…or is it? The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have shocked the world. How could people with so much money, privilege and opportunities hang themselves? That method of suicide is very hard for those who loved them to cope with. Most of you know that I have a chronic mental illness but I have a particularly intimate knowledge of suicide. Two of my cousins killed themselves, one by gun and the other with medication. I lived in a village that suffered a contagion of suicide during a ‘dustbowl’ depression. In the UK I managed a nonprofit project for people dealing with the effects of severe mental illness. Somehow the last telephone call on Friday night always seemed desperate and you wondered if the person would survive. Finally, I have thought so often about suicide or nihilism myself that I hope I have talked myself out of it.
The last thing that anyone needs is castigation or judgment for feeling so desperate that you no longer wish to live. I had my first bout of depression at age 7 and then a more serious illness when I was 20. I was young and convinced that my living conditions (with a mentally ill mother) were the only contributing factor. In a future life, I would get a job that didn’t stress me and marry a man who would look after me. Never did find the former but I did marry my husband who loved me so much that divorce was never an option in his eyes. Over the years, we both learned that I had a life-long illness that I had unfortunately inherited (why not money, for goodness sake?).
I can’t claim to know Kate or Anthony but from all reports, they were kind, loving, quirky, charismatic humans who had inner, mostly hidden, pain. I hesitate to use the word demons because it is so generic and unfair. When I was working in the field of mental health I would give talks to student nurses and social workers with one of my volunteers who had schizophrenia. Despite all of them nursing or caring for people with severe mental illnesses, they struggled to empathize. You truly do need to walk a mile in a person’s shoes to know their angst. What surprised the students the most is that we were articulate, funny, knowledgeable and well-educated. They rarely had an opportunity to see the hospitalized person after they had recovered from that breakdown so this was an eye-opening opportunity. We don’t usually recover from a chronic diagnosis – we just manage our illness to the best of our ability.
So let’s talk about suicide. One of my clients had a very severe mental illness, most likely one of the bipolar illnesses. Every time he had a psychotic break, delusional and manic, he recovered in hospital but a little part of him died inside. To make it worse, he didn’t react well to the medication. Every day he would see a relative, walking the main street, who also had the inherited illness but had retreated into homelessness. It was as if he were looking in miserable mirror. He talked to us so many times about his sense of hopelessness. There were other clients who could bounce back much better. It was as though our Fairy Godmother gifted us with self-deprecating humor, a sprinkling of fairy dust and charm to balance what ‘Malificent’ gave us. One day he called the office, having escaped from a locked psychiatric unit, and said goodbye to me. I knew immediately what was going to happen and called the authorities. In the weeks following I comforted his family and friends but they found his body in a wooded glade, having taken his life. Normally, I would feel just deep sadness and regret. In his case I understood his pain and the relief he sought.
CNN had an expert talking about a contagion of suicide which is an excellent way to reference this. Was Anthony inspired by Kate or was it just some awful coincidence? I mentioned living in a village with this contagion earlier. It was a farming community and the crops had failed for the third year in a row, leaving many of the farmers with huge debts. It had a knock on effect for other workers such as painters, electricians and plumbers whose invoices were ignored. One farmer, who I knew, shot himself. The plumber hanged himself in the garage a few days before Christmas and it continued. I completely understood – these people had lived in this area for generations. What would they do if they had to leave their farms and businesses? For some of them it was unthinkable to live in a nearby town in rented housing when they had always lived on the land of their forefathers, in gentle silence. Our community was grief stricken and all of us took some blame. Did we not say hello one day or be over critical about some work? One wife could not forgive her husband for the manner of his death. All I could hear was “How could they do that to their family”, “Selfishness”, “Other people manage without money”. No one kills themselves without feeling such anguish that life no longer seems feasible. The very nature of mental illness is that it makes you selfish and sometimes narcissistic but that is a symptom not a personality defect. Not everyone who takes their own life is mentally ill but surely in that moment it’s moot.
So, why do we think about suicide? I can only talk about my own experience and it doesn’t really make any sense. Having volunteered all my adult life, I know all too well about the resilience of the human spirit. People can lose everything, be imprisoned in a concentration camp or tortured and still live a long, happy life. Last week I had three long days of work and an event. I managed the work and enjoyed it but I had to leave the event with an anxiety attack. I stayed in bed for four days with my mood going up and down. Thoughts of hopelessness and failure were flitting through my head just as quickly as writing a story about fairies. People with psychoses sometimes hear voices that can be disturbing. Their illness makes them unable to perceive that these are just delusional thoughts created by the psychosis. I know what my thoughts are but can’t control them. On the outside, I just look haunted but with so much psychotherapy, I can switch up my mood in a second so that I can manage an interaction.
Getting older, in my case, is making my illness more difficult to manage. I suspect the natural drop in estrogen is contributing. With the help of my doctor, I have been changing drugs, combinations and strength. Right now it is difficult for me to do the other things that help such as eating well, no alcohol and exercise. Here is an example of one of my thoughts. “Whales are being found with lots of plastic in their stomachs” “Perhaps if I cooked from scratch I could avert this” “That’s not possible but perhaps I could just eat bananas and avocadoes?” “Life isn’t worth living anymore; do I have enough air miles to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide” “What about Teddy and Toffee – I can’t leave them”. At the end of these thoughts, which go on for hours, I am utterly exhausted.
Two days ago I felt exactly like that but today I went out to lunch with my friend and we had a genuinely lovely time. I have gone for a walk, cleaned the house and have been asked to do a really fun job next week. The job will exhaust me but the accomplishment will help my mood. Now I can anticipate a good weekend, living for the moment. There is not much likelihood of a cure or completely successful treatment for me. When I think objectively, I realize that life is full of beautiful moments and I try my best to avoid stressing myself. During all of this, I feel so sorry for those people who do take their own lives but pity whatever drove them to it. I hope that this post might help someone who is considering suicide or those who have lost someone.
If you feel desperate please share your feelings with someone you trust or reach out to –
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
“We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.”