How could this be?
We’ve all been faced with two reports of celebrity suicide in the last week. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both beloved for their creativity and contribution to the world, are now gone. Snuffed from existence by their own hands.
It’s inexplicable and horrifying. We don’t understand it. They both had so much going on and were so popular. How could this be?
How do we talk about it? How do we understand suicide in the first place, and how do we understand it when it happens to people who seem “so well put together?”
It’s hard to believe that people who had it “so good” could find things to be so bad that they would end what seems to all of us like perfect lives.
And that’s what we all need to think really hard about.
WE IMAGINE they had perfect lives.
Our assumptions about other people’s lives and about what other people should or shouldn’t be experiencing or feeling are exactly the reason that people take their lives.
They are alone. They are misunderstood. And they are disconnected from anyone who understands their deepest secrets and shame. No matter how “successful” and “well connected” they look.
Anyone who has ever felt alone with their feelings, or ashamed of their needs, their longings or their desires knows just how easy it is to imagine that life might be better without them around.
Alone with their shame, they believe an internal message that they are unwanted, unnecessary, and even detrimental to their communities. They make a final choice to disconnect completely. Leaving us confused and full of questions.
We all need understanding and empathy. We need someone to know our weakest and most shameful selves and to love and care for us anyway. No matter how competent and self-sufficient we are otherwise.
People who take their lives don’t have that. Their existence has become one of isolation because their true, secret selves cannot be known and loved. And isolation will wither a human, since we are extremely social animals.
Brain Cells and Human Tribes
To understand the withering of someone who takes their own life, let’s look at the human brain for a moment.
We are born with many more brain cells than we ultimately need. Depending on the tasks we have to complete, based on our surroundings and our community, some of the cells won’t be linked to a network of other cells. Over time, those lone cells will wither and die as a normal part of development.
So, like the cells that are not connected to functional networks in our brain, people who take their lives feel dramatically disconnected. We know this because suicides are often triggered by breakups, separation, and death of a loved one. They are also triggered when someone feels shamed by a bankruptcy, criminal conviction or other public loss of face. Each of these incidents disconnect a person from their tribe.
At an even more subtle, internal level. When our basic needs for comfort, caring and connection are unmet and we have no way to communicate those needs without feeling embarrassed or babyish, we struggle. We hate ourselves for having those needs, and we isolate because we feel ashamed of them. And the problem deepens because we don’t do well alone.
Humans are supremely social animals
Studies have shown repeatedly that we cannot live alone and thrive. Communities around the world who are the healthiest and live the longest are shown to have robust social networks. And the people in those communities who live the longest have strong ties to a large social group.
Babies who are fed and clothed but who have no ongoing human contact die rapidly.
We need connection. We need to be seen and felt by “loving others.” If we aren’t, we suffer. And we die sooner. Either by illness or self-destruction.
Suicide is prevented when individuals feel seen, heard, felt, loved despite their faults and connected.
Tragically, for some, there has been too much isolation before it’s too late. Sometimes the reasons for the isolation are multifaceted, and complicated to unravel. Reconnection can be hard because the layer of shame is so thick and digging into the ancient and foggy reasons for it can take a long time.
That being said, don’t give up. If you are feeling suicidal or if you feel like you want to hurt yourself you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) from anywhere in the US and you will be routed to a local crisis call center for help. If you are in Tampa Bay, call 2-1-1 to reach the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
If you want to start digging into the ancient and foggy reasons for any shame and isolation you feel, please call me. I’d be happy to help you.