Just a few days after the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were reported in the media last month, I got an email from an old friend. She’d been going through some boxes and came across a letter from me, which she scanned and attached to her message.
“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to acknowledge your wonderful card,” I wrote to her nearly 20 years ago. “It arrived the day after I spent a long night contemplating suicide for the first time in my life. That poem meant more to my sanity than you may have thought when you wrote it. It was so incredible to know someone out there cared (of course I always knew that, but when you’re down that low, you forget these things)….Please know I love you and thank you for somehow ‘knowing’ when I needed to hear from you most.”
It is extremely disquieting, to say the least, to see those words in my own handwriting. I don’t remember writing them. I don’t remember exactly what my friend had written to me. I do remember that period of my life. But it has become distant and polished with time and retelling. My standard line about it is that it was a time when I measured the oven to see if my head would fit, but ha ha, luckily the oven, like everything else in my apartment, was too small. It became an anecdote, a fuzzy bad patch that I’d gotten through. Seeing these words in my own hand brought back the reality behind my caustic humor: I’d spent weeks in my pajamas, dropped communication with most of my friends out of lethargy and shame, and felt day and night as though I were on the bottom of the ocean with an anvil on my chest.
My fabulous life
I’m not here to publicly self-analyze. But I will tell you, basically, how I arrived at the bottom of that ocean. I wound up there because I’d gotten myself into a situation that made me very unhappy, and I felt I had no agency to change it. To put it very simply, I had made a mistake – a big one – and my fear was such that I froze, then collapsed. I lost the ability to face the mistake and do something about it. On top of it, I was ashamed of my situation. I was supposed to be successful, full of potential, leading a fabulous life. So I hid from many of the people who mattered most, which left me in a foreign country without a support system.
But you don’t need to be in a foreign country to experience what philosopher Martin Heidegger calls unhomeness. You can become foreign to yourself anywhere, and the world becomes foreign to you. Other people seem blessed with godlike capabilities that you lack. You were passed over; you are unequipped. Your friends and loved ones appear uncaring or hostile, or seem very far away, almost nonexistent. You don’t recognize your life anymore. You may even have what looks to others like success and fulfilment. But you are no longer at home in it.
My way out of my depression consisted of steps homeward – and I don’t mean back to New Jersey. I hesitate to give too many details, because there is no recipe. First of all, I wrote my way through it, a little bit almost every day; the loops and lines from my pen kept me in touch with my own voice. Way down on the ocean floor, I could still hear myself, even if my interpretation of my life and the world had gone awry. I also immersed myself in learning – got books out of the library and taught myself things, unconcerned with their usefulness, simply for the sake of studying. I meditated. I did volunteer work. I read my mail, which included a well-timed letter from a good friend. I found an excellent somatic therapist, and was honest with her, and tried the things she suggested, even if they made me afraid. They all had to do with coming back to my body, with allowing emotions I had suppressed, with facing the situation I’d been thrown into, and developing, bit by bit, the confidence to get myself out.
After Anthony Bourdain’s death, social media and online forums were full of people looking for someone to blame. Where was his family?! Surely they should have known! In fact, people with suicidal feelings often make a division between their public and private selves. They can feel dread on the inside but put on another face entirely for the world and go about their business rather competently, though they feel like a fraud as they’re doing it.
So where does that leave us, in terms of the people we care about? What can we do? The email from my friend spoke volumes to me about the importance of trusting your intuition: the little voice, the dream of someone, the memory that pops out of nowhere, the image of a friend’s face, a song or object that reminds you of them, someone in the street who resembles them. I have always felt that such occurrences were the collective unconscious speaking directly to me, and that if I had any self-respect I would take the hint and contact the person. Yet I often don’t. Because I’m “busy.” Because it’s easy to write off. Because maybe it would look foolish to tell Grace I’d dreamt of her, or Greg I’d thought of him. But I’m convinced that these flashes deserve to be acted upon. I’m not saying everyone is depressed and needs to hear from you when you think of them, or that your text message will save a life. And yet…
Having said that, I must also say that while we can be attentive and offer help to others, we cannot be responsible for their will to live, or lack of it. Heidegger talks about thrownness as an integral part of being: we’re thrown into this life without choice as to when or with whom. We didn’t choose to be born, we didn’t choose this body, this time period, this family. We may wonder who threw us, or why. But really, the only thing we can choose in this life is how we handle being thrown.
How we relate to our thrownness is our most important responsibility, and it is an individual one. No matter how much you love your child, your lover, your spouse, your parent, or your friend, you cannot act or react in their place. Facing our thrownness, rather than running away from it, covering it up, or overanalyzing it, is an act of freedom, and one we must perform again and again, for ourselves. We are alone together in this existence. We can take instruction, solace, guidance, and comfort from each other – or not, depending on how we deal with our thrownness.
I want to express my sorrow for the ones we could not raise from the ocean floor.
I want to say to my friend, the poet and letter-writer: Holy Almost, Batman! Thank you for sending that poem when you did.
I want to thank the people in my life, from long-time relations to chance encounters, who have opened their hearts or ears, smiled a smile, given a glance or just a sign of life. You are like so many lighthouses blinking and sounding, showing the way home.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. You can also join her for Write & Breathe: regular meetups combining writing for wellbeing and conscious breathing.
Motivating, thought-provoking, informative: The Attentive Body monthly newsletter. It’s free and your privacy is respected. Sign up here.