On the death of Robin Williams and Suicide Stigma: Hey Responsible Media: A Life Disabled is A Life Worth Living!
There has been a lot of talk about responsible media. Dare I suggest that the media be responsible to not assume that Williams killed himself due to his disability? As a person that lives with both a disability and reoccurring depression I can tell you that living with depression is more difficult. I can also tell you people with disabilities have great lives worth living especially with empowering resources.
I can also tell you that I, and every other person with a disability, is going to encounter people making comments like:
“Oh, well, he had Parkinson’s. Now I understand. He didn’t want to burden people. He didn’t want his family to suffer. He didn’t want to suffer.”
This is a great shift from the slew of insensitive comments people have made about Williams’s suicide. They say that he was “weak” or “selfish” or “ungrateful” because he lived the charmed life of celebrity and yet seemed to not value what gifts he had been given. Society hates when someone has something that they want (money, power, fame) and this person didn’t seem to value it the way it should have been valued. The idea seems to be “I should have had that instead. I wouldn’t have wasted it.” When the truth is probably that they worked for all the things they had and suffered with different struggles that we can never know.
But in the case of Williams it now seems that we know his struggle. He was sick/disabled and he was going to become more sick and disabled. Immediately society’s attitude will shift. People will think: “Well, the guy really did have problems. I wouldn’t want that. Hell, if I had that maybe I wouldn’t want to live either.” Now I, and everyone else with a disability and illness will have to tolerate this shift as society will now think that ending his life was much more understandable. We, of course, don't know this, but want to use his physical illness to make sense of his suicide because somehow a mental illness isn't understandable or justified. I imagine his wife may have even disclosed his illness to take some of the criticism off. Something that his daughter Zelda has suffered with the most publicly. I don't know this, but I wouldn't blame his wife for doing this.
The problem is the horrible mircro-aggression that suicide is better for him and his family than a life with illness. I am not going to go on a rant saying that this attitude is unacceptable. I have long accepted that society is going to think/say what it wants. I just want to try to show that this is indeed what will be thought and said, and maybe reaching a few people and educating them about this attitude with disability and suicide is something new to think about. Maybe the media can educate and be responsible around suicide and depression and the idea of the value of a life disabled.
A large obstacle to a valued disabled life is the hidden attitude that a disabled life is not worth living. As a person with a disability I am struck with how many media images/stories of disabled people killing themselves or sacrificing themselves are prevalent and seen as an accepted choice.
The latest I personally encountered was Joe Hill’s novel Horns. I loved the book and still love it. Can’t wait for the movie. (Minor Horns spoilers here:) But, it is revealed that the character’s girlfriend decided to break-up with him because she had a deadly form of breast cancer. This normally plucky and independent woman also decided to hide the fact that she had cancer from and just tell him she wanted to end the relationship to see other men.She knew if she told him the truth that he would insist on staying with her, and she didn’t want him to suffer. This part is the real rub and something Joe Hill's dad has also used as a plot device: She also knew she would become a “monster” and say hurtful, bitter, things to him. You see her sister died of the same form of cancer and became a toxic beast in every figurative way at the end of her life. In Horns the real monster was the girlfriend's illness. It sent off a chain of events that caused him to turn into a monster, literally. (But, he was a cool monster.) I would say it was his girlfriend's decisions around her false beliefs about illness that was the real monster. The book, and Hill, don't seem to see it that way.
I am happy that Horns was written. I am a huge horror fan. I understand nothing is more horrifying to most able-bodied people than death and disability, and why wouldn’t that be so? Having control of your mind and body is what people believe makes them who they are. However, I am someone who doesn’t have control of their body ever, and someone who can lose control of their mind. What is most scary to me is living in a world where I am not valued and other people like me aren’t valued, and that if I chose to end my life it would be understandable.
The scariest idea to me is that if a person with a disability commits suicide, or isolates themselves from others that they are somehow being heroic to their loved ones. The only time someone is heroic for ending their life is if they chose to do so in order for others to live. (I am lucky that in my life this mostly just happens in movies.) I would be super happy if that was what the media presented as heroic and understandable, not the suicide of disabled people. It may make me do a happy dance with limited mobility.
I'll be honest, a disabled life is no life for the thin-skinned. Maybe it is not a life that everyone would choose to live, but as with anyone who choses to end their life it is the depression and feeling of isolation that causes the person to make that choice, not the disability or illness. Even if Williams ended his life partially due to the stress of his Parkinson’s diagnosis he did it because he couldn’t see a way out of his isolation and sadness with the diagnosis. I think he could have. I wish he had. I just think of all the awesome disability jokes with missed out on! I ask you to think, educate, and share.