Don't Be A Judgmental F*ckface: Robin Williams, Suicide, and the Evolutionary Basis for Survivor's Guilt

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Evolutionary Psychology

“Didn’t you notice anything weird?” 

“What made him hate himself so much?”  

“Couldn’t you have tried to get him into treatment?” 

“I don’t feel bad for him, it was a choice. It was his own fault.”

If you ever find yourself with the inclination to utter one of these sentences, please, kindly shut the fuck up or give yourself a high five in the face with a frying pan. Because if it were as simple as offering a hand, or giving someone a hotline or the name of your shrink, most people wouldn’t end up dying. 

Free will is a bitch sometimes.

People who commit suicide don’t hate themselves. Sometimes they may feel as if that is so, but I respectfully disagree. They do it because they don’t want to hurt anymore, because they care about themselves enough to not want to suffer. They do it because they mistakenly feel they are a drain on their families, that those they love will be better off without them. It is not self loathing or the thought that they deserve suffering, but the idea that death is a merciful escape from pain.

This doesn’t mean they should do it; it means there is hope. To me, a suicidal client is one who has enough self love left to hang on. And that reasoning is sometimes the thing that will get one through a few nights of suffering until they can begin to heal (for more on this, read Hugs, Help and Hope: Assisting A Loved One Through Suicidal Thoughts).  

But this article is not about why people commit suicide, it is about the survivors.  Those already gone are not suffering. Far from malfunction, being triggered to depression and survivor’s guilt and scary thoughts of, "If it happened to him it can happen to me," are evolutionary imperatives. And while there may be a myriad of factors in grief responses and guilty feelings even beyond the scope of this post, they tend to be normal responses to abnormal situations.  

Come at me with judge-y ignorance, and I’m coming back with science, mother fuckers. And a little personal experience too. 

Being Triggered and Rat Bastard Haters

Most are not only triggered to sadness at a loss via suicide. There is also an inherent panic that this can become us, their death is our death, as we if can foresee it in an instant at the very fact that they gave up. Because if they let go we might too. (There's a great piece by PixieCD here on those feelings.) 

Guilt is another beast. Others are quick to judge that, “Suicide was his own damn fault.” But judgment and blame are for cowards. It is brave to delve into that pit and actually understand it from the inside out, because that shit is terrifying. 

And make no mistake, it is the fear that causes the judgment. By judging that someone else was weak we can guarantee that we are not, making it easier to embrace the notion of separation between “us” and “the weaker one”. For we are not as desperate. We embrace the disgust, employ, “Well it’s his fault,” in an effort to gain control. In seeing it as a control issue, we protect ourselves from ending with the same fate, for we would never give up control like that weak-ass shmuck on television, right?

Hey, haters, guess what? Suicide doesn’t kill anyone. Depression does. Bipolar depression does. It is not a choice to have these or other mental health issues. If it were no one would fucking choose it. 

For those left behind, particularly those who have dealt with the suicide of a loved one, listening to everyone else talk about how it was all a choice presses walls of guilt into a suffocating closet of darkness. Because if the one you loved had a choice, you surely did as well. You could have helped change their mind. 

But if you had a choice, to pull that veil of pain from someone you loved, you would have done so in a heartbeat. You never had that choice. 

My aunt was twenty-nine years old when she killed herself during an episode of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. And I remember those emotions as if it were yesterday. Even at seven, I was convinced that I could have saved her. These types of emotions do not go away. They are poised to rise again for many of us with every celebrity suicide, particularly when the death is of one we loved or laughed with, if only through a television screen. We will remember. It doesn't mean we have to stay there in that space, but we will always remember. 

Tears of a Clown

My aunt would not be the last loved one I lost to depression or addiction, but she stands out in my mind as the most devastating of these losses if only because it shattered the inherent sense of security I had built around myself that things like this were for other people, happen to other families. 

But they don’t. They can happen to everyone. And nearly everyone reading this has someone close to them who has suffered from depression whether they know it or not. Numbers don’t lie (unlike depression which will tell you one thing when you desperately want to believe another).  

My ignorance of the silent agony my aunt suffered was not my fault (nor is it yours if you are in a similar position). Without prior experience of such things one cannot be expected to understand warnings until it is too late, and things are always clearer in the aftermath than they ever are beforehand. Therefore, I do not recall occasional glassy eyes or distracted looks into the distance, although they may have existed. Instead I was left picturing the aftermath in gruesome detail as I sat in front of her casket. I pictured her sitting on the floor, a final look of resignation as hope eluded her, her quiet determination as she pressed the rifle snugly under her chin. One final deep breath, eyes closed, a silent goodbye to a world that she had come to believe had little left to offer her. One moment of pressure on the cold metallic trigger. And then peace, or at least finality. 

Her boyfriend also killed himself when he found her body. The loss of him was not so poignant to me, though I remember thinking that it should have been. But my tortured ambivalence towards him did not stop me from picturing his path through the kitchen to her body before he put his own weapon to his head and tightened a calculated grip on the trigger. Death's final embrace, like a silent horror movie, without any hero to provide comfort or safety.

For there is no hero when the fight is against death. And I realized in those moments that death was something I could not control. I was powerless. I would always be. It was guilt coupled with the real paralyzing fear of my own mortality. 

Suicide survivors in particular are more likely to suffer from complicated grief, depression, PTSD and survivor’s guilt along with suicidal ideation, with those who have histories of depression especially vulnerable1. And the closer you were to the person in question, the more likely you will suffer from anxiety or depression in the aftermath2. But close family members are also more at risk for complicated grief reactions3.

Let me give you a quick run down of what that means before I tell you why it’s adaptive. 

Complicated Grief 

Grief and complicated grief overlap in those first few months after death (learn more about the stages of grief here: On the Loss of a Parent: Grief From Love). However, complicated grief persists after the first three months or so, and tends to get worse instead of improving. The symptoms include: 

  • Depressive symptoms, including withdrawal or isolation, often accompanied by a preoccupation with these symptoms or a focus on sorrow
  • Trouble accepting the death or prolonged denial
  • Numbness
  • Detachment
  • Focusing on the loss or reminders of the person
  • Excessive bitterness
  • Irritability, anger or aggression (This anger element is extremely common in both depression, bipolar disorders, grief and complicated grief. Anger can arise as an offshoot of the fight/flight mechanism that tends to malfunction in those with depression or anxiety. Nothing like kicking the crap out of someone to reduce cortisol.) 
  • Panic attacks or anger attacks related to all that stuff above
  • Trouble trusting other people
  • Anhedonia (or the loss of pleasure) or feeling unable to enjoy life
  • Trouble completing normal activities
  • Sleep interruptions (too much or too little)
  • Appetite interruptions (wanting to eat too much or too little)

But on top of all those emotions, we tend to have strong elements of guilt, particularly survivor’s guilt. And this element may be precisely the one we need to look at in order to see just how normal it is. 

Survivor’s Guilt, Omnipotence and Isolation 

Feelings did not develop in a vacuum, they evolved for specific purposes in the environment where we found ourselves. Instead of malfunction, survivor’s guilt may have evolved as a way to promote group living. Mother Nature doesn’t just ask you to not kill your neighbor; she fucks with your brain until you WANT to keep your neighbor alive. Because if you fail to keep him alive, you will feel the consequences in your very soul, not just as a passing twinge of sadness that he will no longer be bringing you cookies at christmastime. 

Mother Nature will adjust your ass by using systems already in place, in this case the one for depressive submission. With this mechanism, our serotonin levels reliably fluctuate when we find ourselves in a position of being less than, part of an evolved survival strategy that controlled group interaction better than bloody battling.  Instead of one of us having to kill the other for a place in the hierarchy of the group, it made more sense for one of us to feel depressed and submissive, making us back down before one of us got shanked. That way we both got to live and work together for the good of the group. (Read more about it here in Are Your Friends Messing With Your Self Esteem? How Conflict Bred Cooperation, And Why It Might Cause Low Self Worth).

It is this “deescalation” or submissive mechanism that may be associated with survivor’s guilt, for submission, inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism are all subsets of the idea that we generally fared better cooperating as a whole. It makes sense that we may also get depressed or go into a submissive state when we fare better than someone we care for (by surviving when they did not)4. And in our past, caring for one another meant keeping one another alive, particularly when safety in numbers may have been even more critical for survival. 

We are programmed to attempt to keep those close to us healthy. We are programmed to see our failure to do so as severely detrimental in ways beyond, “Because I loved him.” We are programmed to get depressed, to be more isolated (on the more detrimental end) or introverted as protection against put downs; we are programmed to experience "omnipotent responsibility guilt" or the unfounded belief that we could have done something to prevent the tragedy4.  With this in mind, it is no wonder we still respond so strongly when someone close to us (or a familiar celebrity) dies. It isn't just the sadness. It's remembering that we lost someone too, and that maybe we shouldn't have.  

But NO ONE IS OMNIPOTENT. We cannot change the actions of others. If we had that power, we would have used it. But we fear the control even as we embrace it. Because while we want to be absolved for the death of someone else, we need to believe we have control over ourselves. If we couldn't control them, can we reliably control us? 

Fear of Harm to the Self or Others

In the end, there are two main states in submissive behavior related to survivor’s guilt4

  1. The fear of harm to others, often accompanied by the severe guilt we feel when someone we love dies (particularly if we perceive it to be something we could have controlled)
  2. A fear of harm to the self 

Wait….survivor's guilt actually includes a fear of harm to the self? 

That’s right, people. There are a few good reasons that depression actually has genes attached to it, one of which being that hierarchal standing was in part inborn. Many of our ancestors didn’t get put into submissive positions because they were more introverted or tended to isolate; they were more introverted because they were born with a genetic tendency to be more submissive. And it makes good sense to fear our own mortality when submissive: we would historically have been picked on5. However, when triggered now, experience and the trigger itself may make it more likely that we fear the harm will occur by our own hand. Because, "If he did it, why won't I?" 

The point is, these thoughts that we could have done something, that it might happen to us, that we might lose it and go that way too happen even in those without a history of depression. The difference is the rumination, the way those who have had those thoughts before latch onto them. But as long as the thoughts are still bothering you, you are still winning at this. You still have time to get assistance, even if only for combating very normal, but very scary, thought patterns after being triggered by a loss whether the loss was someone you knew personally or not.

We have far more influence over our own actions than we have in the lives of others. But help is a good thing and is usually a good first step towards that control humans seek. No one needs to go it alone. Don’t put us shrinks out of work, people. Help a sista out.  

Though survivor’s guilt is a very real, evolutionarily relevant experience, it still sucks. For those who will be triggered this week, understand that while it is painful, while it hurts, while we don’t want to remember, it is not something we must be silent about or ashamed of. For depression, anxiety, grief, bipolar disorder, suicide or survivor's guilt are not areas that should be subject to judgment and ridicule. Unless you’re a douchebaggy dickhead too scared to actually attempt understanding for fear it might make you feel something, like, god forbid, sympathy. 

So, don’t be an dick. Be a positive force in the life of someone close to you. Even if that someone is yourself. I understand how painful it is to lose someone you love. But it isn’t your fault. It never has been. 

Not one of us is alone. We all deserve understanding and compassion. Most importantly, fuck judgment. As a wise women once said, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

If you need help now, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 


Related Posts:


Topic-Relevant Resources

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.