I Can’t Handle Celebrity Suicides

There’s been a couple of recent high-profile celebrity suicides.  Earlier this month, celebrated fashion designed Alexander McQueen hanged himself in his London home at the age of 40. Then this week, actor Andrew Koenig was found dead from suicide in Vancouver after being missing for several days.  These are just the most recent – there’s also David Foster Wallace, Spaulding Gray, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, back to Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath.

Of course, there are a lot of people who commit suicide who don’t make international headlines and don’t get websites doing slideshow retrospectives of their careers and bodies of work. But I don’t always know about those – it’s only the celebrities or the dramatic suicides (burning down a house while inside it to avoid foreclosure, for example) that come to my attention through the media. And every single time it happens, it stops me in my tracks.

These events remind me that the monster of depression can always get you. No matter how creative and inspired you are. No matter how much admiration and respect you earn from the fashion industry, the music industry, the world at large. No matter how privileged and rich you are. No matter how well known your struggles with depression are, no matter how many friends and strangers love and support you, no matter ho many people feel your loss. No matter how many years you’ve spent running from the monster. It can always catch you. It can always kill you. You are never and can never be safe.

I follow the twitters and blogs of a lot of alternative comedy people and the past week has been filled with concern about Koenig’s disappearance and ferverent please for help in finding him and making sure he was ok. This is even more notable from the comedy crowd who tweet only silly and humorous things and have essentially broken character to express their concern and love for Koenig. While I realize I can’t tell whether Koenig had actual love and support in his life just from reading a tweet from Doug Benson, I can see that there was a network of people who were really worried about him and who seem deeply affected by his loss.

If I committed suicide, it wouldn’t make any headlines. I’ve done a lot of work of which I’m very proud, but it wouldn’t be reviewed and featured on the Huffington Post. And certainly a generation of people wouldn’t have vivid memories of where they were when they heard about my death, as exists for Cobain. (I was in a car with my dad on Folsom Ave. in Boulder, C0lorado, driving south, when I heard it announced on the radio.) So the fact that the monster overtook these celebrities makes me feel even more vulnerable to succumbing.

Everything they did, everything they had, it didn’t help them. Couldn’t save them. What chance do I have?

By 26 February, 2010.    introspective, media and pop culture, mental health   



18 Comments

  1. I feel the opposite to “Everything they did, everything they had, it didn’t help them.” – with fame comes pressure, comes the fear that none of your friends are actually really friends (as in they just hang with you for personal gain). If you travel a lot (like film actors), then you lose stability of care, both professional and from friends and family.

    Obviously non-famous people can have stress and false friends and travel itineraries – but these sort of stories make me grateful for my boring life and the stability that brings.

    Your reaction also brings up issues around good reporting of suicide – that it is a risky thing to do because it can create mental health problems (and even the possibility of a spike in suicides) through the media portrayal. I doubt that you’re the only one to feel like this.

  2. @Marge – that’s all true. I think the most powerful issue for me is that of what they’ve achieved – I always believe that if I can do what I love and do it well, that will lead to happiness and fulfillment. These suicides significantly undermine that belief.

  3. wow, this is a great articulation of something I was trying to say last night. thank you

  4. It’s such a horrible thought, but it’s so true.

  5. Suicide should be reported but not fetishized. Tabloids, stop with the whys!

    We are scared (to death) of dying. We don’t have a good dialogue about it.

    Example from my life – “I was having suicidal thoughts, but they were alien, you know?”
    Mom – *nods*
    Little sister – *crying so hard mom tells her to stop* “I don’t want you to kill yourself!”

    We need to talk about depression and suicidal thoughts on a bigger level, because so many people are like my sister, I think, and not me. I called the hotline one time, told them what I felt, and they’re like, well you know what you feel, I can’t do anything for you. (It wasn’t dismissive, it was more like – “I feel this way, I don’t want to.” I didn’t need coping to stop me from doing something, I just wanted somebody to care.)

  6. This is a fabulous post, abby. Thank you.
    .-= Annaham´s last blog ..Just a link =-.

  7. I’d never thought about it that way before, and it definitely leaves me feeling extra depressed, TBH. Not that it’s not true, because it is. It’s just that yeah, it’s definitely a frightening thing to think about.

  8. I think Marge makes a good point. When Brad Delp (lead singer of the band Boston, whose 1976 debut record spent hours on my turntable in my teens) committed suicide a few years ago, I remember saying to my boyfriend, “He had everything and it wasn’t enough for him,” and he said, “Maybe it was too much for him.”

    The more I thought about it, the more I realized that was a definite possibility. I think in some ways it’s harder for famous people to get the help they need with this; the more you (general you) have “going for you” on paper, the harder it is to get anyone to believe you could really be suffering. Hell, maybe YOU might not even think it’s possible for you to be suffering that much, with “all you have,” and don’t realize how serious the situation is. What saved my ass until I could get my major depression into remission was 1) recognizing that it WAS a life-threatening problem, and 2) contracting with multiple people not to do myself in. I can imagine that if “image” is a concern for your career, that might be an obstacle to either of those. Once you tell people you’re thinking about killing yourself, that alters your public image forever.

    And I have to imagine that celebrities whose time in the spotlight has passed are at even higher risk. There’s a danger they will feel like they’ve “peaked” and nobody really cares about what they have to offer anymore. That can be enough to push them over the edge.

  9. general note: i’d appreciate it if we could keep comments in this thread centered on our own experiences rather than on speculating on how celebrity may or may not impact mental health, or on advising others how they should feel about depression or react to events like these. thanks.

  10. I think everyone who knows somebody who is or has been suicidal, depressed, etc. ought to read this. The dialogue between people who are in the grasp of suicidal thoughts or within their reach and those who support them can be so vague. And sometimes no matter how you explain it to them, you cannot make them see how even though you know they care about you, that others care about you, you cannot shake the urge. I’m lucky enough to still be here, though it is a battle I am often fighting, but when it comes right down to it, I am the reason for that.

  11. I was really saddened to hear about Koenig’s death; I think because he was close in age or I watched him as a child. It makes me so sad because I think the best thing you can do is reach out to those that love you when you get to that place. It’s like you have to stop listening to yourself for a little while, stop believing the things your brain is telling you about yourself, and just trust what others are telling you …. that you are a good person, that you are worthwhile, etc. I feel so badly for his family and the helplessness they must feel. And of course, for him, that he felt alone and was alone.

  12. @Elf-ity – I struggle with it. Depending on other factors, a paper may be enough to start little triggers (no papers if you’re not here!) but no. If I kill myself, I won’t get to watch new Bollywood movies.

    Suicide is far from rational or reasonable, so I picked something “petty” as a reason not to. I mean, my family is better off without me, so how would thinking about them make me stop? No, if I die, I don’t get to see more Bollywood.

    Looking for reasons for why celebrities commit suicide isn’t healthy for anyone. “He had so much pressure so that’s why.” But I don’t have that much pressure, why do I feel that way?

    Why can’t we de-couple depression and suicidal thoughts from guilt? It’s bad enough I feel guilty about my pain, I don’t need to feel guilty about my moods!

    That may mostly be about me, but I think it’s true in a general sense. “Others have it worse and they don’t feel that way!” = Then I must really be a bad person for feeling bad, so the world doesn’t need such a weakling.

    It reminds me of something I saw about the 7 deadly sins on History (you can find non-conspiracy and non-trucking shows from time to time). I think it was sloth – sloth was originally/at one point tied to feeling sad/depression. So I’m sinning as well! Thanks, Puritans!

  13. Yea, the thing about depression is that it’s an illness like any other illness. It can strike you if you are rich or poor, famous or not, have a good support system or are all alone, have a decent job or none at all, have a good family or a bad one, have great friends or no friends, are chronically ill or are otherwise healthy, are disabled in some other way or are otherwise abled, have many accomplishments under your belt or none, are young or old, etc.

    It doesn’t matter how good your life is or how much you have. If you are depressed, you are depressed. And depression has the capability of being successfully treated by a variety of means, but not everyone has the means to treat it or feels comfortable treating it or finds the right combination of treatments for them or quite possibly – the right combination of treatments just might not exist for some people.

    I feel very fortunate that my depression is and has been fairly under control with a combo of meds, along with many years of therapy, learned coping skills, a good support system in my life, etc. But I have friends who have had just as much therapy, have learned just as many good skills, have just as good of a support system, and have tried many many more combinations of meds and treatments than I have and are still very much struggling with the depression. So I know that I’m lucky. It doesn’t mean I’m stronger than my friends or better than them – it means I’m lucky. Period. I’m lucky I had things that kept me from killing myself when I was in that low of a place, and I’m lucky that the meds I take now keep me from going back there. Not everyone gets that lucky. Not even famous people with lots of money and friends and accomplishments under their belt.

    And I know I may not always be this lucky, either. If my meds stop working and I can’t find a better combo, or if my meds get taken away from me, then all of the work I’ve done in therapy and all of the coping skills and loved ones in the world will not be able to stop that darkness from creeping in. And I might become another victim of depression.

    That’s a reality I have to live with every day, even though these days, the depression doesn’t affect my day-to-day life anymore. It’s still a huge factor in my life and always will be.

  14. Oddly enough, this is one area where I feel I’m lucky for having grown up with two parents who had depression themselves. It meant when I discussed things like wanting to kill myself with them, they could speak to me about it from the experience of having been there themselves – and they had coping tips which worked to deal with suicidal feelings.

    One of the things which stuck with me (and which proved most helpful when my particular salesdemon for suicide got noisy) was my mother’s statement about suicide being at the heart a selfish act. She told me this when she was talking about a time when she’d wanted to kill herself (had it all planned out and everything – she was going to swim out from one of the beaches near her parents’ home, having drunk a nice large helping of coffee well-laced with sedatives; she got stopped by the fact that the family dog followed her out to the beach, and it would have followed her into the water – and she couldn’t let the dog drown). Her point was that when you plan to kill yourself, you’re generally not thinking of the effects of your act on other people, and that there will always be those effects. It’s a bit of thinking which has stopped me from killing myself several times, despite living a life full of potential opportunities. I can’t throw myself in front of the train, because it would cause trauma for the driver, and what have they ever done to me to deserve that? Ditto walking out onto the road in the hope of getting hit by a truck, or a car, or something like that. Overdosing on drugs… well, most of the drugs we have in the house won’t actually kill me quietly if I OD – they’ll take me out via liver damage or something similar. Not painless, not pleasant, and I’m a wimp.

    Even so, there’s more to consider than that. I’d hurt my family and friends – the death of a loved one hurts even when it’s natural and expected; how much more so if it’s self-inflicted and unexpected? What did they do that was so terrible that I should hurt them in such a way? Even if I feel the world would be better off with me out of it at this particular moment (and suicide is very much an “at this particular moment” thing for me – even if the moments are sometimes days long), my thinking when I’m suicidal *is* disordered. There’s every likelihood I’m wrong.

    Of course, I also figure that coming from a family of depressive types helped me out in more ways than one here – my strong belief is that suicidal compulsions act as a kind of selective force as well. If my ancestors hadn’t been strong-minded (or bloody-minded, let’s not rule that out) enough to resist them, I wouldn’t be here today. If they were, I can be, and as a result I live with the hope I’ve cost the particular salesdemon for suicide I have living in my skull at least one promotion (see what I mean about the bloody-mindedness?).

    [Quick context note: this is explaining my personal view of things. I don’t for a moment believe it *should* be everyone else’s.]

  15. @Meg Thornton – I didn’t grow up in that kind of household, but as my depression along with everything else has come up front, my mom has been beyond understanding and helpful – telling me about her adventures with SAD on a tiny base at the top of the world, how my dad wouldn’t let her seek treatment.

    My sister and I have always been more open with our mom, even before the divorce. I thank everyone thankable I only had “visible” health problems while they were together.

    Now, my mom and I can talk about… anything. My sister, not so much, but she knows she’s there for her.

  16. Most of my reasons for not killing myself have been small petty reasons, Kaitlyn. There was something on TV I wanted to watch. A book coming out I was looking forward to. If I was dead who would feed my cat? Big important reasons never worked for keeping me alive. The big important stuff was all trying to kill me.

    (This most recent time, I didn’t want my wife to have the trauma of finding my body so I went in hospital instead. That’s probably not so petty.)

    Hearing or reading about someone who’s committed suicide always makes me feel so terribly sad. I know I’m projecting my own life onto other people: not everyone with depression has a history of trauma. Still, I can’t help but wonder what was done to them and who did it that they hurt so much. Whatever its source might have been, I’ve never met anyone with depression who wasn’t in emotional pain. I can’t help feeling sympathy pain for them.

    Though I try to not put the burden of my sadness at their pain on them. It annoys the shit out of me when people do it to me.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  17. David Foster Wallace’s death was particularly upsetting for me. When I was in college and my depression really settled in, and my first nervous breakdown was on the way, I read some essays of his that I found really helpful in dealing with thoughts of suicide. To paraphrase, it had to do with choosing to actively live every day as opposed to having this question looming about whether to die. It made a real difference in my thinking and I’m pretty sure it got me through college. When I found out that he had hanged himself, I really felt that it negated my whole mental outlook on suicide, because obviously it hadn’t worked for him.

    (I changed my mind after a lot of thinking, I think he was still ultimately right even though he eventually succumbed to the struggle. But I’m at a very different time in my life and I have some medication now that has helped, so probably I can be a little more optimistic than I used to be.)