longer, rather than being angry that they individually didn’t have the tools to do it themselves. I hope that you can continue to hold on, have help and be there for your kids. But when you have troubles, that’s not a weakness of your character — it’s a glitch in your brain. Getting angry because someone else’s glitch was worse will not help you.

  42. I used to think that nothing could justify suicide, but Alasdair Stuart from Escape Artists put it very good when he said that we sympathize with people experiencing physical pain, but we don’t feel the same way about people experiencing mental pain. We don’t understand that mental pain isn’t something you can tough out and for some people the only way to make it stop is to end their life.

  43. I think that Olga Godim, and other people who call suicide selfish, are relying on a common but faulty premise – that all people suffering from depression are able to understand the impact that their deaths will have on others.

    Some people with depression know how much they would hurt the people around them if they were to commit suicide, and that’s what helps them hang on. But depression is a lying bastard. How it lies varies from person to person. Some people with depression think that their deaths won’t matter to anyone else. Some people with depression think that their loved ones will be better off without the burden of dealing with them.

    Sometimes suicide is a selfish act. Sometimes it’s not. Without knowing the details about how depression affects a specific person, it’s impossible to say. But it’s always sad, and I don’t think it helps the friends and families of the victim to have to deal with other people’s public condemnation on top of the tragedy.

  44. John’s memory of his school friend brought to mind a school friend of mine who committed suicide. I was friends with Jim in grade school, knew him much of my childhood. My family moved out of state when I was 14, and I never saw him again. But I heard that at 15 or 16, he committed suicide. I was shocked. Couldn’t imagine what changes in him or his life had led to that since I had last seen him, or what pain or secrets he may have hidden from me during our childhood. Suicide seemed so incongruous with the kid I knew.

    Two years ago, I had the opportuity to sit down over drinks with a couple of people from those days, whom I hadn’t seen since I was 13 or 14. Since they had been in contact with Jim at the time of his suicide, and also in contact with a couple of kids who were close friends of Jim’s (one of whom was on the phone with him for an hour the night before he killed himself), I asked them about it, still bewildered after all these years. Turns out, they and everyone who knew Jim well at the time were also still bewildered all these years later. The friend who was close to Jim and spoke to him the night before had no idea then, and still has no idea now, what happened. Even speaking to him hours before he did it, and reviewing that conversation in her head hundreds of times since then, she says there was no hint, no clue, no foreshadowing, nothing she can recognize even in hindsight that tells her what he was on the verge of doing, nor why he did it.

    So this boy who killed himself as a teen remains one of the personal mysteries and sorrows of all our lives. We never knew, we never suspected, and we still have no idea why. but he was a good lad, and I’m so sad he felt compelled to do it. And I wonder if anyone knows what moved him to do it.

  45. I’m seeing a number of people here saying that we can’t know what goes in in the mind of someone who commits suicide, and then saying what they think they know goes on in the mind of someone who commits suicide. Apparently it’s okay to mind-read if you’re justifying suicide, but not if you’re critical of suicide. Interesting.

    I don’t think suicide is always wrong. That has to be judged — like everything, really, on a case by case basis. I myself have never considered suicide, which in the current atmosphere is proof that I’m not really gay. (So is the fact that I have never danced shirtless in a Pride parade.)

  46. Thanks to everyone for their comments and insights. All these remarks have their slice of value to everyone who thinks about their own internal existance [whoops, I nitoce that there is no spel cheker here! I’ll just do the best I can.] from time to time.

    I have depression events – periods where I have no motivation, no happiness, I have tried not to think about it much when it isn’t affecting me, and when it is upon me, as Howard says, my mind isn’t working right, so what good would insight do me then?

    Medications seem to help, but then the side effects overwhelm the good they do, so then I go back to toughing it out. SO has BiPolar, ADHD and other issues, takes many meds, I try to support in every way I can while dealing with my own issues as quietly as I can.

    Thanks to all who contributed insight here. I’m sorry I’m not adding much to the discussion.

  47. Sorry, I hit the wrong key and posted that before it was done. I hope I may continue.

    There’s a strong tendency today toward enabling suicide in gay youth, by romanticizing and sentimentalizing it and treating it as a normal, even normative response to realizing that one is gay, all in the guise of a patronizing sympathy for those who suffer from being gay and young. Maybe it’s in our genes?

    It’s true, we can’t know what goes on in the mind of someone who kills him or herself. But that is true of everything a person does. I can’t know what goes on in the mind of someone who condemns Robin Williams (as I do not) for killing himself. I can’t know what is going on in the mind of a homophobe, or a racist, or a fundamentalist Christian either, or for that matter of “assholes” (which seems to be a handy all-purpose term of abuse among many) but they seem to be fair game for the non-judgmental.

    I see a lot of people who think they’re defending Williams by making certain assumptions about what was in his mind, how he suffered, and so on. But they don’t know what was going on in his mind. Some of the attacks take a passive-aggressive form: Oh Robin how could you do it we love you so much you changed my life I love you forever how could you do it!!! Of course, I don’t know what’s going on in their minds, either, so I can’t really say anything about them.

    It seems to me, however, that it is still fair to say that some suicides do a lot of harm to people around them. And that can be said no matter what was going on in the mind of the suicide. Just as we can say that an abusive parent is abusive, and is hurting his or her children, no matter what is going on in his or her mind. A lot of the same people who are so protective of suicides seem to have no compunctions about judging people who unthinkingly hurt others in other ways. That, I think, needs to be thought through more than it has been so far.

    So must lines like “Well, maybe he/she was incapable of thinking of the effect his/her suicide would have on loved ones” Maybe so, but the same could be said of people who beat their children or their spouses or parents or who go on killing sprees or who shoot unarmed black teenagers in the back or who molest choirboys or invade Iraq or waterboard prisoners.

    I’m also seeing people who make claims about depression that are not true. It is not a chemical imbalance in the brain — that diagnosis is being abandoned, quietly, by the psychiatric profession, though I don’t know what is replacing it. Despite decades of research, psychiatry has been unable to find a physical basis for any mental illness, or a genetic or other biological cause. And long-term studies show that the medications used on the mentally ill are not much (if any) more effective than placebos. They do frequently have horrific “side effects,” which can include fun stuff like suicidal ideation; the treatment is often worse than the illness. Which doesn’t mean I’m dismissive of the suffering of people with depression; I’m not. Nor does it mean that I think depression or other mental distress is the fault of those who suffer from it. I”m not. I’m saying that the medical model for thinking about it is invalid, and is known to be invalid. (I know this is is a big claim. Those who want to know more should read Stuart Kirk, Tomy Gomory, and David Cohen’s Mad Science [Transaction Publishers, 2013) Allen Frances’s Saving Normal [Morrow, 2013]. Frances was the chairman of the APA task force that produced DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used to diagnose mental illness.)

    Anyway, if Henry Rollins suffers from depression, we can’t know what was going on in his mind when he wrote the original piece, or when he wrote the apology. But we shouldn’t judge him, because we don’t know what was going on his mind. Calling him an “asshole” is hateful and judgmental and it might drive him to suicide.

  48. Duncan

    It is disingenuous to suggest that someone’s actions are irrelevant to the question of what is happening in their minds; someone who has committed suicide is, by definition, incapable of carrying on.

    It is a truism that we cannot know what someone else is thinking; we can, however, reasonably use their actions as an admittedly imperfect means of estimating their state of mind.


    You are adding to the discussion, not least in reminding us that our close relationships with others may pile yet another burden on our shoulders.

    You endeavour to deal with your issues quietly because you feel that your SO has so many difficulties that your own are slight by comparison; that is admirable but I’m not sure that it is wise. I hope that you come to accept that your needs are equal to those of your partner, and that someday you will find a therapy which does work…

  49. Like it has been said before, we the people have some of the blame. When we ridicule, mock or make fun of someone for who they are, what they believe or what they do and that person has depression we may very well be contributing to it. I’ve done it, JS and other here have done it. If not in our personal lives then certainly online. Just saying.

  50. ctein: too many people that I know have committed suicide, before, after, and unrelated to our alma mater Caltech. My feelings are very strong, and better aired face to face than online. So I did that techer thing of hiding behind scholarly pseudo-objectivity.

  51. @Duncan, what a massive cartload of generalizations and half-truths. (For example, the idea that *all* psychotropic drugs are no better than placebos.)

    @Edward Gemmer: when one has behaved badly, an apology is often the appropriate follow-up. Speculation that nobody who might matter is listening as an excuse to handwave an apology is very strange.

  52. @Mythago

    So what was bad? I read his original statement and his apology, and I’m not really clear what he is apologizing for and to whom. He made his feelings very clear that he didn’t respect people who committed suicide and he especially doesn’t like people who commit suicide who have children. His apology negated none of that, other than to say he was sorry. Supposedly he is writing something more, so perhaps it will make more sense then.

    In any event, what harm has he caused? Does not liking suicide and not liking it when parents commit suicide really separate him from 95% of society? This idea that depression is horrible and can cause suicide is probably true, but being understanding of depression is not the same as sanctioning suicide.

  53. @Edward Gemmer

    Everyone is has a right to an opinion, and from what I know, he has earned his. But what exactly does venting that particular spleen gain now while everyone involved is trying to mourn? His Initial article caused a lot of pain and he, at least, realizes that. That is a reason to apologize, and he was wise and compassionate to do so.

  54. @Edward Gemmer: Taking your comments at face value, because why not, if neither Rollins nor Scalzi could explain in a way sufficient to clarify for you 1) why Rollins’ comments were jerkbaggy and 2) why his apology was appropriate, I doubt that my far more limited writing ability could be of more assistance. I guess you’ll have to wait for the follow-up.

  55. Bruce Diamond: Depression is a hole that keeps getting deeper even after you’ve stopped digging.

    Indeed, I’ve described it as a deep hole slowly filling with water. When I tried to climb out the sides began to collapse, so I had a choice between slowly drowning, or burying myself alive.

  56. I offer this as an example of the inherent irrationality of the suicidal brain:

    At my lowest *I* was aware (others may not be) that while suicide was desirable, it was not an option due to the hurt that would result for my friends and family. My reaction to that knowledge, for several years, was sheer unadulterated anger towards those closest to me. I was furious that I was stuck here with no way out, just to make their lives easier. I raged and raged against the fact that I couldn’t leave without hurting them and yet they were powerless to stop me hurting, or unaware altogether.

    Like I said, inherently irrational.

    And always, at the back of my head, there is the little extra part of my brain that sits back and observes everything else in my head logically (Terry Pratchett refers to this as ‘Third Thoughts’). For a long time that little voice was unable to break through the wall to the rest of me. These days it crosses the barrier just often enough, but it’s taken a long time to get there.

  57. A friend of mine committed suicide in college.

    I never blamed him. I had gone my own rounds with depression. I understood that it’s a disease, and that when that disease proves fatal, it’s no more the fault of the deceased than it would be if they’d been struck down by cancer, or the flu.

    I did blame myself a bit, and I still do. I knew he was in a bad place, and then suddenly he was so happy–like the weight of the world had fallen from his shoulders. And I knew what that meant. I knew. I stopped on the sidewalk and watched him dance away (literally dance), and I contemplated telling him he’d just bought himself a second shadow because I wasn’t going to leave him alone.

    But I didn’t want to spoil his good mood with my alarmism.

    He didn’t live to see another sunrise.

    As for folks who blame people with fatal illnesses for not willing their way to good health–I have absolutely nothing civil to say to that.

  58. @Duncan: this seems familiar. Do you comment often at Freethought Blogs?

    A friend of mine attempted twice before succeeding: the 25th anniversary of his death is next year. There’s so much I wish I could have shared with him.

  59. You know what? Maybe I’m still an ass that hasn’t seen the light and maybe I just don’t get this crap because I haven’t lived it. You know what I have lived? I’ve lived with my young wife fighting stage four breast cancer for the last for years. She fights hard through all kinds of crap every day so that she can be there and see our wonderful 9 year old boy grow up. I’ve seen her drag herself out of bed the day after chemo to go watch him play baseball so he knows she has been there.
    I watched my 30 year old friend die of stomach cancer. He had just started to live. He ached for more life!
    I had another friend who hung himself and was discovered by his sweet 7 year old daughter; ruining her. Fuck him.
    And fuck suicide. There are people like my wife who struggle to live with horrible illnesses like cancer when there is no help available. If you are going to kill yourself with healthy body and hurt those around when there IS HELP the fuck you too! Go ahead and call me an asshole.

  60. OK.

    Elgion: You’re an asshole.

    Did you read the rest of the comments before adding yours?

  61. @moggybreath: yes I did. Not sure what you wanted me to see.

    Also, I’m very glad (no sarcasm) that you are hear to call me an asshole. People that know and love you still have you here. Keep finding the reason. You are fighting just like my wife.

  62. Dear Jon,

    Totally get it. It’s a squidgy subject and our minds want to skitter away form it.

    No harm, no foul.


    Dear Elgion,

    Yup, asshole. And, as moggy has pointed out, you’ve discounted everything everyone else has had to say about their experiences, because, of course, yours is supremely paramount.

    Oh yeah, and in case you didn’t know, cancer is not the same as depression. People are making an analogy. if you want to say it’s a poor analogy, fine. But you can’t prove anything about suicide by invoking your wife’s cancer. And comparing pain is ALWAYS a poor strategy.


    Dear Duncan,

    Regarding your opinions about mental illness…

    What a load of bullshit.

    Unless you are claiming they are spiritual failings, which I think moves the discussion beyond our collective level of knowledge and competence.

    pax / Ctein

  63. Duncan: Having relatives who have been able to live full lives despite strong mental illnesses including depression because of medication, I find your statements absurd. Psychiatrists are not abandoning medication and mental illnesses are caused by alterations to the brain — genetic, hormonal, traumatic, etc. that affect how brains can function, process stimuli and react. That’s the reason they study patients with injuries to different parts of the brain. As scientists, they do constantly evaluate medications and how best to use them, including whether they’re being over-prescribed in cases where other therapies would be more effective, such as with young people whose brains are still forming. But that isn’t at all the same thing as abandoning medications that can regulate brain chemistry and improve illness. Thirty years ago, schizophrenia meant that you’d end up in an institution or out on the streets. Now some schizophrenics can lead actual lives, thanks to medications that were developed. Depression is not a simple, one size fits all illness and can be due to numerous causes, often accompanying other mental illnesses. It literally changes the way that they are able to understand the world, changes their metabolism, and can involve hallucinations in certain forms. It’s a medical condition, not a mystical mystery.

    And that’s the point, Edward Gemmer, it’s a medical illness, same as cancer, same as dementia. Rollins demonized a medical illness, one he suffers from himself, as something that is the personal fault of the sufferer, much as people tried to demonize those who had HIV as getting it from character weakness rather than a virus. Suicide is not a lifestyle choice. It’s the symptom of a very nasty illness for which there are treatments that can sometimes cure and sometimes not. Not only did Williams suffer from depression, but he also suffered from anxiety — another mental illness affected by brain chemistry, addiction which alters the brain’s receptors, and further Parkinson’s disease, which attacks the neurological and nervous systems.

    By trying to characterize Williams’ and others’ taking of their own lives as an act of will, rather than as part of their disease, Rollins helps perpetuate a culture in which sufferers and their families hide their illness and its symptoms because they consider it shameful and don’t get help, or even if they do, routinely hide the pain they are undergoing and increase the seriousness of the disease. As many of the stories shared here attest, people often don’t know the person is suffering from mental illness or the extent of it until their friend or loved one commits suicide. Rollins’ stance is one that helps increase the number of suicides, not decreases them, by insisting that the illness isn’t real and the sufferer stay silent. For that matter, mass killings by men suffering hallucinations, assaults, vandalism, homelessness, etc. — there’s a long list of social ills that would be greatly improved if we quit demonizing mental illnesses as not medical but some sort of character flaw. If Rollins wants to be angry at something, be angry at having governments that routinely cuts funding to scientific medical research to improve treatment and funding for facilities to deal with serious cases, instead throwing those people out on the streets. It’s a health problem that affects everybody in society, not just the people with mental illness.

    Elgion, what you are going through is awful and it’s understandable that you have a lot of anger. Your wife and you are probably both suffering from forms of depression yourselves because of the trauma and stress of what you are going through. But depression again manifests itself in different ways, just like cancer does. Your ability to cope with those illnesses, again, like Olivia, does not mean that another person is dealing with the same situation and has the same abilities to attempt to cope. Severe depression is a medical illness that alters the body and brain, just as cancer alters the body and can alter the brain and nervous system. You would not say that your wife is awful because her cancer has spread through her body instead of receded on its own or in response to treatments. You would not say that she was an awful person if she becomes no longer able to get out of bed, despite having medical treatment. Likewise, someone suffering from severe depression whose brain is no longer able to function like our own is not an awful person. He or she is a sick person who is suffering. He or she is not healthy; that’s the point. And even with treatment, as Williams had, the illness can resist the treatments.

    The health community has worked long and hard for the most part to end the stigmatization of mental illness and get more people treated. But there is still a persistent belief that stoicism should be somehow able to cure both physical and mental illnesses and if you fail on that front, it’s because you aren’t worthy. Williams gave and raised countless dollars for charity, including St. Jude hospital fighting children’s cancer and illness, and his personal generousity of cash, spirit and his time are legend in Hollywood. If he wasn’t worthy, then very few of us probably are. And yet he suffered from several medical illnesses from the time he was young. And it took his mind and his life. Rollins publicly screaming at his family, at his children, that they should detest their father — a man greatly loved by most who knew him — for suffering from those illnesses, that is not an act of kindness nor honesty. Illnesses don’t discriminate — they can take anybody, no matter how stoic. And it sounds like Rollins, suffering from the illness himself, did understand that he had reacted not really rationally and apologized for it.

    I wish your wife unparalleled success in her fight against her disease and hope that you will be able to get all the help you need as well. And moggybreath, show some freaking compassion.

  64. @Elgion

    I’m glad I’m here too but the fact that I am is no thanks to people who think the way you do. That’s not a personal attack, merely a statement of fact. Hand-in-hand with the sense of despair and worthlessness characteristic of depression is the sense of shame for being depressed in the first place and the two feed into each other in a vicious cycle.

    No matter how well informed you are about how this shit works, there’s always the little voice at the back of your head telling you that you have no “good” reason for feeling depressed, that there are other people worse off than you, that you are just weak somehow. I know these things are incorrect but at the crucial moments, knowing is not enough. Can you see how, at those times, being told that you are selfish for even considering suicide is the worst possible thing you can hear and merely reinforces all those unhelpful thoughts? If I knew any of my friends thought that way then they would be the last people I would reach out to for help!

    And hands down, one of the hardest things for me has always been reaching out for help. You sit paralysed, wishing desperately that someone will see you and somehow realise where you’re at but at the same time you hope desperately that no one will see you so that you don’t have to risk someone not being the help you need. I.e., telling to to “pull yourself together”or some other trite advice. Or worse, deciding that you’re too much for them to handle and walking away altogether. I know at the back of my head that my close friends and family would do anything to support me and yet in the depths of depression I am still convince that they will abandon me if I am too much of a burden. Again inherently irrational.

    My reference to earlier comments was pointing to the fact that most suicidal people, by very definition are not physically capable of rationally comprehending their impact on others and even if they were, are not in a state where that knowledge is able to affect their thinking processes. To be in such a state is not “selfish”, it is a symptom of the problem.

  65. Speaking of showing asses…

    Point taken.

    My apologies, that was somewhat over the top.This stuff is a way back for me and I underestimated how reactionary I still am. Which is no excuse for being insensitive. I can’t imagine what you both must be going through and I wish your wife a fast and permanent recovery.

  66. Ctein: Right. “It’s a squidgy subject and our minds want to skitter away form it.” — I am even more uncomfortable with people here who have tried to carve out some kind of Cancer exception to the issue of suicide. Cancer killed my mother, her mother, my father, his sister, her husband, and a first cousin of mine, younger than I, who was a book editor for Peachpit Press in San Francisco, whose brain cancer prevented her ability to read for the last 6 months. None of them suicided, nor expressed a desire to. Cancer and suicide. Together again at last.

  67. Moggybreath: My apologies also — I had forgotten that you are one of the people talking about suffering from the disease. My main point is, Elgion is suffering and so I see that outburst in that light. But you speaking up about your disease is also important. Also, I called Olga by the name Olivia, which was me typing late at night, so I’m sorry for that too. :)

    Jonathan, again, depression hits people in different ways and to different extents. And unfortunately there are also very real financial issues to fighting and dealing with cancer that can greatly affect depressed terminal patients handling of their remaining time. I am sorry deeply for your losses to cancer but that your relatives rode it out without committing suicide is not a victory lap. It becomes a very tricky issue with terminal patients in tremendous pain who have to make serious decisions about their care. This isn’t again a moral issue — it’s a medical one. (Well, it’s moral in the sense of our screwed up medical system in the U.S., I guess.)

    I lost my aunt to cancer quite horribly and at a certain point, she stopped treatments because the benefits of continuing them were uncertain at best. She died at home, the way she wanted to go, rather than in a hospital. That wasn’t an excuse for her; I don’t know if that was the best medical choice either. But suffering isn’t a contest or a personality test.

  68. When I read the original Rollins post, I thought, politely, that it was pretty clear that he didn’t know what he was talking about. He may have had depression issues, I don’t know what, but I am strongly suspecting he hasn’t had the severe sort. I haven’t either, so I don’t really know that pain from personal experience, and I don’t claim that I’m going to know. Unless you’ve been there and don’t that, you probably can’t understand it very well on your own.

  69. Dear Jonathan,

    The topic, indeed, seems to have undergone serious drift, but it’s John’s call as to whether to drag it back to its original course and so far he hasn’t seen fit to do so. So be it.

    I don’t see what’s referred to as “medically-assisted suicide” as an exception. It’s an entirely different case. I’ve seen that, up close and personal, from both sides of the coin, and I’ve decided I am firmly on the side of “the patient gets to decide whether they live or die.” Which does not mean I remotely underestimate the case against it. If required to debate it intellectually, I could make compelling arguments in either direction. But, personally and emotionally, the balance for me tilts overwhelmingly in favor of allowing suicide. It’s been a blessing to the patient and to all around them.

    While cancer is the most common case, I’m not limiting it to that. Any incurable, permanent, physical illness, you get to decide whether life is worth living or not. So far as I’m concerned, that’s not a tragedy, it’s a triumph of the human condition and spirit.

    Your mileage likely differs. I expect it does from mine. It certainly does from Terry Pratchett’s.

    And what makes it all especially difficult is that we have laws around the subject. So it’s not possible to simply say, “Well, you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine,” because we (collectively) are having to make a decision for everybody. Or, more precisely, we are having to decide what decisions everybody gets to make.

    All of which is far away from the topic of MENTAL illnesses whose nature is such that they distort judgment and make it impossible to make a reality-based decision. That’s the tragedy we started with and should not lose sight of, when the delusion you’re suffering from drives you to death.

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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  70. There is a book titled “Myths about Suicide” by Thomas Joiner. This was recommended to me by a lifelong depressive. The referrer told me it is the most accurate depiction of what suicidal people think and feel that they have ever come across. Anyone interested in learning more about what the illness is really like might want to take a look.


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