A little over one year ago, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade took their lives. Their deaths prompted an outpouring of facebook posts that led me to say, “fuck off.” I no longer remember the specific messages, but I recall statements like, “if you’re considering suicide, know that you matter,” “or, “you’re loved,” or “call the suicide hotline number.” I hated these posts. They made mental illness and suicide into something trivial that could be solved with a few words or a phone number.
I heard in these messages accusations that I had failed my youngest brother almost twenty years earlier when he took his life. As if I hadn’t loved him enough or in the right way. I knew these people felt helpless in the face of something they didn’t understand. They just wanted to do something, anything, to feel like they were helping. Except such simplification hit me like a gut punch.
Most immediately troubling was how they hit me in my relationship with my other, still living brother. This brother, a year and a half my junior, had once been my best friend. We always had more than the usual share of sibling arguments, however. In recent years, I struggled to be compassionate toward the symptoms of his mental health issues that, for me, compounded the disagreements we already had. I didn’t know how to deal with them, however.
I’m hesitant to write much about it because he’s not here to share his side of the story. He was one of the most caring people I knew. Also the most aggravating — for me, at least. No doubt my own issues with control and anxiety, and frankly, expectations of him that were higher than for the rest of the world, more akin to the expectations I have for myself, contributed to our difficulties. Regardless, dealing with two brothers that I loved with mental health issues was not easy, whether it was because I wanted them to behave differently or because it was so hard to watch someone I loved in pain.
Most of the posts I read relating to Spade and Bourdain’s suicides gave no hint to the difficulties of struggling with mental health issues or being in relationship with and loving someone who might be suicidal. There seemed to be this idea that people committed suicide simply because they didn’t realize anyone cared or because they didn’t have access to help. It may be true for some people, but it wasn’t for me. At the time of Bourdain and Spade’s deaths, I had recently experienced my first episode of contemplating how the world might be better off without me in it. I had been in therapy for years. I was well acquainted with the suicide hotline number, which I never remotely considered calling, and I knew I had many friends who loved me and would have helped me if they had any idea. None of that mattered.
I don’t know what drove me to that dark place except that in it, I believed that my mere existence on this earth was harmful. I could try to mitigate my harm, but never eliminate it. I could install solar panels, but never fully eliminate my carbon footprint. I could try to buy ethically sourced clothing, but inevitably I’d buy something made by someone earning less than $1 a day. I could buy local and organic food, but inevitably I’d fail there too. I could go on and on, but the religion of liberal progressivism is, frankly, as shaming for me as anything I absorbed from the Lutheran church of my youth. Or perhaps it was my Lutheran upbringing combined with my own need to be perfect that set me up for feeling like I could never be good enough.
While walking my dog, I considered how maybe I should walk in front of a car and end it. Or maybe I’d get lucky and be mugged by someone with a gun and get shot. Riding my bike, maybe I’d get lucky and be hit by a driver staring at their cell phone. I hesitate to equate my experience with people who’ve had more articulated thoughts of wanting to die and how to go about it. For me, however, even the thought that perhaps my life wasn’t worth living was a new and scary experience.
Fortunately, I pulled through this dark time when I thought about my niece. I would never want her to believe that she was harmful to the world. So why was it okay for me to feel this way? It didn’t occur to me to tell my friends what I was experiencing until the darkness had passed. What would they have said? Because in the truth of that darkness, I knew I was right. Even now, in the light, I can acknowledge that as a human I have a negative impact on the world. Except I can also see how I was ignoring the good I contribute as well. My therapist has pointed out how I have no trouble believing when someone says something negative about me. I resist, however, when anyone says something good. I am slowly working on changing this perspective.
About a year and a half later, I had another period of darkness. This time triggered by an argument with a friend. At the time I thought I had lost her friendship. But it wasn’t the loss specifically that was on my mind as I contemplated the worth of my life. Rather, a question of what purpose my life held. I had finally left behind the belief that I was responsible for saving the world. It freed me from constant guilt and shame, but I could no longer see any reason for my life. Having already lost my mom and youngest brother, I knew that life would move on without me. Plenty of people loved me and would be sad if I was gone, but I also knew that they would be fine..
I thought about calling a couple friends who had struggled with suicidal thoughts, but decided against it. They’d tell me they loved me, but it wouldn’t change the fact that my life didn’t matter for much.
Fortunately, I again knew that I would pull out of this dark time. That these thoughts, as much as they felt true, and from a certain perspective were true, would lift and I’d find happiness again. And I did. When I emerged, I decided that I was tired of feeling sad. A friend raised the concern that I had been sad for so long that I didn’t know how to be happy anymore. I had wondered the same thing. I’ve had a sense that a line of emotional equilibrium exists for most people and I’ve lived just below. I had highs and lows mixed in. My normal state, though, wasn’t sadness, but a persistent sense that something was wrong with me.
I considered that perhaps life doesn’t have a purpose except that we are meant to live lives of joy. I wondered what it would look like to live such a life, one that I didn’t have to earn or deserve, but simply in gratitude for the life I’ve been given.
My brother took his life two months later. I had moments of intense love for my brother and sadness at his loss, joy from memories of him, guilt over blaming myself for his death because I had been too hard on him, and anger that he departed and for all that he left behind. Any insecurities and resentments that lay beneath the surface came raging up. Within this turmoil, I wondered if he’d made the right choice. Life to me felt sometimes so unendingly full of heartbreak and pain — whether mine or watching it in others. I believed I had no right to be so down all the time. I had a wonderful life and felt grateful for it. But I also believed I was undeserving. I saw people around me who loved life. I wanted to feel what they did, but I had no idea how.
As before, I remembered all the people who loved me. But it didn’t feel like it mattered much. No one’s life depended on mine and I couldn’t see how my life benefited anyone or anything. Struggling with my relationship with my brother over the past eight years made me realize that I can’t “fix” anyone — as if my idea of how he “should” have been was the right one. Certain career experiences also made me realize I can’t “save the world.” Yet I continued to witness so much suffering and wanted to make it go away.
How could I enjoy my life if others couldn’t enjoy theirs? I had been working to overcome this idea, but with Chris’s death it came rushing back. I created a situation in which I isolated myself, not just by refusing to reach out to friends, but by thinking that I needed to be something more than who I was.
Fortunately, I had planned earlier to travel to Washington state for my college reunion and to see some friends and family. The friends I first went to stay with helped pull me out of my dark place. I had planned to spend only a night with them and then camp alone, but they convinced me to stay another night. They enveloped me in their love and helped me to see the good again in myself. When I went to my reunion that weekend, a group of women, some of whom I hadn’t seen in twenty five years, welcomed me, a last minute guest, into their house and again, flooded me with love. I remember falling asleep one night on the couch while they kept talking, feeling so safe with them around me.
I am eternally grateful to all of these friends. They helped me realize that as much as I resist reaching out to friends when I go to dark places that it is only in their presence that I can emerge. Since then, when I’m down, I make an effort to get out to see them, even as much as I want to stay home in my cocoon.
As I emerged from the darkness, I realized I had to figure out the purpose of my life. Without it, I feared I would keep returning to these dark places. The idea that I had prior to Chris’s death of just enjoying the gift of my life wasn’t sufficient. I needed something more, for my life to matter. After a couple incidents in which I was able to show kindness to strangers that I wrote about in “The Power of Being Present with a Dog” and “Chasing Thieves,” it occurred to me that perhaps my purpose is simply to love. I feel so cheesy saying it and yet, it was what struck me.
I want to land on something more specific, but in my 47 years I have been an international development worker, a lawyer and now a writer and the one common thread was the deep drive to love. I’m not always sure how best to do it and I fail often. I’m increasingly trusting, however, that God/the Creator/the Universe created me the way I am with certain experiences that lead me to make certain decisions so that I can love and contribute to the world in only the way I can. I am learning to trust that I am an interconnected part of this world even when I can’t always see exactly how.
I’m writing all of this not to help anyone understand what might have been happening in the minds of Spade and Bourdain when they took their lives, or to shed light on how to help others. Deanna Zandt wrote a terrific piece on this if people want to help. My intention, however, is to demonstrate how complicated it is both for the person contemplating suicide and the people who love them. A friend of mine who attempted suicide wrote a beautiful post about her much more vivid experience here. I appreciate her vulnerability because not only does she shed light on her own thoughts in the moment, but she acknowledged, in a way that the facebook posts did not, that the pain of mental illness is felt not only by the person experiencing it, but also by the people who love them.
Since my realizations, I feel like I’ve found my equilibrium. It doesn’t mean I don’t still have down days. I’m better at getting curious about them, however, often recognizing what has triggered them, and knowing they will pass. I still struggle with how to respond to all the suffering I see in the world and grieve my brothers’ deaths. I’m making more of an effort, though, to focus on the beauty and what I can do in my immediate world with my gifts.
I’m attracted to a Zen koan that says, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I’ve always had this idea that I had to do something great and special to overcome the hate, greed, envy, and pride that we are bombarded with on the news and on facebook. Yet, life is really lived through the mundane events of our daily lives. I truly believe love is a far more prevalent energy. When I avoid spending too much time immersed in those overwhelmingly negative places, I see that it’s true.
I am coming to be okay with the fact that my purpose is not to do something “great,” or to solve every problem, but to love as best I can in the immediate world I pass through. When I can stay there, I’m better able to feel my inter-connectedness with those around me, stay in my equilibrium, and, perhaps, make the contribution I’m really meant to make.
Also published on Medium.