Originally written on June 8th, 2018 upon hearing about the death of Anthony Bourdain:
Suicide is complicated. For those affected by it, either directly or indirectly, it can be very confusing to process and understand. As I write this, I fear that I have nothing helpful to offer on the subject and yet I am compelled to write. Even as my fingers type, I am conflicted. Suicide is so deeply personal an issue for me that I have no real way to step back and be objective about it. All I can offer is my experience. People, like myself, who have struggled throughout their lives with depression and suicidal ideations have an especially complex and conflicted experience when hearing that another person, perhaps a celebrity they follow or admire, has taken his or her own life.
Inside me, right now, down to the marrow of my being, is conflict and confusion upon hearing that yet another person who has expanded and shaped my outlook on life and the world I find myself in has committed suicide. When this happens, and it happens all too frequently, a lot of folks talk. They talk about tragedy. They talk about loss. They talk about what a shame it is. They talk about the person’s life. They talk about how it’s difficult to understand or how “you never know what someone is going through.” Talking is important. Don’t get me wrong. However, to the person who knows, truly knows, what drives a person to suicide, words and sentiments are all too hollow and meaningless.
Depression, the kind that can drive a person to kill him-or-herself, is not something that can be explained or understood from the outside because it is a feeling, not a thought process. It feels like who you are, not something that is happening or will pass or be overcome through any means. Depression is an experience and it feels like the only thing that is real in that moment, a moment that feels like it will never, can never, pass. When people talk about a person’s suicide and all they had in life – family, career, money, prestige, etc. – it is clear that they have not experienced this thing because in this thing there is nothing else. There no is one else. There is no past, no present, and no future. There is only pain, confusion, and suffocation. Depression is an existential state, an omnipresent and omnipotent reality, manifested as a feeling. It is all of the loss, all of the fear, all of the anger, all of the confusion, all of the sorrow, all of the guilt, and all of the shame in one single moment.
In talking to Tim Ferris, who himself nearly committed suicide in college, Adam Robinson said, “One of the sinister things about depression is it works by getting a vice grip on your thinking. So you’re incapable of thinking outside of yourself… You believe that only now in depression are you thinking clearly and that before you were delusional. You hate yourself for it. You hate yourself for being deluded. Nobody understands now. Now, I am thinking clearly. Now, nothing matters. That’s really the devil at work. That’s why I say sinister, because depression traps your thinking. It hijacks your thinking like a virus and you despise yourself. You despise yourself for being deluded previously.”
Depression makes you hate yourself for ever having been hopeful, for ever having been happy, for ever having felt innocent and like life was full of potential and promise. It steals everything you have or have had and fills your entire being with an evil poison that eats your dreams, your happiness, and your aspirations, no matter how good you seemed to have it the day before, even if nothing has actually changed. A person who has ever experienced this knows that it will pass with time, but inside it, it feels infinite, as if it extends from before your birth into your death and beyond. In the experience of a depressive episode, it feels as if this time, in spite of all of the times before, it will not and can not pass because this time is so bad that it is forever, a forever from which your reprieve, now past, was an existential accident never to happen again. It is exhausting and overwhelming because your heart is breaking itself while telling you that you deserve all of it and nothing else.
A person who has experienced this depth of depression, hopelessness, and loneliness experiences something quite different from a person who has not when hearing about someone else’s suicide. To Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and everyone else who felt compelled to take this way out, I am sad, hurt, angry, but mostly scared that your choice will lead someone like me to take your way out instead of riding out the storm one more time to see the sunlight on the other side. It saddens and angers me that your choice, even though I understand that it was not really a choice but a compelling need beyond all other needs, might be the glimmer of hope someone without any other hope finds and the excuse he or she needs to follow your path. I am sorry you felt that way, in that moment, truly sorry. But… what makes you so special that you get to quit while the rest of us are here struggling through, now without you to tell us that this moment will pass once again?
This moment will pass once again. Please hold on.
Robert Van Valkenburgh
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (confidential): 1-800-273-8255