For all that endears us to the music and art we love, it’s likely that the greatest commonality we share across genres, cultures, genders, beliefs, and even age is that of loneliness. If that seems like a statement of weakness then rest assured that’s precisely what it is. Though we may not be inherently weak as human beings, our moments of vulnerability, however brief or chronic they may be, are the tipping point for so much of what we discover in music to be the rescue, the hope, the salve, and the companion we so desperately need. SfB has never shied away from discussing the disease known as depression, nor do we have plans to curb the conversation for relevancy’s sake. Something so invariably tied to this music as depression and mental illness doesn’t just deserve some cursory shoutout. It merits a genuine dialogue about what this disease does, what it can do, and why we must fight against it with every fiber of our being not just in the things we type or say or flippantly dismiss, but in the actions we take as human beings across spectrums of age, culture, gender, race, and yes, genre. Depression doesn’t care about any of those things, and if we ever hope to combat its clever devices, we can’t either. This scene and this culture are about support and the embracing of the ostracized and the wounded. We have an obligation to offer that same perspective to everyone we meet, regardless of what they bring with them. SfB contributor Craig Hayes wrote the following open letter to Henry Rollins in light of Henry’s statements regarding suicide, and though he’s since apologized (and I believe sincerely), the perspective that one can DIY their depression or simply “feel better” is not just endemic to American culture, it’s deadly to it. Thanks to Craig for this and thanks to you for reading. - J
A few days back, Henry Rollins posted an article on the LA Weekly tackling the topic of suicide. I’ve been a fan of Rollins’ for years, but what he wrote caused me to feel utterly dismayed at his dismissal of those that have been pushed over the edge by depression.
I know a lot of people felt that same way, and they contacted Rollins to tell him so.
Rollins took it upon himself to respond, and he’s publicly apologized for the hurt he caused. That said, the opinions he expressed in his original post are not uncommon. I wrote to Rollins, offering a little perspective on what it’s like to stare into the abyss, and as I was about to hit send, he Rollins posted his apology on his Facebook page.
I admire Rollins for reflecting on what he wrote, and taking the time to apologize, but the issues he raised shouldn’t be left alone. I’m going to publish my letter here, not to continue any criticism of Rollins, but to underscore that mental illness is a topic we should always be talking about.
I’ve agreed with plenty of your opinions about this world we inhabit over the years. I’m certainly not as disciplined as you are, but we do share similar perspectives on self-reliance, and making the most of what you have in life too. I know plenty of other people have told you much the same, but listening to your music and reading your words has helped me when I’ve been at my lowest ebb in life, and it really wouldn’t be an overestimation to say that the inspiration that I’ve drawn from your books and albums is a contributing factor in me being alive today.
I thank you for that.
I wanted to write, because as much as I respect your right to hold a differing opinion to my own, I’m one of those people you wrote about in your recent article about suicide – and I find myself feeling troubled by what you wrote.
I’m someone who has considered taking my own life on more than one occasion, and I have attempted to put those thoughts into action twice. Those episodes were many years ago, and I’m a parent these days, but I’d be a liar if I said had hadn’t considered taking my own life since my son was born.
Just like those you wrote about in your article, I’ve been battling mental health issues all my life, and I know what killing myself would mean for my family and friends. I used to work in the mental health field, and I’ve seen firsthand the ache of unanswered questions and the holes left in lives following suicides. I’ve seen the damage, on too many occasions. Yet, from the depths of my own depression, when I’ve considered suicide, any guilt about the pain that I would leave behind weighs far less than the thought that my family or friends have to endure my presence at those times.
I hate that my depression makes me feel that way.
I hate that it inverts the love I have in my life.
I hate what depression does to me, and I hate that you seem to be blaming people, like myself, for making poor choices whilst being afflicted by an insidious illness that twists and changes personalities, and distorts reality.
You said in your article, “It’s hard to feel bad when the person did what they wanted to. It sucks they are gone, of course, but it’s the decision they made”. I’m surprised you feel that way, especially after reading so many descriptions of your own emotional struggles. I know you’re a fan of thinking that plenty of people can overcome most trials in life by will and tenacity, but I don’t think you’re fully understanding of what depression is, and what it brings.
I really thought you understood. But, perhaps, as you rightly point out, because depression is so personal, your own experiences with depression might not have lead you to feel that final push over the edge.
Let me tell you about that.
Let me do my best to try and explain how that feels.
Because the thought of you damning those who have already been laid waste by the curse by depression doesn’t sit right with me.
Your article tackles the death of Robin Williams, which means nothing to me in terms of celebrity. What matter is that Williams’ family and friends are now enduring all the anguish, grief and confusion that comes from a life being suddenly torn away. That’s where the truth of suicide resides. In the shock. The horror. The self-reproach. And the remorse of those left behind.
We can mourn for an obviously talented man, who leaves an impressive legacy of work, but in the end, what’s that compared to the pain that Williams’ loved ones are now suffering?
I agree with you, Henry, the consequences of suicide are enormous, long-lasting, and clearly life-changing. We all know that, and so you ask, how could Williams do it? Why did he make, as you call it, that decision?
I don’t know what Williams felt on the night he took his life, but all of us who have considered or attempted to take our own lives share a similar desire to escape emotional pain that is simply too much to endure. It’s not even that we necessarily welcome death, it’s simply that we are enveloped by intolerable torment.
All too often, we believe that torment also exists for anyone who has to spend a minute of their day with us. So, death doesn’t just promise a release from our pain, it also draws a line through the guilt we feel about ruining others lives. We feel that we’ve exhausted the alternatives, and our depression sits there clouding our minds, telling us that this will never end, and that death offers the only solution.
You say, “But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves. How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children?”
Henry, the answer is simple.
Depression doesn’t discriminate. Depression doesn’t care if you’re single, in a relationship, widowed, or parenting. And it certainly doesn’t give a fuck about anyones supposed ‘status’ in society. Parent or not, depression reaches in, grabs hold of your will to live, and sets to exterminating all hope for your future.
You know that.
In fact, as much as parenting brings enormous love into your life, it can also bring enormous pressures too. As a parent, I can tell you that any depressive times I’ve had since my son was born have taken on a new flavour. It would seem that my depression now delights in reminding me not only that I am a terrible a person, but a terrible parent too.
In your article, you pass comment on parents that have committed suicide, saying, “it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids”.
I can’t disagree with that.
My role as a parent has always been focused on ensuring my son never has to experience any of the circumstances that led to my mental health problems. That means making sure I’m proactive about my mental health, for my sake and my son’s, but as for understanding why parents kills themselves, there’s nothing complex about that.
As I mentioned, when you’re in the pits of depression, you do consider what is the most traumatic experience for everyone. You ask yourself, “is my death going to be more traumatic for others than my continued existence”. I can tell you, quite honestly, I have days where I think my sons life would be immeasurably improved if I wasn’t in it. When depression has a hold on me, I look at the wall of pictures that my son has drawn for me, and I think, “why would he draw those for a dad who’s such a hopeless failure.”
I don’t feel the love. I feel ashamed. Because my depression eats love, and shits out guilt and despair.
My depression attacks, from all angles, and it knows my weaknesses intimately. It finds ways to undermine me that I’d never have thought possible. And it is cruel, malicious, and unrelenting.
If I’m aware that all those attributes are symptoms of depression, ones that can be remedied given enough time and care, you might rightly ask why have I considered killing myself, especially as parent?
It’s because depression tells you that every hateful thing you feel about yourself is exactly how everyone else around you feels about you too. It’s because depression isn’t about feeling sad or glum–it’s magnitude and depth is well beyond that–and depression doesn’t give me pause to rationally think about suffering, because it feeds on it, and it wants to share it around.
Still, I don’t kill myself, and that’s because I’m stubborn. I might not see any love in my family’s eyes for me on some days, but I know that’s my depression twisting my perception. I know that love will return. So, I stick it out. I hold on.
It’s tough and relentless battle. But, Henry, for some people, its too simply hard, and they lose the fight.
I read somewhere that depression can be seen as grief out of proportion to circumstance, and that makes sense. In order for us to appreciate the good things in our lives, we must also have to capacity to feel sad. The problem is, for many of us, depression is the mechanism that decides how we’re going to deal with sadness.
Reading your article, it would seem you feel, in some way, that it’s our fault when that mechanism goes haywire? As if we can choose to turn it on or off at will. Clearly, you’re apportioning blame in that, because your article tells those who have attempted suicide that they are weak – which, it must be obvious to you, does nothing to help them heal their wounds.
I think, for any childhood survivor of parental suicide, to also be told that their parents, lost to them forever, are less deserving of respect as human beings seems decidedly cruel. I agree, people must take responsibility for their actions, but are you really blaming someone for having a disordered mind?
No one decides to have clinical depression, no one joins the queue and asks for a dose of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or a crippling anxiety disorder. These aren’t things we can just tighten the bootstraps and do away with, so it surprises me to read you saying that when someone takes their own life you regard them all with a bit of distain.
If anything, surely suicide present us with an opportunity to honor the memories and presence of people who fought long and hard against a relentless foe. Don’t take the wrong way. I have no time for anyone who buys into that cult of death bullshit. There’s no nobility in suicide. A corpse is a corpse. It’s a tragedy. Another wasted life. Yet, life is already full of so much suffering, and to cancel out any moments where someone’s existence brought joy of comfort is so counterproductive to improving this world. We must hold tight to those times, where genuine human connections are made, not throw them away because we didn’t happen to like how it all ended.
Let me repeat myself. Suicide is never the solution.
But distain for those who’ve taken their lives? Never.
Sadness. Yes. Frustration at lives wasted. Yes. Anger at a mental health system that fails to help so many. Yes. Always.
But distain. Never.
As you know, it’s difficult to get the wider public to care, let alone talk about issues like depression. For many, mental health is still a taboo topic – aside, of course, from when the media sells a sensational story about mental illness. People love that shit.
But tales of recovery, the reality of living with long-term mental illness, those stories are so much rarer. They are so needed. More than ever. Yet, here you are, Henry. Part of the global media family. You have a voice that people could turn to boost their self-esteem, and support their emotional wellbeing. Your words and music matter to many. You’re a respected social commentator, and most of all, you have a huge platform from which to speak.
So, let me ask you this. How does holding the lives of those those who have killed themselves in distain contribute to reducing the stigma around mental illness?
How do your words bring any positive outcomes for changing how mental illness is represented in the media?
How do you think someone already going through a tough time is going to feel about themselves after reading your words – especially someone who is a fan of you work?
Are you inspiring them, or are you undermining them?
Depression has a complex chemical language, with treatment geared to individuals needs. Not everyone can pump iron and feel better, and not everyone is in as privileged social position as you are. That makes tackling depression a difficult task, but we know that talking helps a lot.
Do you think what you wrote is going to encourage people to open up and talk? Because, honestly, reading your article made me feel ashamed of who I am, and I’m in good health.
Lord knows what your words felt like for someone at the end of their tether.
Please, Henry, go ahead and underline that suicide is the wrong choice every single time.
Never stop doing that.
But is it necessary to then pile on the criticism post-mortem? Is the reality of death and all the subsequent suffering not punishment enough? How do I, or anyone who has battled or is battling mental illness, stand a chance when individuals like yourself tell a very wide audience that, “Their life wasn’t cut short — it was purposely abandoned. It’s hard to feel bad when the person did what they wanted to.”
Did what they wanted to do?
As if its some sound decision they made?
To state the obvious, Henry, it’s called mental illness for a reason.
You might as well damn kids for having cancer, or the elderly for having dementia. They’re not going to be fixed by being told to pull themselves together and get into line either. Depression is a dysfunction, a sickness, and it isn’t something you sit there and have a straightforward conversation with. I’ve begged my depression to leave me alone, and more often than not, it’s hasn’t been inclined to respond as I want. It’s a hard slog to get depression to stop attacking the architecture of the mind, and you know that.
Oh sure, you can try and rationalise things, and that’s certainly an important step out of the prison of depression. But you make it sound as if committing suicide, or even contemplating suicide, were the result of logical, clear-headed choices.
There’s no magic moment where after careful consideration, you decide, “oh, well, best I kill myself”. It’s the last exit, after repeated journeying down increasingly clouded pathways. People cling to life, in all sorts of awful circumstances, so if you’re considering terminating your existence, then it’s pretty clear you’re already at a point where good or bad decisions are hard to see clearly, and where their ramifications can’t be fully understood.
It’s not free will you have at those times, because you are in the thrall of depression.
Often, you feel that depression is in complete control of your life, and that’s terrifying. There’s no sense of autonomy in those times, only a great deal of self-loathing. And suicide sits there, as a nagging solution to that nightmare.
It’s up to us to help those in need. To suggest that someone did what they wanted to do might make sense to you, but Henry, they weren’t working with a set of options in front of them. Their judgement was distorted, and its likely to be the case that they had asked for help in some way, and had either been let down or felt isolated when no one heard their cries.
Why condemn anyone for being so unwell?
I find it enormously sad that you say of people who can’t make it through; “When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind”.
If you took your own life, the last thing I would ever do is reject your music, your words, or equate your life as being meaningless. Your death would serve as a crucial reminder that we must do everything we can to understand suicide, to confront depression, and to help those so desperately in need. That has nothing to do with your fame, but it has everything to do with the simple connection we have as two human beings sharing time on this earth.
We must never turn away from those in need. We must never cancel people out. We must seek to learn, to share, and to stay engaged with the issue of suicide. To say, “fuck ‘em”, to the departed teaches us nothing. Suicide makes it manifestly clear that some people have demons they can’t overcome, and the pain they leave behind will always be raw for their loved ones. Surely, for their families sake, there’s no need to tell them that their loved ones were failures. How does that help their families understand or grieve?
The thing is, Henry. People who take their own lives are not failures. They just took the wrong path, because the right one was shrouded. I fully understand that your article was honest and heartfelt, but I’m still left with the feeling after reading it that you think people make a choice about feeling unwell.
You know that none of us consciously decide to let our depression take over. Who wants that? A drop or two of misery in life serves its purpose, but no one enjoys the depths of depression. In my case, I take my medication, and I deal with my issues to avoid those chasms, but I’m very fortunate.
I live in a country where free or low-cost health care is readily available – which isn’t to say our mental health system isn’t without its share of problems. My friends support me on my journey through life, and my family holds me up, when I’m feeling down. I am lucky. But, I still struggle on some days.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone in your nation to have to try and negotiate your health care system for help. So, perhaps you might like to reflect on that, and if you feel like apportioning blame, then you could direct it towards those that are failing to respond to a mental health crisis. Rather than the victims.
You included in your article this line: “For all the people who walked from the grocery store back to their house, only to be met by a robber who shot them in the head for nothing…” You are, of course, referring to the senseless murder of your friend, Joe. His tragic loss is a reminder that life is so very precious, and it’s something we must never give up voluntarily. I know, in your own way, you’re trying to tell us to hold on. But, your sensitivity is severely lacking.
As far as I’m concerned, one life is all we get. I know what it’s like to be confronted by death. A man put a handgun under my chin while he robbed me once. I overdosed, and my heart stopped while I was lying on hospital gurney too. You’d think, out of anyone – especially after I turned my wayward life around – that I’d have an appreciation of life. However, when depression arrives, it chips away at your appreciation of everything. It’s like rust. You might repair a section here or there, but depression is always in the air, ready to land and corrode. You have to remain vigilant, and attentive. It’s exhausting.
You say, “Fuck suicide. Life isn’t anything but what you make it.” That’s is so very true.
I use a similar mantra to get me through the day, and, like you, “I have life by the neck and drag it along.” Those are fine maxims to live by, but what I got most from your writing was a strong sense of judgement against those who don’t adhere to them one-hundred percent.
I didn’t expect that.
You’ve always seemed to be someone who is empathetic about anyone’s emotional troubles, but now you’re dispensing distain, when understanding is what’s needed. Anyone, no matter the source of their mental health issues, needs a hand that reaches out in support, not a voice that condemns them.
I understand that you are seeking to encourage others, and believe me, I fully understand the frustration at lives wasted, and all the damage suicide brings. I get angry about people taking their lives too. It pisses me off that depression took them to that point, and all the wreckage in their wake is incredibly distressing. Yet, what does anger teach us? Nothing. It obscures the lessons we can learn about where to help, or how to help, others.
What you’re doing, is just pouring salt on the wound.
In the past, you’ve always shown sympathy for the underdog, and for those who struggle. I had you marked down as someone who understood that life is extremely difficult for some. I never imagined you’d expunge peoples value as human beings because they fell victim to an illness that never discriminates, is never welcomed, and can have devastating consequences.
The thought of you sitting in judgement doesn’t feel right to me. Because all I see in your writing is someone sitting up high on the bench, banging their gavel, utterly removed from the reality of mental illness. Henry, you have the voice and the platform to help reduce the discrimination and misunderstandings surrounding mental health, but what you’re doing only further stigmatizes those in need.
Henry, I have spent 30 years fighting depression, and I have been driven to the brink before. You owe me, and everyone who battles mental illness, whether they win or not, far more respect than you have expressed.
I hope you take time to reflect on what you wrote. I hope you realise that many of us saw you as someone who was right there in trenches alongside us, fighting the good fight. Like me, I’m sure those same people are now shocked that you have chosen to damn the most vulnerable in society.