Trigger warning: The following story discusses suicide and links to potentially triggering articles. Proceed with caution. If you feel you are at risk and need help, skip the story and get help now. Options include calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), calling 911, and asking a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you.
After celebrity chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain died of suicide, his friend Val Kilmer took to social media to express his opinion on the matter. In a lengthy Facebook post, Kilmer called Bourdain’s actions “selfish.” Further elaborating, he wrote, “A spiritual guide once told me suicide is the most selfish act a human can execute and I was confused but she explained there’s just no mental place further away from humanity and purpose than the hypnotized numbness that creates the false picture of despair, that forces the victim, unaware, to believe, life’s legacy is over.” Kilmer is wrong — suicide is not selfish. I know because I once tried to take my own life.
In saying that suicide is selfish, the assumption is that the suicidal went through with their plans thinking logically, fully aware of how greatly their loss was going to affect those they left behind. Rose McGowan, actress and friend of both Bourdain and his girlfriend, Asia Argento, recently released a letter in which she asked the media to stop blaming both Argento and Bourdain for his suicide, but she also refers to his act as “his choice,” adding that it was up to him to “put down his armor” and ignore the treatment and advice she says he sought out.
I respect McGowan for her intent, and appreciate her act of protectiveness over her friend in her grief, but choice implies a step taken when of sound mind and body. That’s not how severe depression works. Bourdain did not choose to ignore his doctors’ advice any more than he acted selfishly in his final moments of his life.
I know this because I live with severe depression. I also am a survivor of my own attempt.
I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to make the pain stop. I wanted to take a nice long nap that would magically fix everything while I slept. I rationalized my plan by comparing it to going to sleep for a long time. At that moment, it was only the end I was focused on, not the means, not the ramifications.
It was my sophomore year of college, and I had just been told by a sorority sister that if I really had an eating disorder, I’d weigh less; and that if I were really suicidal, I’d be dead already.
I was broken.
After suffering with chronic depression my entire life, I honestly thought I couldn’t fight anymore. I thought that no matter what I did, no matter how many times I pulled myself back up from the deepest pits of the mental hell that depression is, no matter how many times I acted out in the hopes that someone, anyone, would sit me down and ask what was really going on without judgment, the depression would always, eventually, return. Everybody says to reach out, so I did, and was told my continued presence on this earth proved me an attention-seeking liar.
I remember being so tired. So very tired. My bones felt heavy. My eyelids were so swollen from crying that I could barely open them to see. I was obviously a burden to my friends, and I couldn’t admit how depressed I was to my family now, rationalizing that the sorority sister who had told me I was just trying to get attention was right. I probably was. I mean, I wasn’t the only college kid just trying to get by. My depression made me believe that by complaining about my depression, I had only proved how ungrateful I was, how undeserving I was of love and affection. I was the burden of those who knew me and loved me, my depression said. I didn’t want to be that burden. I felt selfish for existing. I truly believed that everybody would be better without me — that’s what my depression told me. I believed my depression. I went forward with my plan.
It was selfishness that saved me.
Within minutes of attempting to take my life, doubt and fear took over my thoughts, and a moment of clarity struck me hard, quieting my depression long enough for me to call my boyfriend and tell him I needed immediate help. No matter what you may think, the severely depressed are not thinking logically — and I had only just realized that death wasn’t like sleep at all. Death was permanent, and that thought scared me into action. Adrenaline pumped through my body, and every nerve tingled. I was in fight-or-flight mode.
I realized I wanted to live.
I am very lucky I did, and I have been trying to live selfishly ever since. I am selfish in wanting to be loved, in wanting to take care of my health, and in wanting to fill my life with purpose and meaning. I am selfish in expecting to be treated with respect when seeking treatment for my mental illnesses and in walking away from a provider when I am not. I am so very selfish in wanting to feel happiness and pride every time I make my daughter smile and my husband laugh.
Sometimes my depression sneaks back in. I shut down. I withdraw. I stop showering. I wish, at these times, that I could do what I know I need to for myself, but I’m just too tired. My coping mechanism is patience. I wait out each round of depression with the support of my husband, who recognizes my signs and what I can and cannot do when depression has taken control. And then one day the fog lifts, my mind clears, and I jump back in to myself, selfish as hell and ready to fight.
McGowan’s implication that Bourdain had a choice is the only troublesome part of her letter. But Kilmer’s letter got it all wrong. Bourdain would still be with us if he’d been able to break through his depression. Selfishness would have saved him.
If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. You are not alone.
Calling the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
Asking a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you.
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