We totally suck at dealing with suicide
The following are personal thoughts on depression and suicide. I am not a doctor, or a psychiatrist, or a mental health professional. I am a person living with depression and fighting to stay alive every day. My thoughts on depression are personal and they help me. Maybe it’ll help you to see how one person deals with it. But please remember that every broken brain is broken in its own way.
We lost Anthony Bourdain last week. I never met Anthony Bourdain. I saw him a lot on television. And he was important to me. He was important to me because he was a humanist. Someone who spent his time attempting to show us that not only are the people on this planet a lot alike, but the parts of us that are different are wonderful too. Anthony Bourdain was important to a lot of us. Because we need humanists right now. We need people to show us the best parts of ourselves. Anthony Bourdain was especially important to me because he was a self-admitted flawed humanist. Anthony Bourdain was Mister Rogers if Mister Rogers had spent his 20s doing heroin and banging waitresses in the walk-in freezer.
We needed both of them, and I loved both of them, but with my own fucked-up past I knew that Mister Rogers’ path was closed to me, but Bourdain had opened a path I could still follow. For personal selfish reasons, I needed and loved him a little bit more.
We’ve lost one of the last of the humanists. And I’ll miss him. But since I have no idea what was going on in his head, I’ll stop talking about him now. I don’t want to make assumptions about what was going on in his brain. I’ll leave that work to those who personally knew and loved him. We lost a celebrity. They lost family.
What I want to talk about today is how we deal with suicide. And it’s going to get personal, because that’s the only way I can talk about it with any authority whatsoever.
If suicide is a sin, God is an asshole
As a kid, I was told that suicide was a sin. I was told this by men whose own broken brains told them it was acceptable to diddle young boys who’d just helped them say mass. And were I still a Catholic I might still be alright thinking of suicide as a sin, albeit a sin of the maker. I’d question a God that made defective products, and then blamed the user when the product broke. That’s a sin. Trust me, it’s not easy to grow up hearing that God loves you, gave you broken brain, and if you can’t deal it’s your fault and you’ll go to hell. And hearing this from an authority figure whose breath stinks of your classmates stolen childhood is particularly fucked.
If you’re cool with God, please rest assure that I have no intention about making you feel uncool with God. You take your support where you can find it and you do you. My issue is with religions that blame you for your chosen divinity’s own shitty worksmanship. I have to believe that if God were real, he wouldn’t be a total asshole, and I often wonder why religions feel a need to paint their objects of devotion as shitty parents.
So, no, suicide is not a sin. But blaming people for losing a battle with mental illness might be.
When you hear that people “struggle with depression” I want you to know that struggle is the most real word in that sentence.
Suicide is not selfish
As an adult I’ve had to deal with the suicide of more than one family member. Their stories are their own and the point of this essay isn’t to rehash them, sensationalize them, try to make sense of them, or reopen the wounds of those still dealing with the loss. But after almost every one of those suicides, and after every suicide that makes the news and gets discussed on social media, someone will utter a version of “what a selfish thing to do” or “why didn’t they think of their family” or “they had everything going for them.” And while I’m not one to harsh on how people do their mourning, let’s get one thing perfectly clear:
Suicide isn’t something you do to other people.
Suicide isn’t even something you do to yourself.
Suicide is something your broken brain does to you.
I’ve struggled with depression my entire life. My brain is broken. It lies to me. It’s a hostile organ in my body. I can’t live without my brain, but it’s also really fucking hard to live with it. It makes me believe things that aren’t actually true. It digs through my psyche, which it has full access to, and pulls out my deepest fears and shows them to me every single morning. And so far, so far… I’ve been able to win that daily battle. Some days I emerge a little bloodier than others. But there’ve been a few days where I was lucky to make it to the next day. Lucky.
When you hear that people “struggle with depression” I want you to know that struggle is the most real word in that sentence. Every day can be a fight. And every morning that struggle starts again. Someone who has to wake up and fight 365 days a year isn’t selfish, they’re exhausted.
And all it takes is one slip. Sometimes your brain tells you a really good lie. Sometimes, as is happening now, what’s happening in the outside world compounds what’s going on inside your head. Sometimes your brain uses that information to its advantage so you stop watching the news so your brain doesn’t have ammo to use against you. Sometimes your brain, and this one is especially fucked, convinces you you’re doing so well you can probably stop taking your medication!
Suicide is not giving up, it is not a selfish act. It is losing a long awful battle with your own mind. But please respect that person fought every day. Every day.
Mental health is a human right
About ten years ago I made a commitment to therapy. For five of those years I went every week, and then once I was “out of the woods” we cut it down to every two weeks. A couple of years ago my therapist moved out of the city. (Once therapists can’t afford San Francisco rent you can no longer deny there’s a problem.) She and I made a deal that if I was in trouble I would call. A few months ago I called. I felt the warning signs of depression coming down the road. From a ways off. That’s a skill I wouldn’t have without therapy.
Here’s the thing about therapy: It didn’t cure me. It didn’t fix my brain. And it didn’t make my brain stop lying to me. But slowly, over time, and with a little medication, it gave me the tools to dismiss the lies. And it gave me the tools to see when it was mounting an offensive. We should all have access to those tools and the people who help us build them.
I’m a privileged jerk who has access to therapy and chemistry. Many people don’t. Depression affects people regardless of how much money you make. You can’t buy your way to happiness, but you can buy your way to care. Walk around any major city in America and you’ll see hundreds of people struggling with mental health issues who don’t have access to the care and services they need. (We don’t have a homeless problem. We have a compassion problem.)
Mental health is a human right.
Also, I was lucky, or smart, or whatever, enough to walk away from the stigma that I grew up with around depression being a sin, or a weakness. You can no easier choose to magically get over depression than you can choose to magically mend a broken arm. Both take professional care. I was 40 years old before I made that therapy appointment. Because I grew up in shame. I grew up being told that my mental illness was a character flaw. A weakness. “Man up!” I was told, because let’s go ahead and add some machismo bullshit to that stew. Last March NBA player Kevin Love published a piece on his own mental illness, and I love that he did that, and it’s important that he did that, because it helps cut through that macho bullshit.
You learn what it takes to “be a man.” It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. — Kevin Love
Dealing with mental health is a sign of strength. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
No one commits suicide
The people I know who’ve chosen to end their life have not committed suicide. They lost a battle with their broken hostile brains. Commitment implies a choice. You commit to a healthy diet, you commit to riding your bike more, you commit to giving Father John Misty a try. And obviously, you can, if you choose, commit murder.
But we can all agree that it’s odd to look at a murder victim and say they committed death.
Depression is your broken brain killing you. The person whose life is over is as responsible for that murder as any other murder victim. They committed nothing. They were killed.
The current preferred nomenclature among mental health professionals is to use suicide as a verb, as in “Bob suicided”, rather than “Bob committed suicide.” Society as a whole will keep saying the latter for a while. Change takes time. As well-meaning as that change is, I still don’t think it goes far enough. “Bob suicided” still implies that Bob made a decision, when in reality Bob was the victim of multiple things: a broken brain, belief systems that perpetuate victim-blaming, a society that stigmatizes mental illness, and medical care systems that don’t give people the access to the treatment they need to fight the disease they were born with. In reality, we take the decision away from people.
No one commits suicide. But we, as a society, are complicit in not getting people the help they need. We need to be better. As Mister Rogers taught us, “Look for the helpers.” But some of these people are looking for helpers, and not finding them.
Remember, I have no idea what I’m talking about, and the shit that works for me may not work for you at all. If you’re depressed I have no idea how to help you, but there are magnificent human beings who can. Call the suicide prevention hotline at 1–800–273–8255. They are always there and they are good at this. I love you, and I am as broken as you are.
Please also read my friend, and Earn Yr Death co-host, Robyn Kanner’s essay: