Put behind a cut for suicide and depression. Here’s hoping it works on previews.
Anthony Bourdain killed himself a wee while ago. It was the weirdest celebrity suicide I experienced, for the simple reason that I’d never heard of the guy. I’ve not really watched TV since ’88, so that happens quite a bit. Everyone around me seemed to know and love him, though, so I ended up stuck in the odd position of watching everyone go through a process I could not engage with. For me, a person was dead, and that was sad, but the death was no more impactful than the death of any other stranger.
Most people I know had serious feelings about the situation, though, and they weren’t shy about expressing them. I’m an asshole with a very low tolerance for other assholes, so the people I hang with are carefully selected and pretty splendid. As a result, I didn’t have to suffer through the moralising and vilification that so often accompany suicides. Instead, everyone seemed to feel that they had to do something – not just mourn the death, but Take Some Steps to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, especially to someone close to them. Most responses consisted of:
- Posting broad-spectrum advice for people with depression;
- Pleas to contact suicide hotlines in the event of an emergency;
- Heartfelt declarations to people as to how their continued existence is appreciated by their loved ones.
I’ve blogged a few times about clinical depression and suicidal ideation, but I have to admit that I’ve been pretty cagey about my actual experience on said subjects. That isn’t going to change with this blog. All you really need to know is that, once upon a time, I used to know four people with clinical depression. Now I don’t know any: two got better, two died. And I know that this isn’t The Official Statistic For Depression, that it’s not a disease that kills 50% of its sufferer, but it’s hard for me to care about that. The number of people I’ve lost is the only number that matters to me. My dead people matter to me.
Being of a quasi-scientific bent, I have tried to disentangle my experience in a rational and organised fashion. Four people, two alive and two dead. How can I fit that in a pattern? What are the relevant factors? Three had lovely, supporting families of origin, and one didn’t; the latter is alive. Two had created lovely families for themself; one is alive, one is dead. Two were stuck in horrific living situations; one is alive, one is dead. Two were receiving treatment for depression; one is alive, one is dead. One self-medicated; they’re dead. One is neurodivergent and unmedicated; they’re alive. One was at the peak of physical fitness, two were meh, and one was a wreck; dead, alive x2, dead. Two were financially secure and two weren’t; one alive and one dead in each group. I just can’t make it stack up. The data doesn’t fit any of my theories, and it leaves me with the sneaking, horrific suspicion that it doesn’t really work like that, that this an aspect of life that can’t be kept at bay by Good Living, or even by good luck.
The really funny thing is that I know that. I know it because I’ve seen it, because I’ve lived it. I know that if anyone else came up with a checklist of ‘Things To Do So Depression Won’t Get You, Guaranteed’, I’d laugh in their face. I would know without even looking that half of them would be things people can’t do when they’re depressed and the other half may or may not help people, and are less likely to help those with depression.
This is the thing people don’t seem to get about depression: it’s a debilitating disease. It takes away your ability to do things and to enjoy what you do. Yes, for a person without depression, it may be obvious that “if you’re dirty, take a shower; you’ll feel better!” But the truth is that someone with depression may not be able to summon the energy to take that shower, and may not be able to feel better after it, because they are depressed. Telling someone with depression to “just” do this or “just” enjoy that is no different from telling an asthmatic to “just” breathe properly. And get this: people with severe depression know that if they could do this or enjoy that they’d feel better. They don’t need to be reminded about how badly they’re malfunctioning; their depression has got that covered.
When Anthony Bourdain died, I sat and I watched as my timeline filled up. I pondered, and eventually I started fuming. I knew that people were coming from a good place, that they really wanted to help, but I also knew that they weren’t helping. They meant well, but they were putting real people in real danger.
I tried to talk about it. I tried to explain that listing a whole series of things that people ought to do to fix themselves may help some folk, but is throwing some very vulnerable individuals under the bus. I was told that I was too negative. I tried to explain that some support lines are awful and pushing at-risk people towards them could be the thing that finishes them (fun fact: The Samaritans cut off a friend of mine twice after telling them they could call back if they really needed to). I was told that, unless I could suggest some better helplines, I ought to shut up and let people do their thing.
And then one day I got a message, and it was so amazing that I wanted to ring my best friend and tell him all about it. “So, this guy out of the blue decided to Do His Bit by telling me how much he values my presence in his life, which was beyond funny because he had to write to my work inbox because he unfriended me two months ago.” I knew exactly what my friend would have said, how his laughter would have sounded, how much he would have enjoyed that kind of unintended irony, and I would have given anything to share that with him. But I couldn’t, because he’s dead.
Antony Bourdain died. I watched people agonise over the event, and not one of them said that he “died of depression,” in the way we’d say that someone “died of diabetes.” Nobody commented how amazing it was that he’d made to 61 despite his disease. If a cancer sufferer made it through decades of treatment before finally dying, we’d call them an inspiration; but when someone with depression does that, we call it “a tragedy” or “a waste” and we trot out advice on a par with “two apples a day.” Seems to me that, despite protestations to the contrary, we refuse to accept that there is a disease called depression, that it is real and potentially lethal, that we can do our best and still catch it, that we can fight our hardest and still lose to it. And I can’t help thinking that this is part of the problem.