On Mental Health and Common Decency

Anthony Bourdain’s death last week garnered publicity not seen since the world lost Robin Williams almost four years ago. Posted quotes and photographs of a smiling Bourdain illustrate how meaningful his work was and how much of a personal impact he had on people. The outpouring is understandable. Most of us probably had a rough outline of what we would say to the man if we ever got to meet him in person, and now that that’s an impossibility, we console ourselves by sharing these thoughts with each other. Some even believe that Bourdain is still out there somewhere on a spiritual plane and that he can see all the tributes to him.

Of course, as a suicide, he also became the target of misplaced hostility and ignorance. There’s no shortage of rants against people who self-harm. These rants include words like “selfish” and “stupid” in an attempt to paint the victim as human garbage.

I don’t want to waste a lot of time trying to understand people who do this. I’m pretty sure the motivation is to convince themselves that they are immune to the anguish that would drive a person to end his life. Maybe they believe catastrophe will never befall them, or maybe they just need to feel superior to someone else for once. It doesn’t really matter.

With Bourdain, these trolls latched onto the assertion that an especially bad sandwich could send him into a depressive spiral. It sounds like an extreme reaction to a first world problem, but many fail to understand that it wasn’t the sandwich that depressed Tony – it was all that the sandwich represented: that which prevents each of us from living up to our full potential, be it apathy or distraction or whatever it is that makes us miss opportunities.

And life only grants us so many opportunities. To allow one to pass by feels like spitting in the face of god or destiny or whatever. Additionally, a missed opportunity is a reminder that time is finite and only flows in one direction.* It’s a reminder of our own mortality and that if we squander this life, there won’t be another. This thought usually leads to guilt and self-blame for any time “wasted.”

To a certain extent, this guilt is a good thing, because it motivates us to get out of bed and go do the thing. Too much guilt, however, can have the opposite affect.

Among the mentally ill, self-blame is a constant. Part of this is due to degenerates like those mentioned in paragraphs two and three, but an even greater contributor is the general attitude toward mental illness in every aspect of modern society.

To get back to Tony and his brushes with shitty food, his sense of guilt is – was – compounded by the fact that he had what most people would consider the world’s greatest job: he traveled the world, meeting new people and trying new things, and he got paid big money to do so. He talked about this a lot. More than once, he mentioned feeling like a crappy person every time he didn’t enjoy a certain aspect of his job. When he saw a big-name chef phoning it in, for example, or someone just being a shyster in general, it put him in a shitty mood. That shitty mood in turn made him feel shittier, because he felt he had no right to feel shitty in the first place. After all, having your dream job means you’re never allowed to feel bad about anything again, right?

That’s living with mental illness.

“What’s so bad about your life?” “What do you have to be sad about?” A mental health professional once said both of those things to me. I was a teenager at the time, struggling with an anxiety disorder that had gone nuclear once I hit puberty. (Aside: the general consensus among neurologists is that the adolescent brain operates in such a way as to make teenagers essentially insane. At that age, our frontal lobes expand, disrupt neurological connections, and literally make us crazy.) She said these things with a tone of disgust after I’d told her that I felt sad all the time and thought about different ways to kill myself – time, place, method, etc. Instead of reassuring me that I am not alone and helping me find ways to cope, she lashed out with rhetorical questions designed to make me feel bad about feeling bad.

As an illustration of the general attitude toward depression, suicidal thoughts, and mental illness in general, this is pretty fucking bleak.

In the aftermath of Bourdain’s death, we see a great deal of handwringing about the past decade’s increase in suicides. People keep asking, “Why?” and “What can we do about it?” These questions are akin to, “Why are there so many mass shootings?” and “How can we effectively decrease violence against women?” The answers are stupid easy, and yet we fail again and again to solve our problems.

I have no conclusion, except that it appears our only weapon in the fight for basic human dignity is knowledge. We can share our stories of living with mental illness. True, it’s an intimidating prospect. We run the risk of alienating friends or co-workers. My first thought before posting is always about who is going to see it and decide not to accept my contract. (“What if the project drops behind schedule, and then she throws herself in front of a train?!” No, I’m sure no one says that, but could you imagine if they did? Lol.)

We can also hassle our community leaders to invest in mental health initiatives. Mental Health America is one of the best-known and trusted non-profits dedicated to “helping all people live mentally healthier lives” through advocacy at national, state, and local levels.

The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation is another organization that, aside from having an impressive score on CharityNavigator, seeks to alleviate mental suffering. One hundred percent of all donations research and grants for scientists searching for causes of and treatments for mental illness in children as well as adults.

Finally, there’s The Trevor Project, which focuses on one of the most at-risk groups for mental anguish and suicidal thoughts. LGBTQ youth are exponentially more likely to encounter external stressors that contribute to poor mental health – stressors such as bullying by their peers or rejection by their families – than their hetero and/or cis peers. The Trevor Project offers volunteer opportunities and program-based advocacy all designed to give LGBTQ youth access to support and resources.

Even without the anchor of depression, the reality is that our existence is flimsy at best. We hurtle through an abyss as part of a population of autonomous, sentient creatures that senselessly and constantly inflict pain upon each other. Any person who claims to never feel existential dread or mental anguish is either lying or is actually several pumpkins stacked on top of each other, disguised with a trench coat and a fedora.

Deception happens. My eighth-grade boyfriend was really a pile of oily rags wearing sunglasses.

*Please leave your arguments about fourth-dimension perception in the comments section, and try not to be a dick about it.

The featured image is “The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch, 1907, Oil on canvas. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Note: The Ugly Iowan has been on hiatus as I readjusted the medication that allows me to function on a daily basis. In the interim, I made some art ‘n stuff. I will post about it at a later time.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Lynne says:

    Excellent! You should write a book 🙂

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