The Under Toad

The World According to Garp book coverIn John Irving’s The World According to Garp, the protagonist (played in the 1982 movie by Robin Williams) warns his young son Walt about the strong ocean currents. Walt hears “undertow” as “under toad” and remains fearful of—and also curious about—a bloated monster who may, at any moment, pull him under the cold murky waters.

As I scroll through the tributes, recollections, and observations both inane and insightful that have accompanied public mourning over the death of comedian/actor Robin Williams, I come across these two facts:

In other words, middle-aged men are killing themselves in greater numbers than ever and those numbers appear to be increasing.

The under toad is claiming more victims.

hopeless man ink drawingMost of my friends on Facebook are middle-aged and a good many of them are writers (and men), some well known and others not so much well known. We’ve long watched the culture default to the needs, likes and aspirations of the young; that is, after all, how culture renews itself. In addition to feeling occasionally irrelevant, there is the burden of being a writer, a vocation that assuredly adds to the potential for being despondent. Think chronic economic instability combined with near chronic feelings of alienation.

Of greater significance, to my mind, is the devaluing of artistic enterprises, particularly writing. Not only is it harder to get paid, our culture doesn’t seem to hold good writing in high esteem. It’s all just so much content.

Having a finely honed wit and a well-developed sense of the absurd may not offer adequate protection (see: Williams, Robin). Just because you can see it coming doesn’t mean you can get away clean. Damn if drugs and alcohol don’t often seem like an excellent salve.

But the gender gap is what causes my head to spin. Men—not just actors but lawyers, doctors, salesmen, laid off workers, struggling entrepreneurs, heads of households squeezed between generations—are taking their own lives by a ratio of more than three to one, at least in the United States. Various theories abound, including the idea that men are more likely to use firearms with more success. Statistics also show women are much more likely to consult mental health professionals than are men.

Clearly cultural assumptions about roles and perceptions about strengths and weaknesses contribute to the disparity. What does it mean to be a man? What is the definition of success? How does a man measure his worth compared to how a woman measures hers and most importantly, what does he do about it?

empty park benchGetting older is a dicey proposition in a youth-driven, success-driven society. I’m not immune to the temptation to compare and contrast, to tally and, yes, to find myself—without husband or children or even a massively successful career—lacking. I’m restless by nature and while that often works to my advantage (questing, curious), it can be an anchor that pulls me into the riptide of regret (should have, could have, too late). With help from friends and a streak of stubbornness wider than a mile, I’ve managed thus far to swim clear of the stronger currents. Not for me the siren song of the amorphous amphibian.

An increasing number of middle-aged men aren’t that fortunate.

Depression is an illness, not a weakness. It kills indiscriminately. It’s a health issue, not a personality flaw. The sooner we acknowledge its insidious pull, the better we might be able to turn the tide.

About Nikki

Author of non-fiction books HOPE IN SMALL DOSES and BECAUSE I SAY SO as well as numerous published essays. Her new novel, THE FORMER ASSASSIN, is due out January 2018.

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10 Responses to The Under Toad

  1. G-Abby says:

    Well said with thoughtful responses… I’ve learned a good deal of what little I know about the sort of funk that takes one all the way under from friends on the internet, some of who have responded here, in fact. Your catchy title says so much about the experience. I’m still pondering on things like ‘when you are not alone and when you have unfettered access to care and when you have battled depression, a chemical imbalance disorder, or an addiction for a long time and when you know your symptoms and your disease so well — is there *nothing* one can do when the black dog begins to close in?’ I’m thinking of men like Robin Williams who have taken their lives with intent or through careless behavior while in the throes of a … a what? Perhaps one gets tired and in a moment of supreme… (weariness? hopelessness? Weltschmerz?), one gives up lets go in the most destructive way possible. I know the sort of depression that leaves you in the bed for weeks or months, the failure to thrive that keeps you housebound and removed from all but the most requisite details of life – I understand that quite well, but this, killing oneself when you are surrounded by love and have so much support and help available to you? I don’t fully comprehend it yet.

    • Nikki says:

      In general–and there are exceptions—men find it more difficult to either seek help or absorb the help they may be getting. If it’s true Robin had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, that might have added to his despair. Depression comes in all shades of ombre and I have only once visited a place so dark that it looked inviting. Even then, something within me turned away from ending things–a strong sense I had more to do. And so I did.

  2. Kim Ashby says:

    Thank you, Nikki, for your measured and thought-provoking response to a subject that is surely a hotbed of controversy today.
    Like Connie, I felt you had more to say, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part as we all search for islands of sanity in the whirlpool of lamentations we are wading through at the moment. Thank you for this.

  3. Matt Paust says:

    As Joe Cocker put it, ” Feeling alright
    I’m not feeling too good myself
    Feeling alright
    I’m not feeling that good myself” etc. (denial and recognition intertwined)

    You piece is insightful and well thought through, Nikki. The stats don’t surprise me, though. I’ve been feeling it awhile, a sort of rising tide of brittle mania as if we’re trying to deny the gloomy prospects we see signs all around. Whistling past the graveyard at midnight. I think in me it’s prompted an underlying aversion to passive entertainment. Afraid to trust what’s spoon-fed despite how well-crafted. I’ve given up TV and Internet (except for a couple of hours a day at the public library). Even stopped listening to the radio of late. No decision-making involved in that. I’m just more and more feeling an aversion to passivity. Probly a new neurosis for me, but at least I’m more productive than ever before.

  4. Connie Mack says:

    Yes, Nikki. Great essay/article. I feel you had more to say and perhaps stopped.

    I agree with the “boys” above – about their demographic.

    But frankly, having lost one male (age 65) and two females (ages 15 and 50 respectively) in 2010 to suicide, I don’t know what I think about anything. It always seems hard to see coming. Maybe because we don’t Want to see. Maybe the shock is that they had the courage to do such an incomprehensible thing? And we’re shocked at the follow-through?

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now and this new one just piles on more questions. Mostly about myself. And us. Not necessarily the them that perform the act.


  5. Ardee Wnc says:

    I would also addd that the internet has globalized stress to such a degree that we no longer suffer just for ourselves but for the injustices of the world. I had never had a problem with depression until my ex left me, but I can say that, without children or family to keep my perspective focused on individual joys, it seems like the world is uglier, meaner, more violent and more unfair. And it’s in our faces in a way that has never been possible before. No, I am not suicidal (today at least) but there are days when I would be glad not to ever know about another war, school shooting, rape, or injustice.

  6. Greg Correll says:

    Wow, Nikki. Talk about focus and pertinence.

    I am being discouraged from watching the news right now by my, er, handlers. I am glad I bent the rules and saw this. You have framed things in ways I had not considered and widened my perspective beyond the personal, something hard to do right now on this issue.

    You and our friends would probably agree that I am about as gender-flexible as a probably straight father of three can be, and have rare access to my feminine side. Plus I am more like the traditional woman than the man in many regards, having raised M on my own. Even so, I resonate the stoic resistance to get help, of traditional “Guys”, to a surprising degree. How hard it must be for “regular fellas” then.

    Thank you for going at this the way we all need to: sleeves rolled up, critical thinking, a modicum of sturdy hope. I stop now before I faint from being so rational about this.

    And I agree about writing and creativity. I don’t think we need mad skills or a wide audience for expression to help. We need to value the expression as such and encourage how it can heal. That in part overcomes your astute thought that it is currently “just so much content”. Last night I got high Quality responses to probably the most personal and raw thing i ever posted on FB. Quantity did not matter at all. Well, after at least 2-3 comments, anyway 🙂 .

  7. Richard Brown says:

    Every one of these paragraphs deserves a separate comment. But as one who has written several times about depression and suicide, let me note three things: 1) The first time I wrote about battling depression, I was startled by the response. Several readers sent me private messages about their own battles, and both a close friend and a relative told me about theirs, neither of which I had detected. It told me that not only was there a mental health epidemic in the U.S. but that it still filled many of its sufferers with shame. 2) Even though I’ve received treatment and am aware of all the stats you cite, my first instinct when I descend into a blue funk is still to “man up” rather than to reach out for help. That’s hideous. 3) The economy, in which older professionals are frequently the first to be laid off (their salary and benefits make too big an impact on the bottom line!) and face age discrimination in trying to get back into the work force, is making things worse.

  8. Andy Schulkind says:

    I wonder how this data correlates or not with data of the post 1929 crash with the image of those ruined by the crash leaping from office windows.

    What would an economist do with this data?

    • Marlene Dunham says:

      “Statistics also show women are much more likely to consult mental health professionals than are men”. I guess that would make the most sense as to why the disparity. I lost an 18 year old sister to suicide many, many years ago, so that is always the demographic that comes to my mind. Great article Nikki.

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