In the wake of the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, social media is lighting up with well-meaning posts, and the numbers for suicide hotlines. Celebrity deaths, especially suicides, often feel somehow “personal”, and we want to alleviate our own loss somehow, so we turn to social media.
And I will certainly acknowledge that the work being done by volunteers and professionals around the world at suicide prevention centres and hotlines is remarkable, and many times, life-saving. But I think that we must not let ourselves be let off the hook so easily, as to think that sharing a suicide hotline number somehow lets us off the hook so easily. Unless we are willing to become very uncomfortable physically and emotionally, we’re not really willing to do our parts.
In 1979, on October 5th, my first boyfriend put a gun in his mouth, and ended his life, because he was terrified of being disowned by his prominent parents. Later that day, one of my closest friends, Dale — the only other person close to me, beside my cousin Bobby and both of my grandmothers, who knew I was gay, was killed with his fiancée, Kathy, while driving home. I was crushed by the news of their deaths, but their deaths also helped mask my grief over Nico’s suicide.
Neither of our families knew about our sexual orientation, nor did they have any idea we were romantically involved from the time we were 15, having met at a church retreat.
On May 10th, 1983, I was walking home from Hollywood, Florida to Fort Lauderdale, when four men mistook me for a cop, with whom they apparently had a beef. They raped and beat me at gunpoint for what seemed like hours, and left me for dead, after the gun they placed at my temple misfired. I would later learn that they infected me with HIV, as I lie alone in a Miami hospital late that year, with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia — one of the two markers of full-blown AIDS (which was then still called GRID, or Gay-related Immune Deficiency).
I was told I would be dead within 24 months. So I played hard and lived hard. Quaaludes, cocaine and MDA provided the illusory feeling of “escape” from the PTSD, the emotional and physical pain, and from life itself for years that followed.
Eight years later, my companion and business partner of six years, Ronn, died in my arms, from AIDS complications. Within two months, I was in the hospital with pneumonia for the third time. I hadn’t disclosed my own AIDS diagnosis to my parents until then.
I had been fortunate by that time, to have been working with Dr. Louise L. Hay for seven years, during which we had become friends. I began immersing myself into the study of Ernest Holmes’ Science of Mind, and began relying more heavily on my Buddhist practice to find the peace I was seeking in drugs and escapism. And I began to thrive again.
Life wasn’t without its pain and trauma during the years that followed. I would watch five more of my intimate partners perish from AIDS. More than one-hundred friends would die from AIDS-related causes. I was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease, shattered my dominant arm, causing me to lose my ability to continue working, and three times, I would lose my entire life’s savings in investments and bad business deals.
But had come to understand a “greater truth” about life, and about myself. And so I learned, through the life-saving instruction and intervention of my root teacher, Ma Jaya, to move through the pain — to consume the pain, rather than allowing it to consume me.
I met the man I would later become engaged to, moved back to my native Pennsylvania, and life was truly good.
In 2015, I suffered three heart-attacks, two of which almost killed me. So there was a bit of a journey toward learning to regain balance, and accepting some of the physical limitations that came with that experience. However, three heart surgeries, and the right intervention medically allowed me to reclaim most of the lost ground, and I was feeling well overall.
One of the difficulties of drug-free living, however, means being willing to actually feel the emotions that we experience… and that is not an easy task. Yet I was committed to staying in the moment, and acknowledging not only the emotions themselves, but actually doing the work to get to the root cause of the emotions on a metaphysical level. Again, while life was not without its moments of discomfort, it was, overall, good.
So when, in April 2017, my partner went on a late-night grocery store run, on a night when I was feeling a little overwhelmed by anxiety and mild depression, and experiencing some of the challenges that come with PTSD, autism, and living with a chronic dis-ease, I thought nothing of it…
Until I felt myself drop to the floor suddenly in our bathroom, when the belt that was around my throat snapped, releasing me from its grip. I had no recollection of tossing it over the door, forcing the door closed, placing it around my neck, or… of wanting to kill myself at all. Yet there I was, stunned, after having given in to some of the darkest impulses I’d ever experienced.
The next morning, I was admitted to a psychiatric unit in the local hospital.
Now there is no question that finding myself confronted with the intense pains of knowing that some of the people I loved most dearly were vehemently and mindlessly supporting a vile, disgraceful and treacherous sociopath, whom the Russians had installed illicitly, in the Oval Office, played a major role. I saw everything that this country was founded upon being yanked out from under us. And I feared for the safety of my younger brother, who is a devout and peace-loving Muslim… for my sisters and nieces, who had to live in a world where sexual violence was being normalised by Mr. Grab-em-by-the-Pussy… and of course, for my own civil rights, as a non-binary, openly-gay man, living in the New Soviet Territory of the U.S.
But consciously, none of that made me want to kill myself.
So how did I get there?
Mental illness tragically remains one of those almost taboo subjects in our society. The “Greatest Generation” were brainwashed into believing that the best way to deal with emotional difficulty was to “stuff it away” and not talk about it. My own loved ones would insist that after seven days of mourning the death of two of my life-partners, it was time I “snapped out of it” and “moved on”.
Our parents, grandparents and in some cases, our own siblings, grew up with few, if any, real evidence of emotional maturity and stability. When my partner came home from hospice to die, my now estranged sister decided not to allow her two daughters, then ten and fifteen, to say good-bye to the man they called Uncle Dean, instead, telling them a full week after he was dead. The reason? Her own history of mental illness that no one in the family dares acknowledge.
We still don’t fully comprehend complex mental health issues, such as suicidal depression, and so we do what little we know how to do, and post the numbers of suicide hotlines on our Facebook or twitter feeds. And it’s done from a place of compassion and concern… but also a place of wanting to somewhat distance ourselves from the discomfort of the situation.
A suicide hotline would not have helped me. I didn’t cognisantly “feel” suicidal. I wasn’t in a recognisable depression. I went into the bathroom to pee. And somehow, the next thing I knew, that belt accidentally (and fortunately) snapped, interrupting a resolve to leave the planet on my own terms.
We know that suicide rates spike after the media coverage of celebrity suicides intensify. We also know that suicide rates are up more than 33% since 1999.
What we need right now, is to ensure that our message, as journalists, media producers, and as individuals, is solutions-oriented. Describing the underlying mental illness need not be avoided, if there is context, to ensure that treatment options are available. And I think we need to stop reporting “how” the suicide was achieved.
Knowing that Anthony Bourdain or Robin Williams hanged themselves, or that Kurt Cobain used a gun to kill himself will not prevent anyone else’s attempt to end their lives. In fact, it might encourage someone who identifies with them, or with their plight, to try the same method of suicide. And what of the loved ones left behind? They often include children, who need not be subject to further pain and trauma, by eventually reading a piece about the details of their loved ones’ deaths.
We’re all stunned and saddened by the latest news of celebrity suicides. And it’s good to post suicide hotline numbers, and numbers for invaluable crisis intervention centres, such as the Trevor Project, not only at times like these, but throughout the year. But equally important is mindfulness.
Take time to be more present to one another. You cannot tell when someone is suicidal. Make the effort to remove the stigma of discussing mental health with those you love. Find ways to support efforts to destigmatise depression, addiction, and mental health issues.
And maybe the most important thing we can do is to be gentle with ourselves… to dethrone the ideologies that result in unjust and violent societies, and to replace them with compassion… for ourselves, for those we love, and for those we think of as being “not one of us”.
This week, two of the most dangerous, mentally-ill and unpredictable men on the planet will be meeting to discuss matters that neither should ever have been given the power to control. So it may be fitting that we use this time to brace ourselves against that sort of mental instability, and resolve to dethrone the ideologies that allowed such inhumane monsters to exist in our worlds.