“The universe offers you three things that money cannot buy: joy, love, and life.”
This was a very tough week for our culture. Two high-profile celebrated people committed suicide within days of each other. If you somehow missed the news this past week, both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain hung themselves to death. This sad news once again shocked so many of us, because from the outside looking in we perceived these individuals to be successful, wealthy and having it all. No matter how many times we are told money and success can’t buy you happiness, we still think “Why would they want to kill themselves, they had everything”. We also can’t imagine how they could leave their loved ones behind. The obvious triggers connected with suicide, are drugs, alcoholism and untreated clinical depression. Having worked in the mental health field earlier in my career, I had a very close up look at people who somehow survived their own suicide attempts. Contrary to the popular idea we hear about mentally ill people being a danger to society, they are far more likely to harm themselves and in fact do.
My first experience with suicide was my father who was not living with me at the time. I was very young when he jumped off a commuter ferry-boat while it was cruising at full speed. Fortunately he survived but he never escaped his mental anguish. I only found out about it because a very insensitive school teacher said to me at 6 years old “I read in the newspaper the unfortunate story about your father, and so sorry for his accident.” I ran home confused and frightened to ask my mother what my teacher meant. My poor Mom had to find a way to explain suicide and the complexity of mental illness to a six-year-old child.”
The next encounter I had with suicide was much later in my college years. Now a psychology major for the obvious reasons, I was doing my internship at a psychiatric center on the adolescent unit of a state hospital. I was working the night shift and a young 13-year-old girl was admitted to the unit after an attempted suicide. She had attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the fire escape of her apartment. After being hospitalized and healing from her physical injuries the doctors established she was in a deep depression. She was hospitalized to protect her from herself. Of course you ask, how can a 13-year-old be in a deep depression? My simple answer is life can be cruel and when experienced alone and isolated it can be very scary. Why do you think gangs are so appealing to young teens? It’s an alternative to feeling alone and scared. Many young teens on this psychiatric unit had serious diagnosis’ like Schizophrenia, Borderline Disorder, Manic Depression ( now called Bi-Polar Depression) and even Autism. There were also violent teens with behavioral problems on the same unit.
The young white girl I was assigned to was different. She didn’t have a typical clinical diagnosis but rather a real case of depression brought on by life’s cruel unbearable experiences. Why was she depressed so much that she chose to kill herself at 13? I read her chart before meeting with her in a padded room where I found her sitting on the floor, head hung down in her lap distraught and silent. Her psychiatric medical chart told me the following. Her mother was an addict and had a baby. The mother left and abandoned the baby infant at the apartment for hours and days at a time with this 13-year-old girl. The baby had to be fed, so the 13-year-old decided to breast feed her younger sister when she could. She had been keeping this whole experience a secret to the outside world while also trying to protect her new baby sister from her mother. The girl’s mother would come home strung out and angry and physically abused the 13-year-old girl.
The case notes were just unfathomable and yet many social workers will tell you they see worse than this on a daily basis. The young girl suddenly thrust into motherhood and who had never been really mothered herself was living like this for the first two years of her baby sister’s life. The stress, the pressure and lack of any support system began to take its toll. She was becoming depressed, despondent and hopeless. She could not see a way out of this life she was living with her addict Mom. She had become a Mom to her baby sister and when her mother came home drunk and hurt the baby, the young girl felt responsible for her baby sister and felt she had failed. And remember, not only was the baby neglected but this barely teen girl had been neglected herself for many years prior to the baby sister being born. Suicide did not suddenly just happen. She was living in a pressure cooker.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
~ Kahil Gibran
After reading her chart, I walked into that padded room with this 13-year-old who at the time was just 6 years younger than myself. I decided there were no words I could offer. I shared my name and I sat quietly next to her. She asked if she could leave and I told her I wasn’t able to do that for her right now. I said gently ” I understand why you want to leave but what if we just sat together for a while.” I wasn’t trained to say this, I just understood she was in pain and intuitively knew she needed to feel her pain safely. So I put my hand on her shoulder, and when I did, she broke down and began to sob uncontrollably in my arms. She cried a river for quite a long time. She felt my presence free of judgement, free of needing her to say anything. I just let her cry and hold on to me while she did. I will never forget this experience for my entire life. What’s haunting is I understood this wounded soul on so many levels. While I didn’t have that same horrific experiences as her, I understood what it was like to hold on to too much at a young age and to feel very alone. I too wanted a safe place to lay down my pain, and I knew exactly what she needed. We give what we need and sometimes heal a little ourselves in the process.
As I went on to work in the mental health field, I later was a Supervisor for a mental health agency. I was assigned to ‘homes’ where mentally ill people lived while they were transitioning from the hospital to the real world. The agency provided apartments and professional support systems while these individuals worked at putting their life back together. We called them clients not patients. I felt empowered in this job because I was helping people get well. Something I was never able to do for my Dad.
Our clients were on medications for their conditions and they had to learn to be responsible for taking their meds, and to generally learn to take care of themselves again. One of the adults I monitored had her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. She was intelligent and an amazingly talented artist but had attempted to kill herself with a razor on more than one occasion. When I made visits, it was so hard to see this bright women with all this potential in such a dark state. She was diagnosed with Major Depression which is a very serious illness that can end in suicide more often than not. Many authors have written memoirs about their suffering of clinical major depression and describe how it completely debilitated their every day functioning. They talked about feeling the depression physically, emotionally and mentally. They literally can’t get out of bed. It’s dark, very dark. Many of us have experienced depression on some level usually related to a life event like divorce or losing a loved one to death. Depression isn’t totally bad. We are human beings and we need to grieve. But a clinical depression can overtake you in a gripping way and paralyze your life.
” I want to be seen, to be understood deeply
and to be not so very lonely ~Jodie Foster
Today we are learning a little more about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. They are another face of suicide that seems to be fueled by our ‘driven to success’ culture. The last couple of years has been riddled with many talented people who have chosen to end their lives. I can list them all but you remember. Robin Williams was the most shocking because this was the man who made us laugh and who seemed to possess great empathy for people suffering. Robin gave to us what he so desperately needed himself. Even his choice of acting roles seemed to tell us what he was needing and struggling with.
Anthony Bourdain had a complicated history with drugs and seemed at least on television to be drinking fairly regularly. He was also very driven once he made up his mind to be successful. Success and money are often substitutes for love. It is possible their parents didn’t give them the love they needed but it is also equally possible they just never learned how to love themselves and forgive themselves for not being perfect. If our sense of self is constructed of very narrow possibilities, how are we to live in this world whole and together? When we don’t love ourselves, we are either good or bad, weak or strong, successful or failed, loving or selfish. The truth is we are all those things at any given moment in our lives and sometimes all at once. We are human, multi-dimensional and not perfect. We can be a mix of all these things and still be loved. We don’t hold ourselves to some impossible standard of perfection because we know once we are off that pedestal it is a very long way down. Many people with deep self-esteem issues lack self-love and compassion and are very hard on themselves. To compound this affliction, they are often very alone. Their work or passion keeps them from having a real loving relationship with others. They don’t have someone who might tell them on a bad day “You are loved, and even if you have failed or fall off the wagon you are still loved.” This unconditional love is what we all need to survive in this world.
Our culture today is addicted to perfect image and appearances. We crave and value the superficial trappings of Hollywood fame even though we see countless human beings suffer in their ‘roles’ as celebrities or millionaires. It’s not that success and money are bad, it’s what we give up to get them and what we believe we will receive if we acquire them. “No matter where you go, there you are”, is very deep wisdom because having this understanding will determine your happiness. Your sense of self needs to be solidly intact before you have success, money and celebrity. Marilyn Monroe is your classic tragic story of someone who desperately needed to be loved and was superficially loved for all the wrong reasons. Our culture loved her for her image which she constructed for us, but this image was not truly her. How terribly lonely and tragic she was. Today’s selfie world on social media has millions of more people trying to do the same thing. How sad is that?
“Intimacy is being seen and known
for the person you really are.” ~ Amy Bloom
Love is not a lofty romantic state of being that comes and goes but rather a tenderness and vital life source we all need to live healthy. The danger of not recognizing this life-sustaining need is we can die of self-loathing. Self loathing can either drive you to hurt yourself or drive you to project your pain on to others. It is unforgiving and destructive. ‘Love is the answer’ is not just a platitude or a quote from very wise prophets, it is the elephant in the room we keep ignoring. We should teach love and compassion, give it, share it and experience it through the intimate connection we have with ourselves and each other. As the author Richard Bach once wisely said “The opposite of loneliness is not togetherness. It is intimacy.” We first have to have intimacy with ourselves so we can begin to let others in to love us. The alternative is an empty place inside that can never be filled, and where enough will never be enough.