This is my 7th attempt to write this letter. The previous six were, honestly, just bad. The first one played pretty heavily on how long I've been a fan. The second talked about how your music, books and spoken word brought me a comfort for being an alien in society when I was a teenager. The third, fourth and fifth all tried to establish just how strange an occurrence it is to all of my friends that I write a hero of mine a letter trying to educate him on a perspective he lacks.
The sixth, while bad, was actually a decent take. It did a fine job of establishing just how long I've been involved with your work, how influential you were to me, how much of my career as a writer and speaker is modeled from your example, and how hard it is to write something like this. Then it fell apart, because honestly, I just couldn't find a way to maintain that reverent-yet-ready-to-call-you-out tone.
So, like the others, I deleted it and started over on this one. And I'll tell you, I'm tired. I've tried so hard to get my point across, in a meaningful way, which established some sort of depth and connection and understanding of you and your point and your perspective and I just keep falling flat. And it's frustrating. But here I am, at it again, hoping somehow the words are going to fall out of my fingers and I'll get somewhere near saying how I feel about your article on the suicide of Robin Williams (and the subsequent apology).
So, rather than straining, I'm just going for it. And this is what my brain has finally settled on:
Henry, I found you when I was 12 years old. It was 1991, and The End of Silence had just come out. The video for Low Self Opinion played on 120 Minutes on MTV, and there was this crazy wild-eyed tattooed man screaming about not being so down on myself and I was hooked. I mowed lawns for your records and your books. I saved all summer to see you in the fall of 1994, when you came to Atlanta with Helmet and Les Claypool's side band Sausage. I traded tons of stuff to get a hold of Electroconvulsive Therapy, the Japanese-only live record with the amazing cover of the Beastie Boys's "Gratitude."
Between 1991 and 2005, I saw you perform dozens of times, both with the band and in spoken word. I travelled around to see some of your shows. I read every book. I bought every record. I was a massive fan.
My favorite books of yours feature your journals -- most specifically, Get In The Van: My Life With Black Flag. I've read and re-read that book many times.
I might like to think that, by reading your descriptions of your life so many times, that I know what it's like.
But I haven't slept in a U-haul for weeks on end and shoplifted food and slept in a friend's parents tool shed. I've done my own things like that, but not that. So while I can empathize, I can't ever truly understand what it's like to be Henry Rollins. Or anyone else.
Because I'm me. And I've only ever lived my own life.
In the 34 years leading up to my suicide attempt in 2011, my life was a lot like what I understand touring to be like:
A fucking grind.
Getting up groggy. Packing things up and hitting the road to go to a place you don't really want to be, that you don't get to see much of, only to walk into a building with people who don't really care much about you and sit around for hours leading up to the only thing you really care about: A performance for an hour or so in front of people who only see you for what you can do for them. You do your thing, and you get the thrill of having done it, even if no one really gets it. And for some reason, that one hour out of the 24 you just survived makes doing it again the next day worth it.
Sometimes, you don't get to perform. You get to sit around for weeks or months dreaming about the performance. And for the most part, that's enough to keep you from giving up.
Then one day you look around and you realize that there's a lot of people who don't have to work nearly as hard for happiness... And their happiness seems to span more than a moment or two. And here you are, grinding it out, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, getting as much juice as you can from all the lemons. Living for the appreciation. Surviving day by day just so you can have those few hours a year where you're at least heard. Maybe appreciated... But that's no guarantee.
Multiply that by 34 years... Not weeks, not months, but 34 years of living it day after day, with all the memories of living it all the other days reminding you that today is going to be yet another grind with only a possibility of a payoff. Then you add the dread of facing yet another day of it...
One day, you just want to stop. Time to hang it up. After all the records and all the touring and all the smiling at people you don't know and shaking strangers' hands, all of them thinking they get you and there's no fucking way they possibly could... Dealing with the fake and the fraudulent and the smiling glad-handers and wondering how it must feel to just be effortlessly happy and blissful in this world so full of fake and crazy and false and unfair...
It gets to you. And you decide it's time to stop.
That's what it's like. It's coming off tour for the last time, because you realize, it just isn't worth the work anymore.
Only, this isn't quitting a job. It's not retiring a thing you're doing for something else to do. It's your life. And it's a hopeless, sad thing, because you've been living it for everyone else. And for the first time, you've decided it's time to do something for yourself, under your own control, to end the cycle.
You don't understand what it's like to want to kill yourself. I get it. Count yourself very, very lucky.
I do. And it saddens me to think anyone would consider my life "invalid" if I would have succeeded in trying to take my life. I was hurting and I didn't want to hurt anymore.
I didn't make a mistake. I didn't have an error in judgement. I succumbed to despair. I failed in my attempt, and have since learned how not to fall into despair. Oddly enough, it was everything you told me as a teenager that finally clicked as an adult.
So I look at it like this: if you, Henry Rollins, decided to kill yourself, would all the lessons you taught me and all the words you ever said be invalid? Would they suddenly disappear from my brain and my heart like I was blinked by one of the Men In Black?
No. I would have still heard them. I would have still learned the lesson. And I would still be the man I am right this minute because of them. And I wouldn't have succumbed to despair during the worst year of my entire life, and I would still be around to have the opinion that it's a shame that yet another person fell to the disease of depression.
I got help. I learned new ways of thinking. After my attempt in 2011 at the age of 34, I decided that I was done living the way I was living, and I fixed myself. I have to ALWAYS keep myself in check. I have to watch what I do, when I do it, how I do it, what I eat when I do it, and who I do it with, because I'm committed to a healthy life with a healthy mind and it's a delicate balancing act. I made a decision each and every day to work toward genuine happiness, instead of outsourcing my happiness to the opinions of others.
It's a good thing. And I'm happy to report that, even in the midst of my life falling completely apart in 2013 during literally the worst year any human being could live through, I never once considered suicide a viable option. I powered through, because the lessons I learned stuck.
Some people aren't so lucky. Some people don't know they have the power to actually change their life or their lot in it.
Those people need education, support and help, not scorn and deriding and being told that something they cannot help puts them at risk of being "invalid."
What possible reason could I have to continue living if I know that every single thing I do while alive is ultimately rendered "invalid" because I hurt so bad I don't want to suffer it anymore? There's no point for those people, because they see every effort at doing good or making a difference or being happy as being almost useless to begin with. To know that something they cannot help thinking or succumbing to will make everything they've done useless...
Well, let's just say that despair doesn't really need any more help to do its job.
I was a fan. You were my hero.
And in some ways, you still are. I say "was" and "were" not because I now dislike you. Far from it. I just grew up. I'm not really a fan of anything anymore, and my only real hero these days is my adopted dad, for reasons that belong in another letter.
I don't have the hero-worship anymore, and I must confess, I only really get to read you when I get time and something hits my radar. But I still admire your work, your work ethic and your attitude. And I will, even after today, even after your article. Because at the end of the day, one thing that my life has taught me beyond all other things is that we human beings can't possibly understand everything.
I appreciate the apology you posted. I know that you mean it. I know you never intended to hurt anyone, and that you probably didn't really see the backlash coming. As someone who has written a very, very famous "Boy, I didn't mean to say THAT" article trying to defend my geeky friends and their culture only to be called the Most Hated Man In Geekdom, I know that feeling. Trust me.
So I get where you are on this right now. My hope isn't that this letter makes you feel bad, or that somehow you need to apologize further. My hope is to shed a little light on a dark, dark thing and help you see that you can't relate to this (thank God). So it's something that, while you're entitled to your opinion on the matter, you can't really fix by hating it.
This one, you have to fix with love. Not judgement. And if you don't want to fix it; if you'd rather just dislike it, I get it. But understand something: You're not only "not helping" people who suffer from depression when you write things about how invalid they are if they succumb to it, you actually perpetuate the problem.
You're not at fault for anyone's actions, of course. But if your goal is to try to get people to see the futility of taking their own life, you have to look through the other end of the telescope. Because right now, you're putting more distance between you and them.
I wish you very sincere thanks for all of the work you've done. You've definitely had an effect on this author, writer and speaker guy with tattoos and a smart mouth, and I'm grateful. And I think ultimately, everyone else who has chastised you is as well -- they're just suffering from shock and sadness, like you were when you wrote about Robin Williams's suicide.
Forgive them, for they act on instinct from the only place inside themselves they understand. Just like you did when you wrote your piece. And just like Robin Williams and others who take their own lives do when they react instead of respond.
And with that, my 7th attempt to write this is going to be the one I finally go with. Because it's time to move past this and on to the next thing. For all of us.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.