I held a gun in my hands. It wasn’t the first time I held a weapon, but it felt the same every time; powerful. I made sure the safety was on, loaded the magazine, and chambered a bullet. Then I took a breath and thought about killing myself. I wasn’t at home. I was preparing for my shift as the Officer of the Deck in port aboard a US Navy ship.
Everyone is shocked about Anthony Bourdain. Everyone was shocked about Kate Spade. Not me. I know exactly what happened. In fact I’m not sure what the difference between us is, other than the fame. Sure, I got treatment; 4 years of it and still going. But that happened over a decade after the thoughts first appeared in my mind. It was a decade filled with dark thoughts and inward torment. Why did I live through the turmoil and not them?
Your guess is as good as mine.
For most of my life, I wasn’t exactly in what you would call a mental health conscious environment; my parents were from the former Soviet Union, where mental health only existed as punishment for political prisoners. They were naturally weary of it and were always skeptical of the field. Then there was the Navy, where it seemed like mental health was a one-way ticket out the door; or at least towards isolation from my peers. I took all that baggage with me into the civilian world, where I continued to self-medicate with booze.
My wife told me to get help. I didn’t listen.
“Why should I listen? I’m fine” I reasoned. It wasn’t hard to validate my thoughts. To the outside world I was successful; great evaluations from my superior officers in the Navy and high praise from my civilian bosses. My career progressed and my income grew. Two years after leaving the military I went on to become a Senior Executive; a dream come true. I was the poster boy for what you were “supposed to do” in life; but on the inside there was a storm brewing.
Every day it grew stronger. Every day the storm became harder to contain.
For years I was scared of holding knives because I wanted to slit my wrists. I was terrified of heights because I was always a split second from jumping. I never trusted myself around guns. Even holding a drill made me nervous; the thought of putting it through my temple periodically pierced my thoughts. Yet I did nothing. I was paralyzed by fear of consequence. What if my dad knew I had these thoughts, would he be ashamed? How about my in-laws? They would worry about my wife and wonder why she married me. What about my boss? My career would be over.
The sad part is that I was right.
After four years of therapy and psychiatry I was better. I wanted to finally come out and tell everyone; my family, my co-workers and my friends. I wanted to break the stigma associated with mental illness. To tell those struggling, so they can understand that can be ok. To tell those who disagree with the concept of psychiatric care, so they’d stop judging those of us who get it. Then my psychologist said words I’ll never forget:
“I strongly recommend against it”
“People just don’t understand” he continued. “You’ve become enlightened and understand the value of therapy; the value medicine can have in helping you with your illness. Others still don’t. They’ll just question your judgment. Every time you raise your voice because you’re upset or make a decision they don’t agree with they will ask ‘did he take his meds today?’. You just don’t need that in your life. I know you think it will make things better, but it will just make things harder for you. I always advise patients against it.”
Therein lies the ultimate catch 22.
Tens of millions of people are just like me. Perfectly functioning productive members of society who are successfully benefiting from mental health care. Yet we keep it to ourselves because of the stigma. People like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade pay the price. They feel ever more isolated by the fact that everyone around them appears normal. Their family and friends may not be supportive of mental healthcare and may fear that it will hurt their brand (like Kate Spade’s family). “Other people work through it, so should you. It’s a weakness. You can just get through it” the thought process goes. And people do get through it by pretending that it isn’t there. Until they can’t. It’s reality for too many of our friends, family, co-workers .
But it doesn’t have to be a sad ending and yes, you can help.
Here’s the thing- you don’t need to be a knight in shining armor to help those in need. You just need to be a genuine person who listens without judgement and is willing to lend a hand to anyone who needs one; for anything. You see, unless you’re a trained professional, you will rarely be able to tell if someone is suffering from depression. It’s something that people can generally hide fairly easily. Unfortunately, many people won’t just say “hey, I need mental help”. But you will always know when someone needs assistance; moving, shoveling snow, talking, a ride to the airport, helping pack for a trip or change a light bulb…whatever…anything. And no, I don’t mean hire movers for them, pay someone else to shovel snow, give them advise on how to do it or getting an Uber.
I mean helping with your own two hands.
Most people won’t go out of their way to do this for anyone. At best they’ll lend money or contract out the help. The problem with this is that it causes us to be isolated from one another. Isolation can mean sadness for a healthy person. It can mean death for someone with severe depression. When you physically assist someone, or let someone do the same for you, you help them through the sheer force of your presence. You may even start a conversation where they reveal something unexpectedly. It may take more than one such occasion for them to be comfortable enough with you to do so. Or neither may happen.
The thing is, that you may never know who it is or if that was even the case.
You might exchange help a few people with a few tasks; but you may never know that your human contact helped them avoid the edge for one more day. You won’t get thanked, other than for the task at hand. I’m not saying you can never say no.
It doesn’t matter.
When you help someone, or let someone help you, you pass on a feeling. Helping others always makes one feel better, encourages a sense of self-worth and meaning; and in their lies the beauty. You’ve helped someone’s well-being either way. You’ve made the world a better place, one task at a time. I think this gets missed on most people. You can promote well-being in others simply by being well. That’s a powerful anti-depressant.
Well-intentioned acts of kindness won’t replace the work of tens of thousands of people; Doctors, nurses, therapists and hotline volunteers who take the calls of people in their most desperate hour. They won’t replace therapy, medication and other forms of evidence-based treatment. They won't replace you knowing the signs of depression and suicidal thoughts. You can find guidelines for what to do in those situations. You can call a hotline if you need help yourself. Replacing such care isn’t my goal. Neither is it my goal to lecture you. My point is that everyone can do something about suicide, but it’s not what most people think. All you have to do is lend some of your time to someone close to you.
It may just help them live long enough to seek out the care they need.