You Couldn’t Tell From My Instagram That I Was Thinking About Killing Myself
We need you to show up when we’re unable to ask for it.
I almost killed myself last year. The first time it occurred to me to end my life I was in the middle of the red sands of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, living my dream of witnessing African wildlife in their natural habitat. I rented a camper truck with an axe and a shovel attached to it, and I looked like a bonafide badass. But instead of getting stoked about seeing lions and cheetahs, I was consumed with thoughts of finding relief from the burden of being alive—some way to opt out of coping with all that I could not—as I felt my life had no value.
Last week we learned Anthony Bourdain took his own life at 61. “How could someone with such a kickass life want out?” people wonder aloud, shocked that the truth-talking antihero of wanderers would pursue anything but living the life we all envy. He was a man of multitudes who everyone could find a piece of themselves in. He was a guiding light in my adventures, the inspiration for turning curiosity into a career, a model for how to represent “the other” with dignity and humanity, and a powerful voice of reason in the political turmoil that’s dividing our world.
But for all he showed us, there’s one story he wasn’t allowed to tell, and it ended his life. Depression is treatable, so we need to talk about suicidal ideation. Right now. We need to make it as normal as complaining of a stomach ache. Right now. But until those of us who have these thoughts are living in a world where this is the case, we need our loved ones to notice when we’re drowning. We need you to show up when we’re unable to ask for it.
I’m no Anthony Bourdain, but I am a travel and food writer, a storyteller who tries to walk in his footsteps. I crisscross the globe in search of untold stories and hyperlocal flavors, and people express jealousy about my life all the time. And I know the pressure of having to keep up appearances.
Like Bourdain’s, my Instagram feed, my social persona is a sham. It’s all wonderment at the eclipse, marching in Taiwan’s historic Gay Pride festival, eating Korean barbecue in Seoul, and exploring private islands in Belize as research for my first book. I am doing those things, but it isn’t the whole story.
What my—and many others’—social feeds don’t show is whatever we’re struggling with. We deeply suck at talking about mental health as a culture, rewarding superficial positivity while stigmatizing negativity in all its forms: Even momentary unhappiness is treated as a moral failing. So you see my sunsets instead of my sadness.
More from Tonic:
In a way that now feels very darkly ironic, I wanted to be Anthony Bourdain, and publicly acknowledging my demons felt like a fast track to losing that dream forever. Who would want to work with me if they knew that I was depressed? Even though travel is a crucible for personal growth, what TV network would want to feature a personality that wasn’t bubbly 100 percent of the time?
Understandably, Bourdain’s death shook the world of writers and eaters and travelers and dreamers. In collectively processing the grief of his departure, social media became inundated with people begging their friends to reach out for help, posting hotline numbers and offering open ears, which is a noble intention. But if you take on the perspective of a person struggling with depression, it’s easy to see why we are often incapable of reaching out for help to take advantage of those offers.
“Two of the hallmark symptoms of depression are feeling hopeless and/or helpless,” explains Colorado-based psychologist Stephanie Smith. “This is significant because it can make seeking out treatment—or remaining in treatment—feel pointless and futile. Once the depression is treated, those thoughts often lessen or lift entirely.” So it feels like helping to say, “if you need anything at all, just call me,” but responsibility is still placed on the sick person, who is dealing with a disease that not only convinces the person that they’re not worthy of receiving support, but takes away the agency to reach out.
I was never going to ask for help. I only got it because people close to me noticed there was something wrong, and acted on it. My mom, my husband, and my best friend worked together to get me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with severe major depressive disorder and general anxiety. I immediately went on antidepressants, saw a therapist, and a month later I no longer believed that suicide was a reasonable response to the adversities I faced.
This widespread intention to help can be channeled into proactive support through learning the behaviors that are indicative of a friend needing help. Suicidal ideation is rarely going to look like something concrete so we need to intervene during the foundational steps to that point.
Smith tells me people struggling with depression may say things like, “This is never going to get better,” or “I am always going to feel this sad/alone/depressed/crazy/stupid/bad,” which hint at the nature of their mindset, rather than explicitly spelling it out. You may find your friend making excuses to avoid socialization, sleeping excessively, or like me, missing significant amounts of work. Recognizing these signs can be crucial to getting them help in time.
When it comes time to act on your offer, be honest with yourself and your friends about the level of support you can provide. “It can be intimidating to reach out to anyone we suspect is struggling whether it be with mental illness, physical pain or anything else,” Smith says. But even if it’s scary, it’s worth it to try. “The fact of the matter is, it’s not about saying the perfect thing, or fixing all your friend’s problems. It’s just about showing up and being a supportive presence in their life.”
It doesn’t even need to take that much time or effort. Smith suggests, “a text or phone call just saying ‘I’m thinking about you’ or ‘hey want to go grab a coffee tomorrow morning?’ Just being there, sitting with someone, listening while they talk—or being comfortable in the silence if they don’t—is the best thing we can offer as a friend.” You aren’t responsible for saving your friend, but you can prove with your time and action that they are valued.
It also helps to familiarize yourself with how to talk and interact with people struggling with mental illness, because a lot of what we go through doesn’t make sense to a healthy mind. And know that suggesting we eat chocolate, smile the pain away, or any other platitude that treats depression as anything other than the disease it is can be damaging. With all this in mind, emergency intervention can be necessary. “If your friend has made you aware of a specific plan or timeline for harming or killing themselves, then it is appropriate to alert their family, or emergency services if need be,” Smith advises.
In hindsight, I wish I'd hinted more at the helplessness I felt. I was intentionally avoidant and inconsistent with my schedule so that no one could track me long enough to witness the depth of my despair. I wanted people to believe my Instagram story was a true reflection of myself so I wouldn’t have to confront the dark path I was heading down.
Anthony Bourdain was a master at articulating his experiences: He was an outspoken advocate on behalf of immigrants, women, and overlooked underdogs around the globe. But when it came to himself, we got dry wit and self-deprecation that we all interpreted as entertainment. If his legacy has room for anything else, let it continue to break down walls. Let it be the knowledge that now more than ever, appearances are not what they seem. Let the intensity of his living and the nature of his passing motivate all of us to reach out to those like him, like me, who look enviable on the outside but aren’t always able to speak up about the darkness hiding inside. Call your friends and ask them how they’re doing.
If you or a loved one are in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In Canada, visit suicideprevention.ca for more information on how to get help.