On the heels of a federal government report about a rash rise in U.S. suicide rates came the news of the celebrity suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade, and chef/journalist Anthony Bourdain, followed by the reflexive calls for better metal health attention and resources. According to USA Today,
The deaths of chef-turned-TV host Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade this week has reminded Americans of the enormous toll of suicide, a growing problem that claims nearly 45,000 lives a year.
Suicide rates in the U.S. have risen nearly 30% since 1999, according to a report released Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicides increased in both men and women, in all ethnic groups and in both urban and rural areas. Suicide and “self-harm,” a category that includes attempted suicides, cost the nation $70 billion a year in medical care and lost work time, the CDC says.
Before this week I had very little knowledge about Kate Spade (aside from the tea kettle she designed sitting on our stove), and a little more about Anthony Bourdain. One of the casualties of overcoming television addition decades ago is that I miss actually worthwhile programmin, such as Bourdain’s presentations I’m learning. And I’ll include his literary work there, too. Just was never on my radar. Learning more about Bourdain over the past few days, however, I certainly connected to his spirit. The highly sensitive part. Taking in a few episodes of Parts Unknown quickly revealed Bourdain’s penchant for alcohol (replacing the heroin of past days?), and extreme behavior. While it’s easy and popular to label this tendency “addiction” and a “mental illness,” it glosses over the sensitivity part. Perhaps us sensitive types just feel too deeply, which is a benefit for creativity, but a burden for one’s spirit.
Goin’ down to the Crossroads
Commenting on her son’s death to the NY Times, Gladys Bourdain offered, “he had everything, success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams.” A grieving mother aside, why is Ms. Bourdain’s reaction reflexively echoed whenever someone with fame and fortune finds the burden too difficult to bear? From the same Times obituary comes this,
Andrew Zimmern, the TV personality and chef, had much in common with Mr. Bourdain. The two met 13 years ago and became friends. They often spoke of the pressures that come with fame, and both worked to overcome addiction.
Not a new story. For those with heightened sensitivity comes the tendency to feel existential “emptiness” more intensely than than the norm (I didn’t say the normal). As such, the need for more is a beast that must be tamed, or be subsumed by it. And what a beast it is when it arrives in the form of celebrity, as Robert Johnson warned in his blues standard, Crossroads, the price is high. In his memoir, Bruce Springsteen talks openly about his depression, and the difficulty he has transcending it. While decades of talk therapy and medications have provided Springsteen come-and-go relief, the real fix, he says, come from the rush of live performance. Knowing this made me feel uncomfortably part of his process, witnessing many shows over the years. Perhaps that’s why he’s subjecting himself to his, seemingly endless, five-night-a-week Broadway show. Sure there’s big money involved, but he’s had that for a long time. Doesn’t seem to quell the depression quite like the adulation of 50,000 adoring fans. The creativity of both Springsteen and Bourdain point to a sensitivity beyond the norm. Life at the Crossroads.
The suicide statistics as they are, and a 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health which found an estimated 9.3 million adults aged 18 or older had serious thoughts of suicide in the previous year, leads me to ask, once again, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, why are more and more people checking out? If America is the exceptional paragon of human evolution and progress, as we’re told, why are we so damned miserable, as evidenced by the apparently ineffective multi-billion dollar happiness industry,
Globally, wellness is a $3.7 trillion industry, according to trade group Global Wellness Institute, which estimates that the staggering sum includes everything from beauty and anti-aging ($999 billion) to wellness tourism ($563 billion) to nutrition ($648 billion). Yet despite the trillions of dollars, the branding, and the brassy platitudes, Americans remain among the most miserable people on earth.
“You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave,” Don Henley warns in The Eagles’ 70’s smash “Hotel California,” later telling Rolling Stone the song was “more of a symbolic piece about America in general.” Or about our suicide crisis today.
Considering the meaningless misery of American society, where fame and fortune are portrayed as the only salvation, and surrender of one’s soul to the marketplace the only pathway for existence, one must ask if the taking of one’s life in America today is not only a mental health issue but a completely rational act? But rational doesn’t necessarily mean reasonable. Certainly Hitler’s suicide was more than a reasonable act. And it was just. But what about American farmers? The Guardian recently reported “the suicide rate for agricultural workers in 17 states was nearly five times higher compared with that in the general population.” Who am I to say what’s reasonable? Was Bourdain’s last act a reasonable suicide? I can’t speak to his suffering. I hope he’s in a better place now, but I’m sorry to those he left behind. His suffering was transferred to them. He checked out, but his suffering remains. It’s our shared American exceptionalism.
Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said, ‘we are all just prisoners here, of our own device’
–Don Henley, Glen Frey