When I was 28, I found my roommate Ali dead of suicide. She had just turned 30, and was feeling stuck in her life, and one night decided that taking sleeping pills was a better option than remaining alive with her student loan debt, her inability to get into a PhD program, her battles with depression… I remember finding her dead, and how her cats were hovering anxiously near her body, and how her blue eyes were open and staring like she could still be alive.
I couldn’t comprehend why she’d committed suicide, and in an initial burst of terror, I thought she’d been murdered by our landlord (who was actually outside digging holes in his garden when I found her). I ran to my car, peeled out of the parking lot, and screamed into the phone to 911 that my roommate had been killed.
Of course, then they found the suicide note, and the sleeping pills, and the wine. I still didn’t believe it. Friends told me she’d been on St. John’s Wart for depression and had just recently stopped. Apparently unregulated antidepressants will cause an enormous shift in mood if you stop taking them, and … it did. Not long after, I met Ali’s identical twin at her funeral.
It took me about 15 years to stop being angry at Ali for leaving her family behind to sort out her life. In a messy, confusing way, I also missed her, and ached for where she’d been in her family’s lives, in her friend’s lives. But it took me a long time to find some compassion for her. And even longer, maybe even a year or two more, to realize that when people have depression and kill themselves, it’s the depression that does it — not the rest of their rational brain, not the part that says, “My identical twin sister will miss me like she’s missing a part of her own soul.”
A few weeks ago my father died at age 79 of natural causes, a death that was ruled an “electrical incident” that stopped his heart and caused him to die swiftly, although his body was kept on life support just long enough for me to go and say goodbye. My words for writing about my father have dried up, and maybe they’ll come in time. The only rational thing I have to say about his death is that I am grateful I got to go and say goodbye — but the finality of having my dad gone is not going to sink in for me anytime soon.
I returned from being at my father’s side and wasn’t home for a day before I awoke to the news that Kate Spade had hanged herself. A few days later, Anthony Bourdain did the same. In these past few weeks, I have had a true, tough struggle to come to terms with the suicides of Spade and Bourdain.
Hopefully I’m older and wiser, and it won’t take 15 years for me to get through my anger and on to the understanding. I’ve learned from Ali’s suicide, enough to know that people who are depressed kill themselves because of depression, not for whatever reason my mind wants to ascribe to it all. Perhaps the best understanding is that it’s not about the people who surrounded Spade and Bourdain at all — not their children, who are barely into their teens, nor their left-behind partners, nor their fans.
Suicide is about one person being alone with their depression at the wrong moment, and having the depression speak louder to them than anyone else.
So what do we do in a world without my dad, who was a powerful conservationist and force for the good in Hawaii? Without a woman like Kate Spade, who turned her creative dreams into an empire? Without Anthony Bourdain, who told stories about the world that made us all want to bridge the differences between us?
I’ve been thinking about the Tarot card of the Hanged Man recently, because the card is not the symbol of death, it’s the symbol of change. If someone’s life is over and we can’t take part in their journey any longer, we can at least meditate upon the lessons taught by their death. Perhaps these suicides are the universe’s way to make us wake up and realize that it’s time for us all to change. Me too, learning as I go, knowing when to admit that I’ve lived life with a half-assed understanding of suicide.
I’m also left to make peace with the fact that all life ends in death, and we get what time with people we get; and that this time, short or long, has to be enough.
The internet right now is glutted with tributes and paeans singing the praises of Anthony Bourdain. Truth to tell I feel a bit strange in adding my voice to the outpouring as I came late to the Bourdain appreciation train. I heard the name in pop culture of course, but wrote him off as, ironically, the complete opposite of all he was: a blowhard, an intentionally problematic personality riding a stale bad-boy image long past his prime. In other words, a fake.
Some friends sat me down in October 2015 and showed me his show on Netflix – the first episode I watched involved ice-fishing in Canada. That viewing brought me to two realizations:
- Anthony Bourdain was 100% genuine
- I was, in fact, full of shit.
Growth of any kind is uncomfortable. By its very nature growth is both damaging and healing, but of course, one is more keenly felt than the other. And it’s this pain that causes some people to retreat into complacency, to stop the process in order to remain comfortable, and turn away.
This is my experience with depression.
Pain is part of daily life. Managing the condition becomes second nature, a reflex, almost. But the brain is a bastard; it’s a stew of chemical electricity and hormones that are ever evolving, ever adapting. It is also ever improving at building tolerance to management practices.
To live with my badly wired brain is to make a constant effort of keeping plates in air. The older you get, the more plates must be kept aloft as life becomes more complex with additional responsibilities – work, career, family, friends, finances, and all the quotidien bits and bobs that make up a neat and tidy life. When the routine is disrupted and the plates come down, they come down all at once and the resulting wreckage seems impossible to sort through and put to rights.
Anyone who’s familiar with Bourdain through his work, writing, or personal connection knew him to be a relentless self-improver, a man in search of his best self no matter how painful the search might be. But there’s a cost to that – it means never resting, never finding a comfortable point to stop and say ‘There. I am finished now. I am satisfied.’
The payoff for someone like that is not always felt by them – no amount of awards or money or recognition is enough. It is felt by everyone around them, who are spun by the power of dynamic energy coming off this person back to their own rotations, newly recharged and rejuvenated. People like Bourdain spend their lives showing us what we could be, if we only tried hard enough.
I’ve always thought of my depression as similar to cancer; there are many forms of it, and of course, not all are fatal. And when I say fatal, I don’t mean to imply that depression is somehow medically capable of killing someone. That’s idiotic. But it’s entirely capable of driving a person into complete despair, of forcing them away from the life-giving light of their friends, families, coworkers, of convincing them that there is no hope, no continuation to the road ahead.
In those moments, it’s impossible to remember the possibilities of the future over the realities of the past and present. The central tenet of the depressive’s defeatist argument is often ‘I can’t change’ or even worse, ‘I won’t change.’ ‘I won’t stop racking up debt because I am bad with money’ or ‘I can’t find love because I don’t deserve it’ or ‘I will never be a good parent because I don’t know how.’
To some people, these are suggestions that spur on healthful change; sometimes a person can embrace a hard truth and change, and move toward something more positive in life – a more healthy lifestyle, the avoidance of toxic people and relationships, a meaningful career change. But with depression these suggestions become immutable truths when the plates have come down and the brain can’t remember how to get them in the air again. There is nothing beyond the perceived failure, and the imagination is only employed to frighten or confirm, not to inspire.
Anthony Bourdain was not afraid of the pain of change. But that doesn’t mean he still didn’t feel it.
I believe that is what happened to Mr. Bourdain. There’s a saying I’ve seen associated with Robin Williams but that originated with Phil Donahue – ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’ It’s not entirely true, since depression is a permanent problem in many people’s lives, but it is still worth remembering that just because you can’t see the light right now doesn’t mean it has disappeared forever.
But you can wait it out. And when you’re able, you pick up the pieces one by and one and set them spinning again.
And if you can’t, then for heaven’s sake, get some help.
A better analogy than plate-spinning came to me in the shower this morning: juggling lots of things, along with one very sharp knife. The more things you add as you go along in life, the more knives appear. When everything falls down the knife cuts deep, sometimes several at once, but it isn’t always fatal. But the chance is there.
3 thoughts on “Depression, suicide, and change”
Very powerful piece! So sorry about your experiences and losses.
“just because you can’t see the light right now doesn’t mean it has disappeared forever” Jen, you’re amazing and I’m so proud to be your friend. Thanks for being there so many times.
I have so many thoughts about this post, but so few words.