Remembering the gifts of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain

Kate Spade, the American fashion designer, made people happy, very happy, with her iconic line of color and playfulness. She was known for her fresh, feminine, and, oftentimes, whimsical take on accessories and clothing. Kate Spade made getting dressed fun. For many, acquiring a Kate Spade piece was a rite of passage.

Kate Spade was a woman who was not afraid to wear vibrant pink tights and shoes with a black and white ensemble at the Met gala. Her friends, family and associates found her incandescent. She was a bright light who was full of fun, generosity and genuine kindness. It would be fair to say that those in her orbit would describe her as one of a kind.

So, how does somehow who exudes such happiness and joie de vive consider suicide as an option? Wouldn’t devoted loved ones, success, popularity and wide-open doors for creative expression insulate her from such an act? Alas, no. All of those worldly accomplishments, gifts, talents and support are not a guarantor from the ravages of psychic anguish, biochemical propensities, genetic vulnerabilities and mental illness.

Kate Spade had a history of mental illness. She was a woman who struggled with her inner demons. Curiously, she had focused on Robin Williams’ suicide. Perhaps, Spade felt a resonance with Williams’ pain (which we later learned was exacerbated by a dire diagnosis of Lewy’s dementia). Both had sought treatment; both were known to have suffered with severe and longstanding depression and anxiety, a devastating combo that can bring you to your knees, time and again.

And within 72 hours of Spade’s death by suicide, we learn that Anthony Bourdain (whose history of substance abuse implies a strong likelihood of depression and anxiety) had taken his life – in the same manner as Spade. We are shell-shocked and reeling. How could this happen? He was our irrepressible, fearless, ever-on-the-go, globe-trotting, culture-loving foodie who made the world more accessible through his travel shows and writings. Bourdain was an intrepid pioneer and straight-shooting chef. He was a master storyteller who encouraged us to step out and step forward. We were right there with him enjoying the yummy noodles in broth. He opened us up to new experiences we never would have tried on our own. He broke bread around the world and, in doing so, Bourdain created international communion.

Bourdain was a man of passions, most recently with the #MeToo movement. Bourdain came from a cut-throat food industry, which historically was known for its less-than-ideal treatment of women. He had come to realize, after the fact and in light of #MeToo, that there were many female colleagues who had experienced harassment and assault in the kitchen and he had come to the painful realization they had not viewed him, then, as the ally he became today.

Anthony Bourdain conveyed openness, adventure, directness and strength. He was akin to a global cultural cowboy, rounding up adventures, taste treats and conversations.

Kate Spade projected happiness, confidence, creativity and individuality. Like the fairy godmother who could snap her fingers, she created magic that honored the feminine and the playful.

Both of these highly creative, very sensitive and aware individuals were complex, multi-dimensional human beings. They knew happiness, laughter and light; they also knew darkness, vulnerability and pain. Perhaps, that is why both were so good at what they did.

Both Spade and Bourdain struck a nerve with us. And we responded wildly. We loved their work. We loved their signature styles and the way they embraced the world. Through their creative expressions, we felt they understood us and because of that, their deaths feel personal. We will miss Bourdain’s adventures and his tell-it-like-it-is commentary, and we will miss the je ne sais quoi of color and design that was uniquely Kate Spade.

In their respective deaths, Spade and Bourdain also made a difference. The one and only “positive” from their celebrity suicides is that their deaths – and within such a short timeframe as well – made the world take notice and be mindful, yet again, of the global epidemic of suicide. Their respective deaths accentuate the reality that no matter how much success and fame someone has enjoyed, no one is impervious to the strangleholds of deep depression, the terror of unremitting anxiety, the tight, self-defeated thinking that can further shatter perspective and break a life. Sometimes too much pain is simply too much.

Suicide is a counter-intuitive choice. If I were to hold a pillow over your face, instinctively you would fight for me breath. So imagine the intensity of the psychic pain and the density of the heart for both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain to make that final choice to find relief from their internal torment.

Let us not judge; let us remember that being human is challenging. Let us be a little kinder, more compassionate, more adventurous, less judgmental and, of course, more colorful as we go forward.

Please know, Kate and Anthony, that you both are loved, admired and appreciated for all that you shared with us. Each of you made our worlds a bit brighter, more interesting and expanded with possibilities. You both have been great gifts, and you have made a difference.

May you both rest in peace.

Why understanding is helpful

After you have lost  a loved one to suicide, you feel anything but powerful or strong. Most likely, you are at your most vulnerable, full of heartbreak and deep grief.

Suicide leaves a trail of uncertainties and questions. Knowledge can help make some sense of the unimaginable. When we learn more, we have a basis for comparison. We realize, perhaps, that our situation is not so unusual. Plus, we can accept more fully the biochemical or psychosocial elements that have led to a suicidal action. When we understand more, we are no longer so confused, confounded, or upset. We find steadier footing, and we find ourselves more emotionally and mentally stable. Indeed, knowledge can serve as a powerful healing ally.

Peace can never be achieved by force.
It can only be achieved by understanding.
Albert Einstein

The medicine of sorrow

Sorrow is a universal human experience. It is feeling all too familiar these days.

Years ago, when Haiti was slammed with devastating storms, a woman said when the first storm came through she lost her home, when the second one came through she lost all eight members of her family. She was now left with one plastic pale and the clothes on her back. That’s it, that’s all she had.

Two thoughts come to mind with the enormity of that kind of loss.

One, I am reminded of the concept of medicine as in the American Indian medicine pouch. The pouch might contain a feather or piece of bone that symbolized an experience where the individual came to understand their inherent strength of character, an aspect of self.

Medicine in this context is defined as power, and a power that can never be taken away from you. Therefore, it is not your car, your job, your bank account or your relationship. Medicine is what you are made of; it is the wealth of your experiences and wisdom. It is the you that has been stretched, fired and tempered by life. It is how you perceive the world, see yourself and choose to be in the world.

Loss of any variety or potency requires some personal medicine. Grief is crazy-making. It takes time to accept the unacceptable. It takes time to feel the undulations and reverberations of loss. The attachment has been severed; there is a hole. And, usually, all we want to do is fill the hole with what was. Because – and here is my flair for the obvious – loss mandates change. And change is often uncomfortable, new and unknown. This makes loss scary. The road ahead becomes rocky; walking becomes an effort to maintain balance and stay upright.

Sorrow stretches a heart and teaches us a whole new way to open our hearts and love. Sorrow cracks us apart and can bring us to the edge. Sorrow is transformative. It rearranges priorities and possibilities.

My second thought is of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Blanche allowed that she relied upon the kindness of strangers. I think all denominations of heartache require kindness.

And in what might be a kind of emotional homeopathy, what cures a broken heart is more heart medicine. Be it the sharing of a common experience or as Joan Didion described in A Year of Magical Thinking, the simple act of a cup of tea and sandwich left for her as the bleary-eyed and numb survivor. It can be the hand held in the hospital, a hot meal, shoes and a coat for the winter or the kind word that comforts the depleted and weary. In some ways it matters little what it is, what matters most in the connection, heart to heart, that says, “I care.”

We heal through our heart connections, be it the ones we have lost and hold close or be it the ones who bear witness to our grief journey and tend to our shattered hearts.

Grief, which is another way of loving, and caring, are potent medicines that speak directly of the power of the heart. And the elements of the heart — caring, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, generosity — lead us to healing.

 

 

Suicide and mental illness

Suicide is considered a mental health issue. Why would someone want to take their own life? They must be crazy.

And, sometimes, they are. There are people who cannot function on a day-to-day basis, do not bathe for a year, receive messages to kill themselves or others, or believe their fillings are wired to Martian intelligence. There are very real neurological and biochemical influences that place these patients at high risk.

Untreated depression is considered the number one cause of suicide. If you, or someone you love, has experienced the reality of major depression, you know what a devastating, debilitating, and a biochemical illness it is. The depressed person does not see or think clearly. She is locked inside a black, airless box that offers no light or perspective.

Hospitalization and medication have saved many lives. William Styron, in his memoir, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1992), eloquently detailed his descent into, and recovery from, depression, which he called, “a howling tempest in the brain . . . dreadful, pouncing seizures of anxiety.” Styron understood the stranglehold of depression: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.”

Along with major depressive disorder, the psychiatric illnesses that can lead to suicidal actions are bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders.

Did you know that the single greatest risk factor for suicide is a history of suicidal behaviors and attempts? Of course, this makes perfect sense, and if someone you love has these behavior patterns, take them seriously.

If you have lived with a loved one who has suffered from any of these mental illnesses, your life has not been an easy one. Nor has theirs. No one chooses to live with a debilitating psychiatric or psychological disorder that frequently moves in and out of crisis. It is painful, chaotic, exhausting, and terrifying for both the patient and loved ones. Ongoing treatment and meds are usually necessary to help make life more manageable.

A psychiatrist colleague of mine, once shared this with me: The majority of her patients who ended up in the hospital emergency room had stopped taking their medications, which then precipitated the subsequent disintegration.

Whereas, Nancy Kehoe, PhD, RSCJ, a Harvard Medical School professor, clinical psychologist, and nun, offered a new take on psychiatric hospitalizations during a lecture I attended decades ago in Boston. She allowed that for many of her patients, a psychiatric hospital gave them a much-needed sense of community and connection. And, with that sense of community and connection, they were able to heal. And by heal, I mean to find some stability so that they could return to the world as a functioning participant.

This made me think of the African tribes as well as many of the Indigenous people who work as a community and address the soul to help those in pain (of any kind) to find relief. There are many paths to wellness and wholeness.

Deep Peace to You

This traditional Gaelic blessing is both meditation and prayer to me. The cadence and rhythm of the words moves me into a place of stillness and expansiveness.

In our topsy-turvy, fast-paced world, may I offer you this bouquet of soulful words.

Deep peace, deep peace of the running wave to you;
Deep peace of the flowing air to you;
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you;
Deep peace of the shining stars to you;
Deep peace of the gentle night to you;
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace to you.
Deep peace to you.

—Traditional Gaelic Blessing

Our miracle medicine

Jungian analyst, poet, and cantadora (keeper of the old stories), Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us that the wise, elder women of her family would say,

“The only miracle medicine we have is each other.”

And so it is with suicide as well. Allow yourself to be held and heard as you walk your personal path of grief and sorrow.

 

Suicide and cumulative stressors

As we continue to look at some of the whys suicide has been chosen, let’s consider the impact of cumulative stressors and trauma:

A darling Celtic client of mine had a great saying, “Life does life.” She was right. It does.
There are times when life throws us a major curveball and we are seriously rattled. We lose our footing, and our wherewithal is seriously diminished. If there are continuous stressors such as disasters, losses, medical conditions, and financial issues, a person who has been functioning well may begin to feel the onslaught, for it is akin to non-stop blows to the body.

Stress is cumulative, and non-stop stress allows no room to take a breath, to process, or assess. You are going from one thing to another. Before you know it, you are holding on by a thread. Life has become overwhelming. There seems to be no meaning and no point to it all. You are psychologically shattered. Then one more stressor knocks at your door, and you can’t imagine how you are going to keep going on like this. You have tried your best, but you are tired. You are worn out.

Think of the rash of “suicides by economic crises” in several European countries. Imagine the suddenly homeless, the ostracized and shunned, the failed crops, the medical emergencies, the bereft husband, and the bankrupt. They have endured much, and this accumulation of stress and being powerless can prompt suicidal feelings.

Be it an injury to the body, mind, soul, or an emotional shock that upends a life, trauma is pervasive in our world. Trauma can be a sudden death, combat service, childhood sexual abuse, a natural disaster, terrorism, catastrophic illness, and violence such as unrelenting bullying.

For some, that acute stress and shock of the experience(s) does not fade away or diminish; it becomes entrenched in an insidious way. The body-whacking, heart-thumping, mind-numbing, horrifying, excruciating, and unfathomable traumatic experience holds a person hostage in a complete mind-body-heart hell.

This chronic pattern of neurological and physical responses is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is particularly prevalent, and most understandable, among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, victims of bullying, and combat soldiers. They are at high risk for suicide given the horrors they have lived through, have been tormented by, and have survived.

Imagine the VA Hospital and a group of vets waiting to attend a PTSD treatment group. Their hands are shoved into their pockets. Very few are holding cups of coffee because their hands shake from the increased cortisol in their systems.

Imagine the student who has been bullied to such an extreme that he cannot focus on his classes. He sits in terror waiting for the next attack and wondering how he can protect himself.

Imagine a sexual abuse support group. The women share their difficulties sleeping due to nightmares replaying nightly. The terror and the body memories flood their systems frequently; sleep is anathema. Pain is a constant companion.

For those in the hell of PTSD, suicide can be seen as an option to end the recurring cycles of pain and horror. Sometimes, too much is just too much.

 

Grief is a kind of love

Sometimes, we forget that grief is kind of love.

And we know love. Love, like an unending vine of shiny green leaves, winds and curls itself into the crevices of our lives and tenderly wraps us int its embrace.

We have met love, witnessed love, and, even, challenged love. We have held, hugged, laughed, cried, whispered and howled because of love. Love reverberates from our deepest being, rattles our knees, expands our vision and hums in our ears. Love is the current that turns us upside-down and inside-out. We are never the same after love and, most certainly, we are never the same after grief. Love and grief are energies that transform us into something more, something better.

“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning. For grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy, and after all these mortal human years love is up to the challenge.”

                          Kate Braestrup