I’ve spent a large chunk of my day watching Parts Unknown. I am positive I am not alone.
When I woke up yesterday and, groggy-eyed, checked my phone to discover the news that Anthony Bourdain had passed away, I simply didn’t believe it. Despite seeing CNN as the first source to report it, I assumed it was a prank. Because it had to be. When I saw that he had died by suicide, my heart sank. It was real. And it hurt; for so many reasons.
Suicide is shocking. It is devastating. And it is extremely difficult to talk about. So many people seem unable wrap their minds around how somebody like Anthony Bourdain – a man who so embodied the idea of living life to the fullest – could feel suicidal. Others felt compelled to fill in the gaps – pointing to his history of addiction, his hectic schedule keeping him away from his daughter or his incredible ability to empathically absorb others’ pain as potential culprits.
Ambiguity is often uncomfortable and, to some extent, unacceptable. There’s a belief that if we can figure out what was going on inside Anthony Bourdain’s mind, we can solve the epidemic of suicide. We can stop others from meeting the same fate.
This mission comes from a very sincere and noble place. Wanting to lessen suicide and the suffering that precedes it are absolutely wonderful, necessary goals. But trying to jump into the unknowable territory of a deceased man’s psyche is not the path to enlightenment.
So, instead, I’ll share my own story.
I have cultivated an image of openness when it comes to my own personal pain. I believe it helps both myself and others who deal with chronic illnesses to know they are not alone. It helps us connect and creates a community amongst people who are often physically limited in their ability to leave their homes to seek friendships and activities. But, despite my candor, there are things in my own personal history that I am not eager to discuss. However, I have found that after this week, it may be time to add another chapter to my personal public story.
I attempted suicide when I was 12 years old. I told nobody. I was able to very quickly resolve the situation myself. I was terrified. I didn’t want to upset anyone. I hated myself more after the fact than I hated myself before. I knew that if I bothered anyone about what I had gone through, I would just ruin their day. I would be an emotional burden. So I convinced myself to take one of the most emotionally traumatic events of my life (instigated by one of the other most traumatic events of my life) and bury it. To go to sleep and get over it. So that everyone else would be okay. This is very much not how you are supposed to handle suicidal ideation (and certainly not an actual attempt), and I am damn grateful to have gotten out of that situation alive.
When I was 13 I was admitted to a psychiatric ward for a week because of suicidal ideation. This time, I had done the responsible thing and disclosed my feelings to my school guidance counselor, with whom I had a close relationship because I was one of the depressed girls to watch in my eighth grade class. This created a chain of events where I was quickly taken to my therapist, then the emergency room and ultimately to the first psychiatric facility that had a bed for me.
It was exactly what was supposed to happen. It was the help everyone on your social media feed is urging you to get if you feel suicidal (which is typically followed by the number for a crisis hotline and a reminder that they are there for you). The message is sincere, but repeated ad nauseum with ambiguity as to whether it is actually helpful or not. In my specific situation, it ended up doing more harm than good.
Feeling suicidal is a very strange, very scary place to be. And I so desperately hope it is a place you never find yourself.
I don’t like speaking about these experiences. I kept a major secret from my family, which compounded the guilt that led me to attempt suicide in the first place. Then, when I had hit another crisis point and sought help, I was mistreated. This isn’t necessarily unique – sometimes the places you go to seek help end up being harmful. Our mental healthcare system is far from perfect, and the people who need it most are the ones who suffer from its flaws. I am weary to say this in a post like this, because I in no way want to discourage people who are suffering to seek help.
There is very good help out there. There is hope. There are remarkable practitioners who are incredibly skilled and can help to heal you. But there are bad ones, too. This is a reality that some with a history of mental health issues know all too well. It’s one I certainly did.
I was suicidal because of PTSD from a childhood sexual assault. That’s why I sought help. I was then misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, heavily medicated and my parents were told I would not be able to live independently in my adulthood. I was not given a treatment plan or an idea that there was life beyond my pain. I was given an improper diagnosis and told I was hopeless.
This is something I know others have gone through. I have spoken to many about psychiatric misdiagnoses; particularly with victims of sexual assault. I came out of the experience thinking, “I should’ve gone through with it.” Because the people who were supposed to help me ended up hurting me.
I don’t say this to sound morbid or hopeless. I say this to give perspective to those who have never felt this way. Who say, “Seek help,” as if there is a single magical place for people who are suffering and suicidal to go. Some place where they hook you up to a machine that drains the suicidal tendencies out of you until you are all better. As if everyone goes in, gets treatment and comes out better. And then they never deal with this again. That’s just not the case for some people.
There is something I’ve noticed in the conversations occurring in the immediate aftermath of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s tragic suicides this past week: people seem to view suicidal
ideation as a tunnel. Just call for help, get treatment and get to the light at the end. And, perhaps, for some people, it’s true. And I am glad for them. But for many of us, that’s not how it works. It’s often not quite that simple.
When I tell people about these issues, I am frequently met with astonished cries of, “I can’t believe you went through that!” And that past tense, unbeknownst to them, puts a lot of pressure on me. “Went through.” I feel an obligation in that moment to be better. “Yes, it was tough, but I started therapy and went on medication and got better.” And you can see people unclench their jaws and drop their shoulders as you take responsibility off of them in that moment. That pressure is amazing fuel for the secrecy and shame that helps depression thrive.
I have found that depression and, in the most extreme cases, suicidal ideation, function like my other chronic illnesses: they go into flares and remissions. I attempted suicide. I felt that urge again later. I went to a psych ward. I did the textbook “right thing.” I have been in therapy consistently since I was 20. And yet, every so often, those thoughts creep up. And I know they may continue to arise throughout my life (perhaps to another crisis point requiring inpatient treatment). And that is not something I like to admit.
And it doesn’t matter that I have a fiancé whom I love more than I thought I was capable of ever experiencing love. It doesn’t matter that I live in the warmest, sunniest place I’ve ever lived. It doesn’t matter that I spend a great deal of time with my wonderful little cousins and their parents who are, objectively, the sunniest people in the entire world. It doesn’t matter that I have parents who love and support me. It doesn’t matter that I am creating some of the best art of my life. These things that root me to this earth – that make me feel grateful for the experience of living and make me excited to do it as long as I am able – can evaporate out of my mind in an instant.
Depression and suicidal ideation are like having an abuser living inside your head. It gaslights you. It berates you. It takes everything you know to be good and true and warps it. It’s like that fucking Yanny/Laurel recording, except what you hear is that your existence hurts everyone you love when your partner literally just asked if you were okay. And if you start to hear that everyday, it starts to make sense. When a lie is repeated enough times, it becomes truth.
The messages going around imploring each of us to check on our friends and reminding us of crisis hotlines are helpful. I’m not discouraging you from sharing them. Also please, check on your friends. Foster deeper friendships. Speak so often that someone who is not well would be comfortable being honest about how they are feeling. Because, again, depression lies and tells us that our friends don’t really want to hear how much we are suffering. But also remember that these things are much, much more complicated than what a friendly coffee meetup or even a suicide hotline can handle. As someone more concise than I put it: friendship and love are not a cure for depression.
That’s not to say there’s no hope. There are excellent therapists out there. But finding one who is a good match for you can be work. Every practitioner has their own specialty and their own style. You may do better with a particular gender, a particular technique (cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, dialectical behavioral therapy, etc.), the addition of medications and potentially inpatient treatment. It is an ongoing process.
One of the most important things I was told when I started therapy was that it often feels bad when it’s getting better. You are also not likely to get better instantly. It takes time to figure out the right combination of therapy and medication, and those things take time to begin to have an effect. You also, like me, may relapse into depression or have episodes of PTSD, or cycle into another issue.
Because depression, while it often dominates the conversation around suicide, is not the lone cause. That doesn’t mean you are failing. It doesn’t mean you will never get better. It means this shit is difficult. And every bit of effort you are putting in to be okay is exhausting. It’s worth it, even at the times it doesn’t feel like it. But it’s tiring nonetheless.
I know very intimately what it feels like to want to die. But I only know what it felt like inside my own head. I only know my own experience. I hope that sharing this story resonates with others and makes them feel less alone. I hope that it helps others feel seen and heard, and spreads empathy among those who have trouble wrapping their minds around the idea of how somebody could die by suicide. But I will not say that this is anybody’s experience but mine. It’s unfair to try to fill in the gaps of somebody else’s mind. Even the most empathetic person cannot feel the whole of another’s pain.
What I do know is that Anthony Bourdain led a truly amazing life. He lived in a way that I wish to emulate, seeking things that are new, scary and completely outside himself. He sought out stories. And always questioned the things he thought he knew. He made the world feel so vast and so intimate all at the same time. It’s completely appropriate to take this time to speak about suicide and grieve. Lord knows that’s what I’m doing. But let’s not get so caught up in asking how or why Anthony Bourdain died that we lose sight of the truly amazing way he lived.
It seems the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I still have to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.
– Anthony Bourdain
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Los Angeles. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.