The recent deaths by suicide of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain should bring out the best in us.
After two high-profile, well-loved people end their own lives, we all talk about suicide more. Not too long ago, we did the same thing when Robin Williams died. We speak of the surprise, and the pain. We wrestle with the grief of the families. More conversations about something that is so hard to talk about is a good thing.
The news forces us to confront very uncomfortable things in ourselves. Many of us have been trying to become the Kate Spades and Anthony Bourdains of our own worlds. We want to be seen as leading happy, satisfying, financially secure lives. Facing the concept that such admiration and success can still lead to suicide is spiritually terrifying.
Consider my world: elite sports. I competed in the America’s Cup and the Olympics as a sailor. But what wasn’t seen on NBC or in the record books was during my whole career, for the past 29 years, I also endured a single story of my spiritual challenges: a lifelong biological mental illness caused all my problems. There was a chemical imbalance in the machine of my brain. Pills taken as prescribed would fix me.
I trained for the Olympics my whole life. I sailed with the best team in the country at Brown University and on several America’s Cup teams. I imagined that reaching my life’s goals would bring me peace. It didn’t.
My heart goes out to Kate and Anthony. There is confusion in achieving your mask’s dreams, and hearing that everyone thinks you’re amazing, but in your heart-dare I say soul?-you need to die. Because if you’ve “made it”, society tells you that you won the game. If you won the game, you have no right to be unhappy, because then what about the people who aren’t winning? How are they supposed to feel?
A Quick Fix
Diagnosis precluded discussion in my own language of my place in the world. Diagnosis discouraged seeking and sustaining a relationship to what is bigger than myself. I was the problem. Diagnosis gave me clear marching orders: achieve to hide my spiritual pain. When the medications didn’t “work right,” they were changed and I experienced withdrawal symptoms and violent confusion.
There is risk in expressing how terrifying and unsafe it is inside our hearts. Since our psychologist or therapist is a mandatory reporter, if something we say leads them to subjectively believe that we are “a danger to ourself or others,” they must file a report that results in forced treatment on a lockdown psychiatric unit.
Take a moment to really sit with that: the village’s response to the potential of losing somebody who is in tremendous pain and unknowably isolated, is to separate them further from whatever community they do still have. It might be the cat. It might be a Facebook support group. Mandatory reporting severs those coping connections and replaces them with plastic sheets and psychiatric labels and coerced pills.
Removing the pressures of day to day life and providing community that reflects our human dignity back to us is lifesaving. A psych unit does the first but fails miserably at the second.
Access to any kind of care is too difficult for far too many people. There are at least fifty million people in this country alone who are justified in finding the things in this article basically offensive, because they cannot relate to existential philosophizing. They need food and shelter and safety.
Whether inpatient, outpatient, or riding the therapy and medication merry-go-round, people who have considered suicide carry a secondary kind of pain that is hard to describe, but is a tremendous psychological challenge. We know that we must fight to spare our families the pain of suicide survivorship. To squeeze the juice out of that fighting spirit, we have to imagine their grief in the future in which we are no longer living.
Calling the Community
To review: I am in pain. I am thinking about suicide to end my pain. I also love my family with all my heart. I think of their pain if I am gone, and I hold it next to my pain, somehow hoping those two pains will cancel each other out and I will wake up from my nightmare. Here’s the kicker: since the focus has been on me and my problems for so long, and on how to fix me, I may also believe that I am such a burden to those around me that my suicide will allow everyone to stop having to carry me and finally be able to get on with their lives.
I once got to such a dark place that when people reminded me of the wonderful things I had achieved, that backfired because I had become so acutely aware that being an Olympian, or even becoming a dad, didn’t fix the hole in my heart.
Any human, no matter how rich, famous, successful, or loved, has a right to feel pain and spiritual isolation.
A “thinking of you” text is what I recommend for anybody who wants to help but worries about doing it wrong. It is on point about what is most missing: sharing of the pain. Even better is dropping flowers or a mixed tape on the doorstep. Even better is bringing by a casserole. Most helpful is doing something that removes a day to day burden, with no strings attached, and just listening.
If we want to change the face of suicide we need to stop making it something to fix about the individual. We need to re-become a village.
We need to walk beside our families and friends who are suffering, and hold space for them to let some of the pain pass through them by saying it out loud. We need to give permission to people to say that their soul is empty and tired. The shield of their mask is cracking fast. It will not hold.
Since that’s a lot to do when we all have our own lives to worry about already, we need to take turns around the village. Lately it’s been my turn to need a lot of support, and I’ve been very lucky.
It is always somebody’s turn to need support. The person standing next to you right now may be crying inside, despite the biggest smile you’ve seen in days. If this is you, please know that you are allowed to be in pain no matter what amount of success or privilege you have.
It is time for the village to tune back in with our hearts so we can share the load around. Think of the stories of how much New York City came together right after 9/11. Perfect strangers hugging in the streets, anonymous meals left outside the apartment door of the single mom, you guys actually know the drill. By focusing on the details of a couple individuals, we avoid looking at ourselves. I don’t blame us. That’s hard work. Let’s do the work, together. Citizens of the planet, global village humans, it is time.
It is 9/11 every day for people living with the isolation of indescribable pain.
Kevin Hall is a writer and sailor who represented the United States of America at the Summer Olympics and has competed in multiple America’s Cup races. Kevin graduated from Brown University with degrees in mathematics and French literature, and is a member of the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame. He has written about his journey through cancer, his sailing achievements and mental illness in his book Black Sails, White Rabbits; Cancer Was the Easy Part
Journalist Mary Pilon has also written a book called the Kevin Show about Kevin and his family’s journey with a form of bipolar psychosis that his doctors have dubbed “The Truman Show Delusion.”
Kevin is a loving father of three and lives with his wife Amanda in New York. He is passionate about raising awareness of spiritual crisis and psychosis, and is working with others around the world to call for a more compassionate, less coercive mental health system.
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