The Cancer of Solitude

I was sitting in an accountant's office in Italy this morning with Lino. Amelia is a very welcoming and warm person and she spoke to me about my cancer with a cheer I have become used to. I like her and didn't want to detach too soon so I attempted to explain how too much "allegria", can provoke an undesired effect, that of feeling misunderstood and further alone.

I sat there for some minutes without speaking and then I told her I was actually in that moment drawn to ponder the suicide of Robin Williams, which occurred just yesterday and which left so many people in shock and terrible sadness. She first said, "But really, he was so "solare", meaning he had a sunny nature, or rather that was what she saw in him. And so I spoke just a little more, but this time more about loneliness. Okay, I said, for sure solitude can be a beautiful thing, something soothing, and even meditative and healing. But that is when it isn't urgent to have company and to be understood, which seems to be something we are wired for indeed, and perhaps some of us more than others.

I'm not a comedian in any ways that are known and perhaps am thought of as an actress by those who know me rather well, but one thing is for sure. It came out during the five months of my chemo and in the anticipation of and after my mastectomy: I am someone who craves being heard, but more than that, understood. I flinch still when people tell me how brave I've been, how courageous I am because I know it isn't true and as such it feels isolating. I had the "courage" of speaking from my heart and in that sense I accept the description, but really there were days I couldn't move and didn't want to, days when death seemed not only imminent but already present internally.

And I'm not saying being understood is easy for others nor that it is the only salvation for those people stuck in a sense of solitary confinement whether by apparent choice or not. What I am saying is that solitude, when it is forced and receiving of too little comprehension, can be cancerous is its definition as "a practice or phenomenon perceived to be... destructive and hard to contain or eradicate."

As a psychotherapist I know something about suicide, but what I know about psychotherapeutic practice tells me that too often we treat what we perceive as a pathology requiring a certain kind of intervention, while we skip over really locating the person in question. I do know that sometimes the demons of suicidal thoughts or urges are too hard to handle, that people around can be so desirous of a lifting of depression that it only accentuates the danger: in fact people who are suicidally depressed tend to commit suicide more when the depression lifts that tiny bit -- enough to allow the person intent on suicide to actually forge ahead and succeed.

I have read the tweets about Robin Williams, in addition to feeling tremendous sadness myself for he was part and parcel of entertainment and film as I've known them for years. Certain of his roles, in :Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and even Moscow on the Hudson, are etched in my memory with poignancy and affection. I have no wish to analyze what drove him to his death, also because I know way too little about it. I do realize, though, that those entertainers who have been close to that precipice have tweeted to those who are depressed to talk to someone and to those of us/them who can be the listeners to hear and remember that depression is not a joke.

However, we have too little information about what constitutes deep and dangerous depression. And I fear that as with my own travails in the arenas of cancer, it is easy for the "patient" to feel the needs of the helping professions to get results and even to have signed promises, all very prematurely. Anyone who is hating this life, will not offhand want to confide in a visitor his/her plans or degree of hatred or despair. The issue of honesty requires a certain level of trust that one can not only be heard, but understood. And not only understood but that the levels of pain, or detachment or sadness or shame can be made sense of.

If you google "depression", you will not easily find a translation of what it may feel like, what it may seem like to be overtaken by depression. And talking a person out of it may not even be feasible if the lights have gone out in the person's psyche and hope has died. Meeting a person where he/she is at often requires a respect for the resistance to what we often think of as cure, or as adjustment. To hear the defiance, what can seem or be unwillingness to "cooperate", is to begin to humanize -- not the "treatment" only but the conversations that need to be present.

Too often the language of rehabs has a cult like flavor, as in "When you do that I think this and that makes me feel such and such." This is not an exaggeration, and in addition the "such and such" are frequently limited to four emotions, as if that would ever be enough to describe our deepest emotional states.

We need a conversation about suicidal depression, and the more ordinary states of feeling overwhelmed by hopelessness or alienation. And we can only do that by listening much more carefully to those who are feeling it. Again we can't assume, just because we are presently walking around outside the rehabs of life, that we have the answers. If anything we need to start questioning way more than many of us tend to do.