Without Me You're Only You
Here are a few things that happen when a famous person commits suicide:
- Shock and bafflement is expressed that someone who seems to have it all could choose to end his or her life.
- Explanations are demanded. There better have been a reason, and it better have been a good one.
- Arguments ensue about the “right” way to handle someone who might be suicidal. Encourage them to reach out to friends. Encourage them to call the Suicide Hotline. Don’t wait for them to reach out to you, check on them first. Whatever way we're currently helping is the wrong way, and whatever way we try tomorrow will be wrong too.
- We learn anew how little people understand what it means to be suicidal, and the thought process that goes behind the decision to end one’s life. We’re reminded that people overall find that idea so frightening and offensive that it’s not until a prominent person chooses to do so that we talk about it.
I first became preoccupied with the idea of dying when I was in my early teens. I was flailing helplessly in the smoking crater my parents’ ugly, violent divorce had left. Everything that I knew had been turned upside down, with no indicator that it would ever be right again, and only one thing brought me comfort: the idea that I didn’t have to live with it if I didn’t want to. I could run away, or take a more permanent approach. There was power in that thought. I had no control of where I lived, how my parents would behave, what would happen one day to the next but only I could make the decision to not deal with it anymore. I rarely had a plan in mind, but the option remained, hidden in a glass cabinet marked BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. The fact that it existed brought me a sad and weary peace. I didn’t want it to be that way. I hoped that it wouldn’t be. But it certainly seemed to be better than suffering.
As my life did eventually regain some sense of “normalcy,” the urge felt a little less pressing. Dust gathered on that glass cabinet, and I felt about as happy as I understood the term to mean. Then, in my mid-twenties, depression did the equivalent of stepping out of an alley and punching me dead in the face. This was a different, far more insidious kind of depression than what I felt in my teens—this time, I wasn’t trapped by circumstances and other people’s decisions. This time, the problem was me. It occurred to me that the happiness and contentment I was experiencing was unearned, a cosmic accounting error, and not only would I have to pay it back, so would everyone around me. I was consumed by a sense of despair that felt almost sentient, a creature that enjoyed toying with me by shifting its weight so that I either couldn’t breathe, or couldn’t eat. There was no relief, and no sign that any relief was coming, even after going into therapy. Depression liked this particular plot of real estate, and was building a home on it.
I thought about ending my own life often, dropping the anchor around my neck and letting it carry me to the bottom of the sea before it could take anyone else. The image brought me a strange sort of comfort I minimized the impact my death would have on other people. My then-husband was young and a good catch, he’d find someone new (and hopefully less crazy). My daughter was barely a toddler at the time, she wouldn’t remember me. My best friend would be sad, but she’d have understood. My grandmother would be sad, but she had other grandchildren. I didn’t think it would matter much to anyone else. I had nothing to contribute to the world, nothing to give back in compensation for all the space I was taking up. I would not be missed, and while the thought of that made me weep in self-pity, it also brought a sense of relief—I could do this, if I wanted to. It wouldn’t matter either way.
When I woke up in the hospital the next morning after a failed suicide attempt, I felt neither gratitude or disappointment. There was only a weary resignation: well, I guess that didn’t work. When I couldn’t promise my therapist that I wouldn’t try again, she had me check into a psychiatric hospital. After I completed both in-patient and outpatient treatment, there was a different kind of weary resignation: well, I guess I’ll keep going. And so, I have. This year will mark twenty years that I’ve kept going. I haven’t tried to commit suicide again, but I’ve thought about it, more often than I care admit, and more recently than I care to admit. The idea that there’s a ripcord on my life that I can pull if I simply don’t want to deal with things anymore is never really too far from my mind.
See, here’s the thing that drives people absolutely mad about suicide: more often than not, there is no real, specific reason someone does it. Despite what lurid teen dramas like 13 Reasons Why tell us, people don't usually choose to end their own life because of a specific event or person (and the fact that misconception still exists is why suicidal people are written off as “melodramatic” and “manipulative” before they can even get the help they need). The idea of a Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain killing themselves is offensive. They were rich and famous, what did they have to complain about? Suicide is for some divorced schmuck in Des Moines heating up a Banquet chicken pot pie after his sales job was made “redundant.”
What we can’t face is that they’re both stark, shuddering reminders that Success Won’t Save You. We’ve known this for nearly 25 years, since Kurt Cobain’s death. He obviously wasn’t the first celebrity who ended his life at the top of his career, when he seemed to have the whole world in the palm of his hand, but he was the first to lay bleakly bare, in his journals and suicide note, how, despite his phenomenal success, and how much he loved being a husband and father, it wasn’t enough to quiet the monsters. He still felt like a broken, worthless person. See, depressed people, we like to kid ourselves into believing that all it will take is a small number of specific accomplishments to turn the tide, for that DEPRESSION switch to not just be turned off, but taped down. For me, in my more magical thinking moments, it’s getting my book published. For others, it might be finding that special someone, or getting a promotion you’ve worked very hard for. And sometimes those things do come, and while it might change things for the better for a little while, eventually it creeps back in. The sense of failure. The staggering case of impostor syndrome. The overall feeling of worthlessness. Depression doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about what you’ve accomplished. It was there with you before you made your first dollar, or kissed your first girl.
Now, think about what the crushing disappointment that must bring, and tell me again how selfish someone must be to commit suicide. We’re trying, man. We are trying.
So, no, it’s rarely one singular event that drives someone to go through with suicide. No one goes from 0 to “well, think I’ll kill myself today” in a couple hours. It’s often not anything specific. Sometimes, we’re just tired. Being a depressed person is very tiring. Having to put on a good game face is tiring. Looking ahead to an uncertain future in which we might feel this way for the rest of our lives, or it might somehow be gone tomorrow is tiring. Taking inventory of how much of our time has been eaten by this monster is very, very tiring. We’ll likely never know exactly why Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain chose to end their lives, but you can bet that, more than anything else, they were probably tired.
The rest of us are going to keep going. I’m going to keep going. Most days I don’t really think getting a book published is going to put a stop to it all, so I focus on the things that bring me joy and purpose. I have a small but very loving family, and endlessly patient friends who put up with my impossible bullshit. Despite the tone of this post, most of the time I’m a pretty funny person, and making people laugh gives me a sense of peace. There are too many movies to see, too many TV shows to watch, and too many books to read for me to go just yet. I have a computer file full of story ideas, and my brain, when I’m feeling good, is a buzzing hive of creativity. I still dream, and I still love, and I still have gratitude for everything good in my life. These are bellwethers of hope, and looking for them is how I keep going.
What will I do if I can’t find them anymore? I don’t know. I hope I’ll reach out to someone, anyone, and I hope that I’m treated with compassion and understanding, as opposed to fear and shame. Be tender to those who don’t want to go on anymore. We promise, it’s not you, it’s us.