When someone tosses out the suggestion to ‘think positive,’ it’s the least positive thoughts that run through my mind. Instead of turning me cheerful, at times it’s more like someone has drawn a cartoon-style, scribbled, black cloud over my head.
It’s not that thinking positive is bad in itself – I’m not anti-positivity. It must be amazing for those experiencing it. And as a philosophy and a method to find more peace, I’m sure it can really help people, at the right time.
No, what riles me is the rainbows-and-unicorns culture that prefers to shut out people when what they’re feeling isn’t positive, but messy, ugly and uncomfortable. I’m wary of the worshipping of the upbeat, the happy ending, and how this turns people back inside themselves, where their pain can ferment in private until it’s pure toxin.
It’s the culture of happy endings that renders us shocked when Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade die by suicide – because from the outside, they looked so cool, assured, talented, lucky. They seemed to have it all.
Granted, we never know what’s really happening in a celebrity’s world (nor do we civilians have a right to know their inner lives). But it’s a good bet that whatever aspirational façade they project seems like an ideal to a lot of ‘regular people.’ We can make an educated guess that even these savvy famous people, with all the financial safety nets and resources, believed they would not be safe, respected or adored anymore if they revealed the sadness and worries sawing through their will to live.
Bright, sunshiny and desperate
Anthony Bourdain, chef, author and host of TV travel shows “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” ate and talked with celebrities from Barack Obama to Iggy Pop (here’s a slightly longer, beautiful cut of the latter on Facebook) as well as locals at hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food stands everywhere. He boldly explored the world, its cultures and foods.
He seemed caddish – at least in earlier years – yet somehow a good guy, witty, a good listener, open to learning. (He was also a huge champion of the #metoo movement.) He spoke openly about dark times in his past, particularly addiction and subsequent rehab, but his adventures felt like a celebration of life.
Kate Spade early in her career was an editor at a top magazine in New York. Then she broke out as a fashion designer and became a rich, famous entrepreneur lauded for her vibrant handbags and fun aesthetic. She was also known, we learned this week, for her charming demeanor. Her dad, for one, described her as a “bright, sun-shiney little person.” Yet imagine how utterly miserable and inescapable her despair must have felt if she had a child she loved deeply, by all accounts – yet believed the best thing she could do was to leave her daughter by ending her own life. What a strenuous act it must have been to mask that level of depression.
It’s not easy being Superwoman
Women, especially, know this conflict between appearance and reality. ‘Superwomen like Kate Spade smile to hide the pain. Time to hang up the cape and live’ in the ‘Kansas City Star’ is an excellent piece on Kate Spade and the superwoman phenomenon in general.
Maybe mothers get this struggle best of all. Some phases feel so hard, but we feel pressure to keep it together – for the sake of the family, the kids, or whoever else might be watching (‘what will the neighbors think?’). We face an external expectation to smile (whether or not we indulge it), to project pleasantness and competence at work; patience and warmth at home; friendliness everywhere we go. The effort of projecting a likeable, unflappable persona can drain energy that could be used to deal with real issues.
Reserved or friendly, the dark thoughts are taboo
It’s possible this is more of an issue in the US, which is famous (infamous) for its optimistic (superficial?) society and friendly (fake?) people who prize keeping up cheery appearances.
But in Switzerland, where I now live, people and the culture are stereotyped as reserved and modest – and despite rates falling from high levels in the last couple of decades, suicide remains a problem here, too. The Swiss government has devised an action plan for suicide prevention, and this ‘Swissinfo’ article discusses suicide prevention, including the taboo that keeps people from getting help. (According to World Health Organizations statistics from 2015, there were an estimated 788,000 suicide deaths worldwide – an annual global age-standardized suicide rate of 10.7 per 100 000 population. In the US, the rate was 19.5 and in Switzerland 15.5 suicide deaths per 100,000 population.)
Of course, we have to distinguish between going through a rough time, moderate depression and severe mental illness, the latter of which reportedly may have plagued Kate Spade. But these do have in common that stigma can keep people from getting the help and comfort they need, whether it’s professional intervention, or empathy and acceptance.
It’s also essential to understand that people’s experience in the throes of suicidal ideation can be different from what we know. A friend described it as “foggy haze” – not a state allowing rational thought about what might or might not be a ‘selfish’ action (a common, misguided criticism of people who take their lives).
The woman who has it all probably doesn’t
We must also recognize that even if someone’s life appears fabulous on the surface, they may be suffering – and they’re entitled to that, as well as to compassion. Anyone who appears to ‘have it all’ quite possibly may be paying a big price – in sleep, in peace of mind, or in other ways. Feeling judged as ungrateful, knowing others don’t understand, may only be more isolating.
This is true for many people – I know from experience. I have been close to people fighting off the weight of severe depression and suicidal inclinations, seen them deal with therapy that brought limited or temporary success, only to have the darkest feelings wash over them again. I have been through some very difficult and sad times, too (though never severe depression and suicidal ideation). There are strategies for healing, but having someone dismiss or try to spin your experience into something they find more palatable is definitely not one.
If you think it helps someone to point out that they have a good life and other people have worse problems, let me ask you this: When you were a kid and adults told you that starving kids in Africa would love to eat your peas, did your bad feelings disappear and were you suddenly grateful for the veggies on your plate?
No, what is far more likely to help is: less judgment, more tolerance and compassion. More appreciation of the truth that many people have stories inside that we cannot fathom. More willingness to listen. And, echoing reports and personal comments all over social media this week: The stigma attached to mental illness must be eliminated.
Of that, at least, we may say we are positive.
We would be grateful to hear your own thoughts, experiences and advice in the comments below. Please scroll all the way down to comment on a mobile phone. Thank you!
Resources and additional reading
- Read about postpartum depression and resources in Switzerland (in German).
- Here’s a list of suicide prevention numbers and hotlines in countries around the world
- In Switzerland, you can dial 143 to talk to someone anonymously, or even email or chat online at https://www.143.ch/, die dargebotene Hand (German, French, Italian).
- In the US, see IMALIVE for crisis intervention as well as volunteer training and education.
- Unsure how to help someone? This is a very good article.
- Swissinfo op-ed by an American mother in Zurich on feeling lonely in a foreign country and tips for how to combat it.
- One suicide survivor recommends this TED talk: ‘Depression, the secret we share’ – “an outsiders peek in to that place survivors live in from the beginning to the end,” as my friend explains. Worth a listen.