The Math Doesn’t Add Up

This week was an ordinary week. On a global and historical scale, one could easily make an argument that this week has been LESS sad, LESS full of human misery, than many other weeks that have come before, and that sadly, are still to come. But this week has felt very sad.

This week, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade died by suicide. I felt particularly struck by the death of Anthony Bourdain.  Who knows exactly why things strike us in the exact way that they do.  I often changed the channel when Parts Unknown came on, and I never had even the slightest bit of interest in reading Kitchen Confidential, despite the fact that I live in a towering funhouse maze made of thousands of books and read almost everything and anything.

But I knew the basic details of Bourdain’s story and I remembered someone telling me that he didn’t have a savings account until he was 44 years old, and I loved that.  I related to his live-in-the-moment approach to life, and had a deep respect and admiration for his recovery from addiction, as well as what I perceived to be a general disregard for the way things should be done or are usually done.  He seemed like that guy at your parent’s dinner party who didn’t ask you what you did for work or where you went to school, but rather wanted to talk about whatever crazy shit you’d seen go down the last time you were high on mushrooms or dated someone off Tinder.  He seemed like the kind of guy who cut through the shit.  But all I really know is what I thought I saw.  We know projections of the guy, but none of us really knew the guy.

When someone like Bourdain dies by suicide, inevitably, the mind fills with unimaginative and dull thoughts. He seemed to love life so much, he had money, he was famous, he had a daughter, he had an eleven-year-old daughter! He had so much to live for! This is the mind trying to do the math; trying to make the math add up.  But when it comes to suicide, the math often doesn’t add up.  

Only those who have walked on the edge of what is psychologically and spiritually tolerable-and we must not delude ourselves, this is a lot of people-can have an inkling of why someone like Anthony Bourdain, someone with so much to live for, would decide they no longer want to live.   

I have been damn depressed. I once spent 6 months in a family member’s bedroom without washing the sheets, leaving the house on brief sojourns only to walk the dog. Several years later,  I spent another 6 months prone on the couch in my mom’s living room, watching all 9 seasons of the Office on loop, day and night, as if any break in auditory stimulation might open up a crack, where just a little too much darkness might enter.  

I have had other depressive episodes, and some have been longer and some have been worse.  I mention these two specifically because, for reasons unknown to me, they have more or less distinct beginnings and endings and thus lend themselves to some sort of narrative cohesiveness.  The other sadnesses in my life, sadly, have been rather too diffuse and amorphous to describe well.

The time I couch surfed on my mom’s sofa, my mom, an artist, asked to paint my portrait. I’m not sure what would have compelled me in my state to go along with this request-I was averaging one shower a week, on a good week-but I agreed.

Now, I look at the painting from this time. I do not think I look sad at all. Anyways, sadness is an oversimplification of depression. What I was really feeling at the time was extreme numbness, but what I see in the painting is someone who is haunted and someone who is angry.  I look like a prisoner, someone who has been chained up, beaten, starved, someone who is about to exact revenge on their unsuspecting captor. I felt vacant inside, but in this painting I am pregnant with rage and lusty.

Maybe in the midst of my numbness I was angry, angry at the fucking dogedness of depression, at the way it sneaks up on you, even when things seem outwardly to be going okay, even when you have so much to live for.  Angry that the medication takes so much time to kick in, angry that the medication doesn’t necessarily make you happy but only numb in a totally different way, in a way that makes you less interested in killing yourself or curling up and dying.

During this six months I did not attempt suicide, but I woke up many nights, in a silence carved out by Netflix’s determination that I was no longer watching, to a peircing pain, a jab slicing through the thin veil I had built up between the outside world and my fragile insides.  The jab was a throb of words and these words told me that I could not continue this way.  The words told me that if I didn’t start to feel better, I wouldn’t want to live.  And then after a while I did start to feel better and I stopped waking up in the night in this way.

And this was me, with a soft place to land, and a mother and siblings who did my laundry and made me grilled cheese sandwiches and paid my rent and held me down until I was ready to crawl out, larva-like, little by little, and belong to the world again.

And this was me, with the financial resources and the know-how to get on medication, to find a good counsellor and see them regularly-at some of my lowest points, and thanks to my Dad’s cash infusions I was seeing a counsellor three times a week.  

This was me, with, maybe not everything going for me, but so much going for me.

So yes, we definitely need much much much more mental health support. This means support for people in crisis and it also means preventative support, to help keep people out of crisis. It means suicide hotlines and free counselling.  I don’t mean 6-8 sessions of free counselling, but long-term weekly counselling with trusted and well-trained professionals. It means free medication and better informed trauma-informed healthcare providers. It means talking about mental health and depression and anxiety and trauma and suicide. It means being kinder, on a daily basis, to those we love, and to everyone.  It means much much larger systemic changes related to the provision of housing, to the treatment of addiction, to society’s understanding of trauma and domestic abuse. What reducing suicide really requires is both as simple as being kind and as large and daunting as widespread societal shifts. 

If you are in this darkness, or if you find yourself there one day -regardless of whether you have so much to live for or feel you have nothing to live for at all-know that you are not alone and that support is available.  Things really do get better. In British Columbia you can start by calling 1-800-SUICIDE.  Any time, day or night. Nice people who know how to help are on the other end.  Go to suicideprevention.ca to find SUICIDE prevention lines in other Canadian provinces.  If you aren’t in the darkness, reach out to those you know and listen.  With patience, without judgement, with tenderness, listen.  Follow up, ask again, listen again.  Repeat.