Publicly talking about mental illness and suicide is again in vogue, after two globally famous celebrities — Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade — recently, sadly, took their own lives.
When rich, successful, talented and charismatic high-achievers decide their seemingly perfect lives are no longer worth living, it gets our attention but not for the tens of thousands of others far less spectacularly blessed who do the same thing every year.
And that’s just in America. And it’s getting worse. Faster than ever.
A dog in the hunt
I have a dog in this hunt, discussion of which usually devolves into an unresolvable swamp of biases about whether mental illness is a biological or character flaw, whether expert talk, psycho-active drugs or spiritual renewal is the best curative, and, in any event, whether it’s all a matter of mind over matter for which professional psychiatry is useless (e.g., Tom Cruise, Scientology).
In fact, treating mental illness can involve all of those things or none of them. When the mind decides to fly apart or just grind to a near-halt, nothing matters to the experiencer but their own private misery, and finding solace is generally a frustrating trial-and-error process. And — need it be said — sufferers are often not “in their own mind” during such an episode, even completely baffled by the symptoms, so cannot be expected to fairly parse all the available remedial options unaided.
Near-epidemic of suicide
All this talk, such as is going on now about Bourdain and Spade, and a new report indicating suicide is near epidemic rates in the U.S., is being voiced by people who presumably are generally not mentally ill but who still boast legions of uninformed opinions about those who are.
Which brings me to my dog in the hunt.
Many years ago, as a rookie journalist in my early 20s, I sat with my editor in a routine joint morning interview with some of our town’s movers and shakers. I don’t remember the topic du jour, but I can’t forget the powerful, unnerving sensation that suddenly, inexplicably seized me in its vice grip. At that moment, I only knew one thing for sure: I could not stay in that room. One. More. Second. So, I stood up and walked out. It was more like a jog.
As I leaned against a wall outside, sweating copiously, my mind and pulse racing, muscular carnivorous moths attacking the inside of my stomach, I wondered, “What the hell is happening?”
I honestly didn’t have a clue at the time. But during the next five or six years, I sort of figured it out. It’s not an exact science, it turns out.
‘Nothing’ is wrong
My family physician initially checked me out and said he could find nothing physically wrong, and wrote in my chart this curious preliminary diagnosis: “anxiety, adult adjustment variety.” So he sent me to a psychiatrist who wore pink shirts and plaid pants, and drove a candy-apple-red Porsche. The psychiatrist agreed that “anxiety” was the issue at hand.
He told me an anxiety joke that was supposed to lighten my mood. “The thing with anxiety,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “is you’re afraid you won’t die.” Ha.
Over the next few years, I read everything I could on anxiety disorders and found out that they are spectacularly common worldwide. Indeed, they’re the common cold of mental maladies. You won’t die but from time to time you sure might wish you could. For the uninitiated, acute anxiety episodes are sudden, rogue switch-ons of the “fight or flight” instinct — where hormones and other related chemicals flood your nervous system to jolt you into instantly attacking or fleeing as needed. If there’s no actual enemy to battle or terror to bolt from (and there usually isn’t), you’re left with a very uncomfortably, super-revved-up body. All dressed up with nothing to do and nowhere to go, as it were.
That’s it, in a nutshell. There are lots of theories about how people acquire hyper-sensitive anxiety responses to mundane experiences, and lots of theories about how best to short-circuit them. In my case, professionals suspected my inherently non-combative personality and strong tendency to avoid personal conflict made me vulnerable. So, I worked on being more assertive and less accommodating to everyone. I forced myself to more robustly confront the world, journey purposefully to the office each day, interact with life head-on, when for a while I really just wanted to read Hemingway novels and watch Spielberg films in my easy chair.
A 100-pound sack
A less-retiring strategy helped, so after awhile instead of feeling like I was dragging around a 100-pound sack slung over my shoulder, with a pulse rate to match, it felt more like 10-15. Brief “panic attacks,” which felt like thin bolts of lightning zinging around in my chest and a compulsive urge to run somewhere, anywhere else, dissipated and then mostly left. But I still didn’t feel like I did before.
So life went on for me. Pretty well but with a sense that it was more difficult than it needed to be and that there didn’t seem to be much more I could do about it.
I bit the bullet and forged ahead.
Then, something truly amazing happened. On the eve of a momentous, stressful move from South Dakota to Saudi Arabia for my wife and I (I got job there), my long-mostly-dormant anxiety started to kick a little, so I went to the doctor. I asked him if he could prescribe something to get me over the hump, even though throughout my struggles I never went the drug route.
Less than two weeks later, though, while we were still in the U.S. and visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Arizona, I noticed something remarkable as I was driving down the street with my nephew. I was usually a little nervous when I drove with kids because I worried I might err and risk their safety, but on that day, oddly, I wasn’t nervous at all.
In fact, as I did a quick check of my psychological state, I realized I wasn’t anxious about anything. The 10- to 15-pound bag of extra mental weight I always carried around suddenly seemed weightless. The constant mild wariness I had grown used to like an arthritic knee had vanished, leaving in its place that calm, sunny sense of optimism that had long been my companion in the years before.
After a few days, while I cautiously waited for the second shoe to drop, it didn’t. That convinced me. I was back!
That was in late 1999. I have been taking the drug religiously since, with zero deal-breaking side effects. I never feel drugged, sluggish or under the influence of anything alien; I feel completely and gloriously normal. I still get anxious occasionally, but rationally (who doesn’t?). My enhanced clarity of mind and physical endurance when freed from anxiety’s heavy psychological stressors translated into the most peaceful, productive and happy years of my life. By far. I joke with my born-again-Christian best friend that I, an atheist, am now a “true believer” … in pharmaceuticals.
I don’t care if Tom Cruise and his ilk look down their noses at the likes of mood-repaired me. I feel like I’ve come through a battering squall and come out on the tranquil, sunlit other side. It’s beautiful and peaceful here. And I’m still married, unlike Mr. Cruise with his more “natural” psychological remedies. Says something profound, I suspect.
Ignore the naysayers
So, here’s the deal. If you’re suffering from some psychic pain, there’s lots of help out there — professional talk, drugs, friends and family, a good dog or cat, yoga. You’re not the only one seeking psychic relief, and there’s zero shame in it. Yet there is deep shame in stigmatizing it. Trust me. There’s a good chance any or all of the above-mentioned options will work for you. If so, fabulous.
But don’t ever let anyone tell you categorically to stay the hell away from psycho-active drugs. I, for one, can personally confirm that naysayers don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.
And don’t just take my anecdotal word for it. After Cruise’s unhinged diatribe against psychiatry and psycho-active medications in a 2005 interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released this public statement:
“It is irresponsible for Mr. Cruise to use his movie publicity tour to promote his own ideological views and deter people with mental illness from getting the care they need … Rigorous, published, peer-reviewed research clearly demonstrates that treatment (of mental illness) works … It is unfortunate that in the face of this remarkable scientific and clinical progress that a small number of individuals and groups persist in questioning its legitimacy.”
Well put, and true.
Unlike Cruise’s Scientology organization, the APA isn’t some bizarre, money-sucking cult. It represents tens of thousands of physicians specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness using falsifiable, real-world evidence.
Scientology, on the other hand, according to a Vanity Fair article, proposes that:
“… 75 million years ago a galactic emperor named Xenu sent millions of frozen souls on spaceships from his overpopulated kingdom to the bases of volcanoes on Earth; the volcanoes were hydrogen-bombed, and today the scattered and reincarnated spiritual beings, or ‘thetans,’ pick up human bodies as ‘containers’ to inhabit.”
Had I listened to this kind of nonsense, I would have sacrificed nearly 20 years of productive contentment and new joys nearly every day.
A no-brainer, I’d say.
Please sign up for new-post notifications (top right). Sharing, comments appreciated!