The Trigger Is Real
How the Deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade Impact Us
by Dawn Ennis
This article, which first appeared at Into, is expanded and revised from the original published version. It’s important to note that this report about suicide may in itself be a trigger for some readers. Help is available via the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 and Trans Lifeline at 877–565–8860. LGBTQ youth 24 and younger can find help via the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1–866–488–7386.
Four years ago today I tried to kill myself. And not for the first time; that was four years ago this past Sunday.
Hard as I have fought to put those attempts behind me, my awareness of the anniversary of these bookended breakdowns is compounded by the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in France, just a few days after that of Kate Spade in New York.
Even though we who are LGBTQ lose friends to suicide at a greater rate than the straight population, and we read about members of the community taking their lives nearly every week, I don’t think we’ve seen an outpouring of public shock and despair like this since the August 2014 suicide of Robin Williams.
We’re seeing the same reaction across news media and social media: unanswerable questions of why did they do this, experts opining on what motivates people to take their own lives, and the excruciating reports regarding their methods and the daughters they left behind.
Those details, in and of themselves, can be especially damaging to those of us who are LGBTQ and already fragile, because of the rejections and oppression we face from relatives and society at large. Psychologists call it “suicide contagion,” in which the reporting or discussion of this public health issue triggers those already considering such drastic action, or in the throes of suicide ideation.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services defines it as an increase in suicides due to “the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide.”
And no one is immune. Writer, producer and actress Jen Richards summed this up best in tweets reacting to the news.
Richards tweeted she would take a break from Twitter, and soon after, I decided to do the same, turning off CNN as well. Even if Richards hadn’t known and idolized Bourdain, even though neither he nor Spade were members of our community, our reactions are no less relevant.
Who among us has enough spoons to simply brush off these “celebrity deaths” and the public’s response to them? The impulse is to dismiss the impact they can have on our own individual struggles. But the truth is not everyone seeks help, or even admits to depression. Medication isn’t for everyone. Even psychological or psychiatric “help” isn’t a cure all.
Mental Health America found that among all Americans, the most marginalized among us — communities of color — experience unique and considerable challenges in accessing mental health services. That’s in part due to racism and historical oppression, but also due to the stigma associated with “mental health.”
While lifelines provide a crucial service, especially in times like these, most people will never pick up the phone. Researchers writing about that burden for the Association for Psychological Science concluded that only “a small proportion of individuals in need actually receive treatment,” meaning millions of Americans suffer in silence and without any sign that they are at the breaking point.
And that is where I found myself.
Wednesday was the day I hit rock bottom for the first time in four years. It was a mere 24 hours following the news of Spade’s death by suicide, and to a media consumer like me, it was practically impossible to avoid. I felt myself once again slipping from the tightrope I have successfully navigated through crisis after crisis, and falling into darkness.
I became a pariah in the trans community in 2013 for briefly detransitioning and the following year was blacklisted in television news for so-called “performance issues.” I survived a series of public missteps in social media and humiliating mistakes rooted in my white privilege. Then I had to contend with my beloved’s battle with cancer and her unexpected, sudden and tragic death, culminating in the end of my new life and career in Southern California, and my evolution into a single, work-from-home mom raising three children alone in Connecticut.
I even survived the latest round of online hate earlier this month, when Chelsea Manning responded to a tweet I posted, with her own tweeted threat to end her life. She then tweeted a photo that suggested she was about to leap from a window ledge, which many observers including Eli Erlick concluded was my fault.
But it was my own personal crisis — unrelated to anyone else — that drained the tank of resiliency I had relied upon to overcome all those obstacles, time and again. I had a frightening medical emergency related to my life-affirming gender confirmation surgery three weeks ago. I broke down in tears, feeling scared, angry, and overwhelmed all at once. I felt that I could not bear the burden even for another minute.
I wanted to live more than anything in the world, and yet I also wanted to not exist. Through tears, I recognized this was the same depth of despair I had felt four years ago this week.
The difference was that this time, instead of taking a step toward the darkness, I reached out for help, and found it in abundance. I was already in a safe space, at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City, without any responsibilities except to rest and let my body heal.
What also made the difference for me was an interruption in my expression of my depression, courtesy of my teenage daughter. She needed chalk for a school video project, and FaceTimed me for help. That call stopped my spiral for a moment, forcing me to wipe away tears and put all my available energy into helping her. My daughter’s needs may seem inconsequential compared to my own crisis, but as a mom, putting my own needs aside for the sake of my children isn’t even something I contemplated. I just did it because that’s who I am.
Her problem solved, I felt a shift in my outlook, beyond my own pain. I called Heidi Ross, the hospital’s social worker supervisor, who helped me connect with chaplain Michael Horton, and then a team of psychiatrists, and I also reached out to both my own shrink and my psychologist back in Connecticut. I texted with my widow sisters, nine young women like myself who unexpectedly found themselves raising our children alone. They are my first set of actual, in-real-life girlfriends, and they accept me as the woman I am without exception. We support each other in ways no one who is not a widow can understand. They heard me and offered unconditional support, love and understanding.
That bounty of available resources makes me extraordinary blessed, lucky, or privileged, depending on your perspective. Anyone else might have fallen through the cracks, and there is no judgment in that. Most people don’t reach out for help; few people can verbalize their struggle without worrying how it will “make them look.” Instead of wringing our hands over these celebrity deaths, we need to invest in our friends and acquaintances and neighbors and ask the question: “Are you okay?” And “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?”
In 2014, widespread media coverage of Robin Williams’ death was reported to have potentially contributed to a 10% increase in suicides across the United States, according to Time.
The problem is something the Trevor Project found in how the mainstream news media covers suicide, and how reporting on these incidents “can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion or positively by encouraging help-seeking.” Phrases like “committed suicide” convey the idea that it’s a sin. Calling death by suicide “selfish” ignores the ramifications such words can have on people, and casts a pejorative light on those who feel there is no alternative to end their suffering. That level of despair is not unfamiliar, and guides my understanding and sympathy beyond what I knew prior to four years ago. The Trevor Project has a great guide for media folks to help them not trigger their readers.
And the truth is, the death of Bourdain Friday triggered me, too, knocking all the wind from my sails as I started on the rebound, slowly, from where I was Wednesday. But my surgeon, Dr. Jess Ting, instructed me to give myself more time to heal and to rest. And I realized my mental health is a part of that process, too. A big chunk of that is allowing myself to accept what I cannot change and recognize every challenge is not my last.
Dr. Adamma Okorafor here at Mount Sinai told me of this Haitian proverb: “Beyond mountains, more mountains.” It suggests that even when we complete a difficult task, we will still have more to accomplish. I’m sure that someone might take that to mean, “you’ll never stop struggling.” But I look at the Haitian people and the unimaginable adversity they have faced from natural disasters to political strife, and I see this saying as my inspiration to persist, to restore my resilience, and refill my tank before I tackle the next mountain.
No more mountains today, though. As I write this I am preparing to return home, and I have used this time away from family and daily responsibilities to rest, reflect and think of all the reasons I wish to live. Since the moment I saw Manning’s threat, I have resolved to stop being someone who resorts to snark and criticism in my public life, and instead focus on advocating for kindness, responding to hate with love, even to our enemies.
We can’t always see what mountains others are climbing. Being kind, open to active listening and willing to step up when the signs of despair are apparent is my new calling. I hope that in doing so we all can work to erase the stigma that permeates our society and the negativity surrounding mental health issues. I do this for my own peace of mind as well as the betterment of all people, but especially our own embattled LGBTQ siblings.
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877–565–8860. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1–866–488–7386. Adults can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities.