What’s So Wrong With Selfishness?


Like anyone else active on social media the past two days, I’ve been inundated by coverage of Robin Williams’ death.  It’s my own fault, of course.  I keep scrolling through Facebook, clicking here and there, and absorbing heated emotions from virtual strangers.

In the debate about whether suicide is or is not a selfish act, I’ve seen particularly nuclear reactions.  More than half my feed is incensed at some conservative media personality whose incendiary rant about the inherent selfishness of suicide sent people into the stratosphere.

Here’s my question: What’s so wrong with selfishness?  Why are defenders of “depression is an illness” working so hard to untangle suicide from selfishness?  I believe that depression is an illness.  I also believe that addiction is an illness.  I happen to call it a disease.  I’m fully on Team Disease/Illness.  Selfishness– it’s not pedophilia or murderous rage or sociopathy.  It’s a shrunken worldview that’s focused mainly on the self.  Is that so horrible?

Because here’s the thing.  Addiction is a disease that makes you selfish.  Addicts in recovery agree on this– the whole point of the Twelve Steps of recovery is to move addicts out of selfishness and self-seeking into a world of happy usefulness.  So why do we need to rescue addicts from the truth of their condition: addiction makes you selfish.  Trudging the road to happy destiny means letting go of myopic self-will and joining the world of the living.

When I was 19 years old I was a raging bulimic.  All I thought about was food– how to get it, where to get it, where to throw it up and then how to get more once I did.  All through my English class discussion of Beloved, I was thinking about the granola I was going to eat and throw up.  On a date with a lovely Sigma Chi fellow, I couldn’t keep my brain from endlessly turning over what I would binge on when he dropped me off at my dorm (popcorn or pretzels or pizza?).  My sister came to visit at college, and I spent the whole time trying to sneak into the bathroom and purge our meals.  My roommate organized a banquet, but I bailed because I was too deep in my disease/addiction.

Was I selfish? Yes, of course. God, there’s nothing more selfish that blotting out everything in the world so that I could finally and at last be all alone with my beloved, comforting, and ultimately lethal food stash.  Nothing mattered at all.  My heart was suffocating from all the bingeing and purging.  I could no more feel or offer love than crawl to Mars.  My whole world was about me and my drug of choice (food).

Was I sick? Yes.  Oh so sick.  It was over twenty years ago, and I still marvel at how sick I was.  I was definitely depressed, but that was impossible to separate from my potentially fatal behavior around food.

In recovery, I’ve come to understand what my disease will do to me.  I’m promised that if it goes unchecked– my wild bulimic impulses– I will end up either dead or institutionalized.  Would that be selfish?  To throw away all my blessings– my husband, my two kids, my healthy body, my agile brain, my creative impulses, my friendships? Sure.  Would I be powerless over that?  Yes.  That’s the tricky thing….I’d be powerless and it would be selfish and tragic and painful and galling and shocking.  A sad, sad, shame.  If my addiction one day grips me and pulls me back and returns me to the state I was in when I was 19 years old, then the people around me would have every right to be angry and call me selfish.  They’d be right.   I’d never take away from them their perceptions of me in my disease– selfish, emotionally unavailable, shut down, sick.

That’s the thing about addiction: It takes every human impulse and perverts it.  It’s a bomb going off, sending shrapnel flying in every direction.  It unleashes an otherworldly amounts of pain and emotion.  Addicts are selfish, sure.  Of course.  But they are sick and suffering with a fatal disease.  And sometimes the disease wins.

Maybe that’s the difference.  In the case of Mr. Williams, I see him as having died from addiction, not from depression.   I don’t condemn him for being selfish, but I won’t rescue any addict from the truth of the disease.  When encountering addicts in the throes of their addiction, however, I hope my first response is detaching with love from their self-destructiveness.  In that space, I hope I find compassion, loads and loads of compassion.  For them and for myself.



18 thoughts on “What’s So Wrong With Selfishness?

  1. I’m struggling to come up with the words I want to say, probably because i’m not sure exactly what they are… clearly you feel strongly here and are right on for me with many points – there’s no blaming the victim. however, being on the other side of someone’s addiction/depression/selfishness, i find myself in the position of thinking that there is absolutely something wrong with selfishness since my whole life is affected as well. i struggle daily to find and keep that compassion in me. life ain’t easy..

    • Thank you. See , I’ve got a huge blind spot here and I know it. The selfishness is so tricky. It’s one thing not to show up for people but if it takes the form of abusivesness, well that’s something else. This is really begging me and I’m not sure why. Thanks for your insight.


  2. Really great points. I think anyone in pain of any kind tends to be selfish. It’s hard to think of anything outside of the pain. I experienced that transiently when I was on chemo. It’s so hard on everyone else but really, the person can’t help it. It’s not like they want to hurt others.

    • That’s a fascinating point. You were focused on yourself as you underwent chemo. I suspect no one around you was all Stacie is so selfish. Because oh my god you had freaming cancer. Seriously I’m obsessed with this train of thought. Why????


  3. Like Alisa, I struggle with finding compassion in the midst of the frustration and flat-out anger that I feel as a person other side of someone suffering from addiction/depression and the inherent selfishness that comes from that. Intellectually I know that there is no place for victim blaming, but when my family’s life was turned completely upside down for almost 5 years, it’s hard to get there emotionally. That said, I really love what you wrote here. It gives me an insight into depression and addiction that I have never really been able to have, as someone on the other side, so thank you for that. This is really tough stuff, and I’m so glad that you wrote it.

  4. Right? Your post makes me think of how personal it felt to be on the other end of your friendship during that time and me keeping on trying to figure how I was doing something to make you want to be more or less close. Even knowing about your struggles I don’t think I ever put the variations in proximity to anything but how you felt about our friendship which at 40 now seems so self focused. But that’s a side point….. What we can’t get at my clinic is why nobody is talking about bipolar verses depression because bipolar kills much more frequently than unipolar depression and Robin Williams clearly seemed to demonstrate and talk in stand up routines about mania. Sure addiction and the depressive episode likely are the last scenes that occurred before death but be sure that it was following many episodes of hypomania or mania. I think we don’t talk about this because we were all complicit in supporting his mania because we often like all the amazing creativity and energy that comes from running hypo manic. Sadly though there is No up with out a down as dramatic with this bipolar illness so we have to catch our joy in celebrating his ups that have an ultimate costs of this last down. There does seem some sterilazation of this story that has been irking my friends I the dual diagnosis community and quite frankly in the world of people that struggle with bipolar where I live and work. Like emphasizing the depression is the cleanest version but certainly not the full story.

  5. You have done a wonderful job in this post. As someone who suffers from significant depression and also lives with another person suffering severe depression, I can identify with pretty much everyone who has commented here. Sometimes selfishness is necessary for survival – whether our threat is cancer or mental illness. One is just more easily recognizable and socially acceptable than the other. And guilt is never a good thing to push onto other people, regardless of their challenges – neighsayer nailed it.

    Thank you.

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