A Searing Lesson In Empathy

Upon hearing the news of Kate Spade‘s death earlier this week, I noticed the familiar shift of a conversation steeped with sadness and understanding about loss, to one which emphasized that Kate has “a 13-year-old daughter” and “how could anyone be so selfish?”

Then came the news this morning about Anthony Bourdain, and my heart broke into a thousand pieces.

Two icons. Death by suicide, hanging. Young daughters. Friends and fans mourning around the world. The conversation around mental illness, suicide and its impact has been jump started again and many people, same as last time and every time it seems, have begun distancing themselves publicly from understanding or empathizing with an act which, yes, has a devastating affect on those “left behind.”

As a parent who loves my child more than anything in the world, I also find it difficult to grasp how someone could ever “choose” to “leave” their child, or any loved ones. But, as a person who has for a long time struggled with depression and anxiety, as well as very rare but also very serious suicidal thoughts, I don’t find it difficult at all.

In his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace challenges every person’s perception of what could drive another to suicide by encouraging empathy in a poignant and chilling way. He writes:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. Yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Wallace, as many may already know, lost his own battle with depression and hung himself in 2008. He proves that even an enlightened and rational understanding of the disease doesn’t make it easier to overcome.

I think of this quote every time a high profile person dies from suicide, losing what was likely a long, fraught battle with mental illness — and the world chimes in with lots and lots of things to say about it. It is, arguably, the best description of what it’s like to feel trapped by depression and why it’s so difficult for many to understand.

I, too, have experienced the sting and sear of those flames. I have dear friends who have as well. It’s so much more than sadness; it’s nothing to do with selfishness.

In times like this, empathy matters more than absolutely anything else.

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, wrote Terence, the great Roman dramatist. “I am human, therefore nothing human can be alien to me.”

It’s a sentiment I take very much to heart, so much so I have the quote rather conspicuously tattooed on my forearm. Part of having empathy for others, Terence is saying, is understanding that every human being has it within themselves to do all manner of wonderful — and unimaginable — things. We are all human.

So please…

If you are NOT suffering from mental illness: Be kind, be patient, be understanding of the battle others are facing beyond your view. Pay attention for the signs of depression, as your loved one may not be able to open up about it. It is not THEIR responsibility to reach out for help, so don’t put the onus on them. But remember: if someone is brave enough to confide in you their struggles, they don’t want your advice (unless they explicitly ask for it). They don’t want you to panic or chastise or try to deflect. They don’t want you to make their issues about YOU and your issues. They need encouragement, love, and — perhaps — assistance with finding help. (Want more insight? Here’s a more thorough rundown on how you can help someone suffering while also setting boundaries when needed.)

If you are suffering: I get it. Oh boy do I get it and I’m so so sorry. I know as well as anyone how debilitating it can be to take those first steps towards recovery. Please try and find it within you to tell someone you love and trust that you’re afraid or struggling or need help but don’t know how to get it, or that the help you are getting isn’t working. Talk to your therapist if you have one or ask someone you trust to find you a therapist in your area and initiate setting up an appointment. (My best friend, 6 months ago, did this for me, and Jonathan, just recently, did it for me again. I couldn’t be more grateful for it because I simply COULD NOT make it happen for myself.) If you have insurance, chances are very high that the cost will be covered. If you don’t have insurance, or you don’t have anyone you trust who can help you, please call 1-800-273-8255 and someone will be there to listen. Or you can text TALK to 741-741, if you prefer not to speak out loud.

Help is out there and you’re deserving of it. Period.

Be well, friends.

(Photo of Anthony Bourdain by David Scott Holloway via The Daily Beast)