[tw: suicide] I watched Roadrunner, a documentary about Anthony Bourdain, and it left me a lot of thoughts as someone who has struggled with my own existence my entire life. Though I am writing about the documentary this post is more about me, so I am not going to pretend that I know more about Bourdain or anyone else. I am writing from my own perspective in relation to the film.
Throughout the film I felt that Bourdain had a chronic unease about him. He was never comfortable even for a split second, whether working in the kitchen, being with his friends, or working on his own travel show. It was as though he didn’t belong. I can very much relate to why he became obsessed with Argento later on – it was probably an attempt to finally belong, to be known, and that is probably also why he didn’t take it very well when she seemed to have strayed. How can the only person who is supposed to know you hurt you like this? He had two ex-wives, both marriages lasted pretty long, but his obsession with Argento seemed to be on a different level. (Just to make it clear I am not pointing the finger at Argento, because there is a ton of things that can be potential triggers to a suicidal mind. Argento just happened to be the person he probably projected his hopes and love on.)
His friends commented on his addictive personality – Bourdain was a heroin addict who later on became addicted to different things in life, and his last addiction was Argento. It made me think about my own addictive personality: induced by my hyperfocus on my ever-shifting interests, or are my addictions attempts to escape that chronic unease? Addictions are like temporary forgettings, allowing us to forget that pain. That pain that is like second nature, that has existed since the very beginning of our time here. Sometimes I think suicide is not about truly wanting to end one’s life, but rather it seems like the only way to escape that pain. One can get used to that pain, but once in a while it threatens to overwhelm. That overwhelm can be very unbearable, and it is during this unbearable time that unfortunate things can happen.
On the documentary Bourdain was filmed having a few philosophical conversations with his friends. One of them is buddhist, and you could tell that from those convos that Bourdain has thought a lot about the existential meaning of life. I have come to realise myself that perhaps it is better to not contemplate too much about the meaning of life, to try to analyse it intellectually. Because if you do, if you try to find logical reasons for life, for living, you may come to the conclusion that life itself is absurd – or worse, meaningless. One has to find a way to live without intellectualising it so much, like what Zen tries to teach. Perhaps it is because in a capitalistic society we are conditioned to expect positive outcomes from every endeavour we make, so of course we expect the hardest thing we do – living – to have some great positive meaning. It can be soul-crushing to realise otherwise. Maybe it is okay that life is just life, and this is it. But this is something that is difficult to accept. We want more, expect more, and find it impossible to deal with it if instead of better and more, there is suffering and pain.
Personally, I think this is difficult to articulate in words but this expectation is closely tied to the suicidal mentality. I can’t speak for everyone of course, and there are books out there trying to analyse the minds of people who desire for their lives to end. But I would wager a huge part of it is ironically wanting more out of life, and then experiencing the hopelessness of the desired outcome. Because we believe there should be more, it is unbearable to live through a life where there is only the pain and disappointment of not having and of loss. I think there are circumstances where the desire to end one’s life is possibly justifiable: like when one’s physical suffering is beyond endurance or when one is facing a terminal illness and would like a dignified end. But when it comes to the realm of psychological suffering things become murky, because one’s psychology can have the potential to change.
But can it? Sometimes I think I’ve changed so much as a person but at times I feel like I am still the same person despite outward appearances. At times I feel like I’m the same old scared, lonely child, even at the age of 42. There are days when I can’t imagine being suicidal, and then there are days when I can’t stop thinking about it. It is like there: always lurking, waiting to catch you when you least expect it. Sometimes it is mind-boggling when people choose to end their lives just when things are getting better. Yet it is during better times that it becomes more difficult to deal with triggers and pain because it becomes more stark in contrast and more unexpected. When we’re used to feeling something everyday it is just there, like a piece of furniture. But imagine being in wonderland and a monster suddenly rears its ugly head – it becomes jarring, and difficult to cope.
Somehow human beings are very linear in our thinking. We think when we are on the mend, and it must be an onward journey up. I have experienced this countless times. I get better and I think: finally, the worst is behind me. Then nope, again it catches me unaware and the sense of despair and fatigue makes me feel like I’m drowning in a deep, dark endless pit. For that while, it feels like it would never get better.
Someone mentioned in the documentary that the wave of suicidal thinking typically lasts about 90 minutes (relevant link), and people who survive that period usually end up not wanting to kill themselves. It seemed like Bourdain did not have a pre-meditated intention to die, he was still writing notes for his show and making arrangements for the future. But if one has flirted with suicidal thoughts all our lives, when the wave of suicidal thinking hits, it is not: “this is only temporary, I only need to endure this for a while” but rather “I must really want to do it because I keep thinking about it. I should finally act on it because I am tired of this”.
I am 42, and Bourdain passed when he was 61. He’s had two more decades of enduring these waves. Who is to say he should have endured more? Whenever I read about a suicide I do wonder about myself. I assume I’ll only grow more resilient as I age, but is that a wrong assumption?
My own episodes have gotten less frequent as I have grown much more whole as a person. But this is on the assumption that I have what I have now: reasonable health, being in a nourishing relationship, reasonable amount of stressors etc. But the impermanence of life has taught me that things can just change in a split second. I don’t feel very resilient at all. But perhaps paradoxically knowing I am fragile makes me have the correct expectations?
The reason why I write so much about this topic is because I believe it should not be a taboo topic. It is a phenomenon that is part of the human life. If more people are able to discuss it in the open maybe it can be like a piece of furniture that we know we hold in our psychological space rather than a potentially life-ceasing monster that may be more harmful the more we refuse to acknowledge its existence. I don’t think the urge to end one’s existence is shameful or something that should be hidden in a closet. I think the problem with it is that in some cases it feels like a logical solution to a logical problem. If I find my life and/or my self unbearable why should I continue to bear them? Isn’t it a sort of permanent suffering to only live for other people? Why should I live a life that feels like permanent suffering for me?
But the key to transcend this – if my cognitive faculties are intact – is stop stop treating life as a question with an answer. Or something that is either this or that. Or that my current self will be permanent in the way I think, feel and perceive. And that any way of existing is permanent. We are ever-changing, our circumstances are also ever-changing. The most hopeless and most hopeful part of life is the same – its impermanence.
I feel tremendously sad when I see of young people successfully ending their lives. I did not change my mind about the way I thought about my life and death until my mid to late thirties, and my views continue to evolve. When we are young we lack the agency to change our circumstances and the people we are. It is one thing to end our lives after a lifetime of suffering, another thing to end it because we cannot see a way out of our young, narrow selves. It is said that it is not that people literally want to end their lives, but they simply wanted a way out of their pain and/or their suffocating circumstances. Some just wanted an end to their stifling identities. There are ways to explore alternate paths, but we are conditioned to believe that so much of our lives are fixed. This is why Buddhism/Zen can be soothing for some, because it teaches that there is no (permanent) self. The thought of having no self can either bring despair or freedom, depending on where we are in life.
Society must learn to acknowledge that this sort of life-negating psychological pain is real and debilitating. We must not assume that life is automatically desirable for everyone. We often think of suicide as a selfish act, but do you know how much must one suffer to prefer harming themselves permanently, even if the thoughts are just there for a short while?
In my previous post I wrote that it takes a village to raise a child. Heck, it take a village to cultivate flourishing, balanced, whole adults. We are so, so far from that. If only there is a safe place people can go whenever they encounter such ideation, to safely explore themselves, their feelings, their desires, their suffering – or even reboot their existences – with a team of experienced guides without judgment. But now we have a culture where everyone hides their feelings in order to maintain harmony and to prevent shame.
In a parallel universe, would Bourdain still be alive? I would like to think that things could have been different if society had the sort of infrastructure for people encountering existential difficulties but that’s too much to hope for. Or perhaps if he had the luck to find a good therapist that is able to bring him life-transforming insights out of his brilliant, dark mind. People with minds like this believe that they have already thought through all the nooks and crannies but there is always a space wider than our minds. It is difficult to cope with that sort of existential loneliness, that is why there is always so much hope placed on love and/or another person. Maybe living is simply too tiring for some of us. I always joke with my partner that I wish she can shut me down for a few days because my sense of fatigue is too overwhelming. It is a scary thing, to be unable to escape one’s confines of our own minds.
I feel like for myself right now, in order to live I have to stop thinking so much. I have to pretend to be interested in things, even if I don’t feel like it. The way my brain works is that I almost never feel like anything, so I just have to make myself do things. This takes psychological stamina, which can be sucked out of me when shit happens. It takes psychological stamina for me to keep myself alive by doing “normal” mundane things other people do: going out, interacting with the world, trying to cultivate some interests or hobbies, take care of our health, etc. In good periods this psychological stamina feels effortless, like it was always there. During bad times it feels like a herculean effort to uncurl myself from the fetal position. During these times when everything is in negative balance it is when we need our psychological stamina the most: to conjure the energy and courage to attempt to turn things around, break out of the stasis.
This is why so many people fail. How and where do we find the strength, when we are at our weakest, our most vulnerable? If we cannot find the answer, we should stop saying that suicide is a selfish act, and try to understand the root and systemic causes of such an outcome.
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