This week has happened before:
When the headlines all focus on a celebrity who has suicided.
Two celebrities popular in different industries both died by suicide this week, and the media coverage has followed suit. I struggle with the conversation musings:
But she seemed so happy.
A person has material success, so that person should be happy, and, as Legally Blonde puts it, “Happy people don’t kill themselves!”
She was separated from their partner and was no longer connected with the money of their empire, so no wonder this resulted in suicide.
Ah, they didn’t get help, so that is why.
Ah, they were getting help, so they were ill and that’s why.
A person had worked through addiction, so maybe suicide was connected to that.
A person had a child, so suicide should never have been an option.
This week, I’ve seen some semblance of these comments above. And I know that I am not alone in giving my condolences for those in the lives of Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain. And I also hold great compassion for the folks across the world who are just in shock and disbelief, absolutely, as well as for those who are feeling personally triggered.
But regarding the comments above, it’s natural to seek patterns so that we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from suicide striking again. However, these thoughts can reveal shallow or dangerous misperceptions of the realities around suicide. Our recourse should not be puzzling over how these folks were not happy enough, but let us move the conversation to the next step. Aside from big picture ideas like mental health budget, let us look how we individually and collectively put such pressure on one another to mask anything aside from happiness.
I would love for folks to feel happy a lot because that’s a great, fun feeling. However, I have lived long enough to have felt deeply unhappy, depressed, sad, angry, hurt, disconnected, and hopeless. These “darker” feelings are not indicative of my flaws. Rather, they show my humanity. And while others may experiences these in ways that expand far beyond what I may have felt, these emotions remain simply part of the human experience.
In healing or otherwise cycling out of my own darker moments, I emerged with respect and appreciation for the balance and need for both isolation and connection, for both meaningfulness and meaninglessness.
We distance ourselves from people who appear depressed and we celebrate people who appear to be thriving in their happiness. We don’t dwell on unhappy thoughts, almost living in fear of them. Ms. Spade even made a brand by creating a well-curated collection of cute, structured, joy with clean lines. Where did she–or we–give her space to go beyond that? Her entire name had a connotation of being “cute.” And it is easy to be around the energy of “cute.” We click *like* for witty status updates and we *heart* the filtered selfies. I do it, too. And it can be very difficult–even draining–to be around the energy of “pain.” Posts about how we are struggling don’t require a “like” button–they require an in-depth conversation. Moreover, it could mean we’d have to look at our own pain.
I think about friends who checked in with me about Post-Partum Depression and Anxiety after the birth of my son. I appreciated it so much. They each included a comment about how I’m a psychotherapist, suggesting that checking in might not be very necessary, but I felt so grateful to have friends who knew that I rely upon my community to support me just as much as the next person. I also appreciated it because these comments commonly came from mothers or others who had been humbled by depression or anxiety themselves to some degree, so in asking if I was struggling, they were connecting to their own experience of that struggle. They get that none of us are “above it.”
There is much research around how our brain chemistry may put us at greater risk of suicide due to particular our prolonged bouts with depression, our nutrition and substance use, our inherited body chemistry, our developed body chemistry, and much more. And some realities can overwhelm the person who is living them far beyond that person’s capabilities. And some people may feel betrayed by their body’s chemistry.
Of course I don’t believe that Ms. Spade or Mr. Bourdain were just having a sad day. And I suspect that some people in their lives allowed for them to have a more well-rounded existence. I’d even venture to guess that there were people who had concerns about them. But I will not presume to know much more than that, and even what I stated could be untrue.
For those times of overwhelming realities or betraying bodies, I believe that is when we need to have others remind us of hope, meaning, and connection. Whether it’s a helpline or trusted therapist, or whether it’s our best friends or someone we barely know, we need others to help us feel revived. We belong to one another. Psychiatry is working hard to help those whose body chemistries prevent them from having the lives they want to have. We need a more grassroots effort, though.
This is my call for all of us–you and me alike:
How do we give one another room to be fully human? How do we give ourselves permission to be fully human? How do we give each of us space to be dynamic in both happiness and sadness, good and bad, angry and compassionate? How can we change our presumptions to allow everyone to have a possibly complicated relationship with joy and pain?
This could be your coworker, your partner, your minister, your boss, your parent or child, or even your literal neighbor. This could be you.
I want you to know that I’m okay looking at your seedy underbelly with you, and that from where I sit, that underbelly is a part of your beauty, not in spite of your beauty, just as the smile you give me when you greet me. You are not inherently broken when you experience darkness. Moreover, you are truly whole. And as separate from me as you feel in that darkness, we may be able to connect most at that time, too.
So may we integrate and accept our polarities in ourselves and then in others. And in accepting your story and mine, may we embrace our whole selves and move through life in support of our whole selves.
“The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories, to appear more or less acceptable, but our wholeness — even our wholeheartedness — actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls.”
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or need help, don’t wait and just reach out. Don’t wait. Reach out now.