Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and the Right to Die
Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s tragic suicides have been abuzz in the news for weeks. Many, many people across social media platforms are writing words of sorrow and well-meaning statements about the importance of checking up on people and the de-stigmatization of mental illness.
The conversations I hear happening around me when a well-known person kills themselves usually run along one of three lines:
(1) I don’t get it, they had everything, how could they be so unhappy?
(2) How could anyone be so selfish?
(3) Why didn’t they just talk to someone?
For context, I was a suicidal person for about a decade. The majority of my young life was spent dancing with death in a lethal power struggle I was certain I would eventually lose.
The last time I had suicidal thoughts was a mere 8 months ago, when I drove to the Ocean in the dark and paced the shoreline, desperately trying to give myself reasons to stay alive. I have had chronic depression that kept coming back and coming back and I suffered a great deal for many years.
So these three things are not what come to my mind when I hear that someone has killed themselves. What comes to my mind is a film reel of the many nights I came so, so very close to walking over the edge myself. Of the failed attempts, of the suicide notes, of the liquor and tears and plans of how to do it.
What comes to mind is the residual memory in my body, grafted on my DNA, of what that kind of suffering feels like.
In your head, in your bones, on your chest. The weight, the incredible weight of carrying your own life, how painful it is to breathe, how hard it is to focus, how difficult it is to try and recognize social cues, respond in a socially appropriate way, to be polite, to make small talk, to show an interest in other people, in living life at all. How exhausting and mundane and meaningless and maddening it all is.
I think of the icy black fingers that cradled my brain and covered my eyes and made every waking moment (and a lot of the sleeping ones) a painful never-ending haze of either pure nothingness or a despair so sharp it was agony.
All this seemingly able to be resolved by only one thing; non-existence. The thought of peaceful rest seemed too good to be true, I’d have settled for pure unconsciousness forever, whatever would stop it all for good.
And knowing that the power to grant myself this was in my hands was a mighty temptation. “I can end it all, I can end it all right now,” would whisper through my brain often when it all just became too much.
No, what comes to my mind when I hear of a suicide is a sentence on my heart that reads, “I know the blackness of the pit you were in and I know why you couldn’t get out.”
Having the history that I do with depression and suicidal thoughts, it is frustrating to me to hear the kinds of conversations people have about suicide.
To the first charge, it is baffling to me that people assume that mental stability has anything to do with the numbers in your bank account. A depressed person who becomes successful in their field simply becomes a depressed person with money.
A will to live doesn’t magically appear with the right job, a famous title, or a hefty pay-check. Obviously financial stability can reduce some life stresses, but it doesn’t actually cure anything about the human condition we all find ourselves in.
We’ve all heard the platitude that money can’t buy happiness, but apparently the prevailing belief is that is can, and the wealthy and successful therefore have no right to be unhappy. It’s ludicrous and illogical to think this way, and yet many still tout this theory.
The second idea that committing suicide is purely selfish is a favorite among those who pride themselves on “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” and love to talk about how “everyone goes through hard times,” and “happiness is a choice.”
The fundamental flaw in this reasoning is the glaring difference between a depression so black that death is a welcome relief and simply having a bad day.
People who talk about the selfishness of suicide are comparing the bad moods or every day ups and downs they’ve had in their lives with a chronic chemical imbalance in the brain. The two are radically different and cannot be compared.
Like most things however, those who’ve never experienced the suffering caused by depression simply do not know what it is to feel that pain and so have a glaring lack of empathy.
Not much more can be said on that point accept that they don’t understand and they can’t unless they’ve been there. They don’t have the right to judge the situation, but they do anyway, feeling superior all the while because they “fix their problems, they don’t blame them on other people.”
And lastly, we have the tried and true, “why didn’t they tell someone?” I think people ask this question because once the gavel has fallen and it’s too late, we all would like to think we could have done something. That if we’d just said the right thing or been there at the right moment things could have been different.
Here’s the thing about that.
To a suicidal person, the thought of killing themselves is as benign as the weather. It’s a thought that is with them constantly, sometimes for a very, very long time. It is second nature for them to discuss death and ending their own life very casually, because to them, it is casual. It’s a part of their everyday existence.
A mentally healthy person cannot compute this. Finding someone you can casually discuss the difficulties you’ve been having with staying alive is almost impossible. It alienates people. It freaks them out. They think you’re weird. Or Emo. Or immature. Or just messed up. They don’t enjoy being around you. You embarrass them. You make everyone uncomfortable. No one knows what to do with you.
And in the end, the suicidal person ends up having to take care of you and your feelings, and they silently make a note to keep their struggles to themselves next time to avoid the exhaustion of the whole conversation.
If a suicidal person confides in a therapist, they run the risk of being institutionalized. This was always a huge fear for me. The thought of the humiliation that would result of causing someone to raise the alarm was unbearable. Instead of disappearing like I longed to do, I’d have the spotlight flung right in my desperate face and be labelled as “mentally ill.”
I would be watched constantly, stripped of my dignity, solitude and autonomy, until I could convince the powers that be that I no longer wanted to die.
That, or be doped beyond all recognition of myself. No, better not to tell a therapist. Or anyone I saw as potentially able to be freaked out enough to call the police or try to get me hospitalized.
So professionals aren’t always helpful, the average Joe is usually not helpful, friends can be a big help, but they ultimately have their own lives to lead and if you’re not semi-fun to be with at least some of the time you can’t rationally expect them to stay around for long.
And all of the suicidal people I’ve known are deathly afraid of becoming a burden to someone else and they DO NOT want to be a burden when they understand the weight of being burdened so well.
Additionally, when you don’t want to be alive anymore, it takes all your energy and focus not to reach for the gun or the bottle of pills or the razor blades. Finding the wherewithal to think of calling someone and trying to figure out who would be safe to call is a task well beyond the capacity of many suicidal people in that pivotal moment.
When it comes right down to it, here’s the unpopular opinion that I believe to be absolutely true:
to a chronically depressed, suicidal person, THERE IS NOTHING ANYONE ELSE CAN DO.
No amount of talking will save them. Reason can’t reach them. All their sensibilities are dead. Hearing that they “matter” and that people “care about them” only register as random facts about a meaningless world.
There is nothing but pain, and for all they can see, that’s all there will ever be. If they are going to be saved, they must save themselves. The only way out of the pit exists inside a self that has grown so dark they can’t see the light of their own soul anymore.
And many can’t get out. And I understand.
I have a deep, deep empathy for those who have committed suicide. So deep that I feel I can’t talk about it because it sounds like I am condoning or encouraging it. I do not do either. To smother your own life, to murder yourself, is a grievous, heinous thing.
But I understand so very intimately what this particular brand of suffering entails. I respect their right to choose. I honor their decision. I can’t find it in my heart to judge them. Because I understand. I understand.
It is horrendous for those who are left behind. It is unthinkable. It is tragic. Those who are left have a right to scream in rage. They have a right to feel betrayed. They have a right to be angry at the departed.
But the departed also had a right to choose. We have a right to our own lives. And we have a right to choose to end them. That’s what free will is; the freedom to walk away.
Something deep in my soul, in the dark quiet places, feels a solemn, grave, camaraderie with the souls of those that have died by suicide.
I can feel the cold breeze of their recently departed lives whispering somewhere in my mind, and I tell them with all that I am, “I hear you, I see you, I understand. Be at peace.”