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.