Making Sense of Suicide

I woke up this morning to a torrent of tweets paying tribute to Anthony Bourdain. My first thought was a defiant “NO.” My second thought was, “why?” My wife and I have seen every episode of Parts Unknown, No Reservations, The Layover and all his other lesser known stuff too. We’d been fans for a long time. It hit me hard. I never met Bourdain, but I felt a sense of personal loss.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life this week. And so did Kate Spade. None of it makes sense to us.

But of course, it made perfect sense to them. This is the tragedy of mental illness. In the minds of these great and influential individuals, suicide was, in fact, the only thing that made sense.

For whatever reason, both felt they didn’t have the emotional resources to do battle any longer with what Milton called darkness visible. And a battle it is. Martin Luther called his own depression by a different name – Anfechtungen. A word meaning “to duel with” or “fight”. Luther envisioned himself in constant battle with his own thoughts.

For many, it feels like a losing battle.

To stare down your own existence and deem it unacceptable is a terrible thing. What could make a person suffer so greatly that the only answer to the problem of one’s own being, is to not be at all? It’s hard to live as someone you don’t accept; as the shadow of someone you think you could accept. It’s hard to exist as one who feels unworthy of the gift of existence.

And it’s confusing for the rest of us who look at these great lives: Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams, and wonder what could possibly have made their fantastic existence seem to them, unacceptable.

My wife will tell you the number of times I watched Bourdain, green with envy. I kind of wanted to be Bourdain. Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend about how “these guys” (it’s always these guys) get amazing travel shows and “get to see the world for free!” My exact words were, “what an amazing life.” Part of me wanted Anthony Bourdain’s life. At the same time, he didn’t want it himself.

It doesn’t make sense – to us.

Psychologists talk a lot about the fear of death. But sometimes it’s helpful to consider the fear of living. For some, life is the prospect of further existence as a wounded soldier doomed to wander the mine-ridden battlefield of one’s own mind. And it can be too much to bear. For some people, death is less threating than life.

There are a lot of reasons someone may live with this belief. Personal history, trauma, drug abuse, genetics, chemistry, hormones, spirituality, thoughts, emotions, relationships. In the end, life is complicated and hard to sort through alone.

After all, it’s hard to make sense of our own stories, let alone the stories of famous individuals we never met like Bourdain and Spade. So, I can’t pretend to make sense of these tragedies. They don’t make sense. The thought processes and beliefs which lead a person to suicide are seldom rational.

But it is important to recognize that though irrational to us, suicide made perfect sense to them.

So then, what does this mean for the rest of us?

It means we must take seriously the statements and threats made by someone we know who struggles with depression. Assume that if they say it, they mean it.  It also means we must talk openly, honestly, vulnerably and transparently about suicide, and the battlefield of life, with these people we love.

One of the most common concerns I get from those who know a person who may be suicidal is, “if I bring suicide up to them, that might put it in their head.” This is a mistaken belief. If the prospect of their suicide concerns you, it is highly likely this is something they have already considered. Therefore, the right approach is to speak about it openly, with tact. This person may need to draw on your bravery to broach the topic.

Also, we must recognize that though our suffering friends, who may be considering suicide, need words of comfort, encouragement, and reassurance, more than anything, they simply need our presence and a listening ear. Alone is the word common to nearly all suicides. Depressed people describe a felt sense of existing in a place of deep shadows – forsaken, friendless, detached and lonely. They need, more than anything, people to help them remain active and engaged in the world. To keep moving. They need to feel heard which in turn validates their own existence by acknowledging and validating their story. I can’t tell you the number of people who come to therapy just to feel heard.

We all know someone who struggles with depression. We are part of that person’s community of resources and support. None of us were meant to do battle with our demons alone.

Finally, we must recognize that the brain is an organ vulnerable to illness just as is any other organ in the body. We’re not surprised when a kidney doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do or a heart starts pumping out of rhythm. It helps us cope with the confusion, and sometimes frustration, of being in relationship with a depressed person, to understand that the brain might be thinking out of rhythm. It helps us remain nonjudgmental, empathetic and understanding to remember that our friend is physiologically ill, in the same way as is a person on dialysis or with cancer.

We are only just beginning to understand the many factors which contribute to brain functioning.  But it is abundantly clear there are biological, genetic, organic components to depression – not only cognitive and mental factors.

I hate that mental health conversations seem to take place only in the context of tragedy. A school Shooting. An accidental overdose. A celebrity suicide.

I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish these conversations took place all the time. As a therapist, in my world they do. But I also know my world is small, and as a society, we must do better about having these conversations more broadly.

Maybe the greatest lesson we can take from this tragedy is the truth that we don’t know the demons people wrestle with, especially those whom we only know through television. So, we should treat everyone we encounter as though they’re in a fight for their life. With suicide rates on the rise, many, many we know, are.

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