The past week has felt like an immersion course in suicide. On Tuesday, high-end fashion handbag designer Kate Spade was found dead in her Manhattan apartment in an apparent suicide. Three days later, Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, food writer and popular CNN host of the culinary adventure series “Parts Unknown,” was found dead in his hotel room near the French city of Strasbourg, where he was working on one of his shows. Both reportedly hanged themselves. Both, by all outward appearances, had it all: successful careers, good relationships with loving partners, wealth and celebrity. Neither seemed a candidate for suicide.
One: Having what looks on the outside like a wonderful, abundant life, does not insulate someone from the inner torture that can trigger suicide.
Two: No one can know with depth and certainty what’s going on inside anyone else’s head.
Having experienced my father’s suicide when I was 20 — also by hanging — this is a subject I have strong, personal feelings about. It’s been 46 years since I opened the door to the garage in our modest suburban home to find my dad hanging from a rope tied to my chin-up bar, which was mounted across the square entry space to the attic. A step ladder stood before my father’s lifeless body. I’d just come from walking our dog, who went into a maniacal frenzy at the bizarre, unreal tableau.
Return to the Scene
That scene, and the waking nightmare that overtook me when I witnessed it, came back to me when I learned of the suicides of Spade and Bourdain. I haven’t been able to escape it since. The other night when my wife and I were walking to our favorite neighborhood hamburger joint, we passed a gathering in front of Les Halles, the now-closed French brasserie where Bourdain once worked as a chef, before turning his experience there into an acclaimed and best-selling memoir called “Kitchen Confidential.” A spontaneous memorial is now springing up there, with bouquets of flowers, heartfelt, handwritten notes from fans and postings of suicide hotline numbers.
TV news shows, and especially those on Bourdain’s network, CNN, are filling in segments between coverage of the U.S.-North Korea summit with guests speaking of their own brushes with suicide, the incidence of which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has increased more than 25% since 1999. Alisyn Camerota, a CNN morning host, disclosed having her own bouts with depression in her 20s and early 30s that were so severe that she, herself, had contemplated suicide more than once.
Camerota interviewed another journalist, Kirsten Powers of USA Today, who has published an opinion column revealing that she’d contemplated jumping out of a 20th-floor window after the sudden death of her father and a history of anxiety. She said she decided to tell her story publicly after interviewing John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, who suggested the media could help by encouraging people to be more open about suicidal experiences and thoughts.
Suddenly we’re learning that death by suicide, as well as suicidal thoughts, are much more prevalent than we’d imagined. Judging by this week’s opening of the floodgates, maybe it’s as widespread as the male malfeasance uncovered by the MeToo movement.
Coming clean, despite the risks of facing other people’s judgment and feelings of shame, is a balm to the soul. It took me nearly two decades to disclose to anyone, except my wife, that my father had taken his own life. When visiting doctors for the first time, I would even lie in the section on the medical form that asked for the cause of my father’s death. I’d say he died of a heart attack.
As an aspiring writer, in my first essay on the subject, I couldn’t bring myself to go further than to say that “my father had died suddenly and tragically.” It took me until I was nearly 50 to write openly about it, to be truthful on medical forms and to accept that I had inherited some of my father’s brain chemistry and needed to face up to it.
Growing Up With Demons
That was after being chased and cornered by some of his demons and almost succumbing to them. How could I have escaped them? Even as a child they were a daily presence in our home.
I couldn’t exactly see them, but their ruthless assault on my father was as scary as the monsters in a horror movie. Whenever we tried to leave our house, they’d drag him back into the kitchen to check that the four burners on the gas stove were all turned off. “One, off. Two, off. Three, off. Four, off,” he’d recite again and again in a haunting ritual. Finally, he’d turn and go out the front door, heading off to the car. He’d turn on the engine and, just when we were about to get away, he’d turn it off and walk back to the kitchen for a recount.
The demons would force him to return to the refrigerator time and again, to make sure he hadn’t accidentally dropped a coin in the milk carton, or chipped the mouth of the orange juice bottle, or inadvertently created some other hazard that could injure his wife or young son. They’d render him exhausted from anxiety and concern over “what if this,” or “what if that.”
I know they did worse than that, too. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, but it was horrible. I could see it in my father’s face. I could feel it when he cursed his own head, where the demons lived, when he sobbed and pleaded to God to make them go away.
But God didn’t, not before I found my father in the garage. I wish I could say he looked like he had finally found peace. But he didn’t.
Nor did I. Not for a very long time after that. First, there was waking up every morning to the unreality of the painful new life my mother and I struggled to adjust to. Then there was my own battle with anxiety and depression, compounded by frightening facts that science forced me to swallow like panic-inducing pills: according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, a specific, heritable gene for brained-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is linked to suicidal behavior; a study led by the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center concludes that losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing a range of psychiatric disorders.
Just what I needed. I could only hope the demons who haunted my father had diminished in strength or numbers, or that something in my makeup gave me more power to keep them at bay.
But the demons were waiting for a vulnerable moment. It came in 1997, when a combination of difficult life changes — a move from the city to a home in the suburbs, and a new job with more responsibility — left me feeling weak, anxious and depressed. Thirty pounds vanished in a couple of months. At my lowest ebb, I considered asphyxiating myself by breathing car exhaust fumes in the garage. But I didn’t quite reach the level of courage or desperation that pushed my father beyond the brink.
My stubbornness, however, remained as strong as ever. I had never wanted to resort to taking medicine to fortify my faltering brain chemistry, but my wife threatened consequences if I didn’t.
After about six weeks on Prosac, I felt like a team of sharp-eyed snipers had hunkered down on a hill at the pinnacle of my brain. There they waited for signs of the demons, the negative thoughts, the doubts that plagued my moods and weakened my confidence, hope and optimism. And one by one the psychotropic sharp-shooters cut the demons down in their tracks, turning me into a new man whom my told-you-so shrink called “Marty-Plus.”
My father went to war with his demons before the advent of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which include Prozac, Lexapro, Paxil and Zoloft. Maybe they would have helped him if he could have held out for another 15 years.
Which is why people with suicidal thoughts are urged to stay the course, have faith that the darkness will pass. Even if things don’t get better on their own, maybe new and better treatments will become available to give their war-torn brains the kind of biochemical surge I benefited from.
I tell myself those same things, hoping that the demons don’t come back someday, but knowing they might.