I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
Celebrity suicides are in the news again. First there was Kate Spade, about whom I know two things: that she made bags, and that she hanged herself. Then there was Anthony Bourdain, who I was vaguely aware of as a food writer, TV personality, possessor of some cool ink, and apparently a decent person, which in this day and age is a very tough thing to be.
I don’t particularly like talking and writing about suicide, not because it shouldn’t be talked and written about, but because I find the subject profoundly personally troubling. I find it deeply problematic that my first reaction when yet another suicide story hits the headlines is a wrenching jealousy that they have managed something which I have so often wanted and, a couple of times, a long time ago, rather ineffectually, tried. My second reaction is guilt at that jealousy, and that guilt is in some ways my best defence: when I’m eyeball-to-eyeball with the Black Dog, it is guilt that usually stops me taking that final step – the knowledge of what it would do to my mother and my husband; the image of my sister having to explain to my two young nieces. Guilt is usually seen as a bad thing, but in this instance I say, weaponise it. If it’s what keeps you alive, fucking use it. If life gives you lemons…
But celebrity deaths like this, and the coverage of them, have a history of sending me to the keyboard, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, a small piece of advice for people seeking to understand their own or other people’s depression: read Lewis Wolpert’s Malignant Sadness. It doesn’t chime with everyone but for me (with a lifelong severe depressive condition) it strikes a very useful balance – embodied in the title – between the emotional aspect of depression (the sadness), and the biological, medical aspect, like a malignant tumour. I think for those who are consumed by guilt because they have lives that they don’t perceive to warrant being depressed, because there has been insufficient objective suffering in their existences, the knowledge that much of this is down to a physical condition can be a profound relief. How one copes with that – through medication, talking therapies, radical lifestyle changes – is up to you. This is another benefit of Wolpert’s approach: his balance between the utility of medication, the role of talking therapies and in particular goal-oriented talking therapies like CBT, and his very human acknowledgement that we all have to find our own way to tame the beast.
The second thing about the wider public reactions to celebrity suicides that drives me to write is the tendency for there to be an outpouring of well-meaning vapidity about ‘being there’, ‘cups of tea’ and the like. There was a particular tidal wave after the death of Robin Williams. What bothers me about this kind of stuff is that, whilst I recognise that there is kind intent, there is so little consideration of what it actually means to make the offer to ‘be there’ for someone in severe mental distress. It’s not a cuppa and some hand-holding and a chat. It is probably retching and snot and howling and rage and/or acutely painful long silences that border on catatonia and deep, ineradicable distress. It is mentally and sometimes physically demanding. I am an appalling, feral beast when I am in crisis; I am not someone you can pat on the hand, feed cake to, and feel better about yourself. So before making these broad-brush, open-door offers, think hard about whether you really mean it, because saying you’ll be there when you can’t be is worse than not being there at all.
The final point is one that is also often made at these times, but again not pursued to its potential conclusions, and that is that those of us in these places can be lying, deceitful masters and mistresses of disguise. “They’re the last person I would have thought….” etc. I have lost count of the variations on ‘I would never have guessed!’ or ‘it’s always the ones you least expect!’ I’ve encountered from people to whom I’ve ‘fessed up. It’s hardly surprising: I’ve been practicing faking it since I was old enough to grasp the fact that a large proportion of what was happening in my brain wasn’t something that most people deemed fit for everyday consumption. 95% of the time I have an iron will when it comes to the times and places in which I will and will not lift the mask. And I’m just depressive – with me there isn’t the added complexity of those with bipolar disorders for whom the ‘normal’ phases, when people can cope with your public face, are actually the most dangerous. Once one has been squeezed into the social straitjacket, one sometimes reaches a place of realising that the gap between what is acceptable to the rest of the species and what is happening inside is so vast that continuing to live that gap is just not viable.
Obviously, I have to end with a disclaimer. This isn’t the experience of everyone with severe depression. There are infinite variations of how we live this disorder, and some people disagree with me entirely: about medication, about how to manage daily life, whatever. My position is a hugely fortunate one in that I have a medication which, most of the time, works pretty well for me, and I grew up and came through my most unmanageably suicidal periods before the internet with its myriad dangerous sources of advice, misinformation and spaces for deeply unhealthy encounters. I can barely imagine what it is like to be teenaged or 20-something, with mental health problems, and with all the honey and cyanide of the web laid out before you. God help this society, and all who suffer in her.