When I woke to the reports of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide Friday morning, I was visibly upset. My 10 year old asked me what was up. I told him Bourdain had killed himself. He asked what we all ask when someone takes their own life. “Why”, “he is rich, and famous, and seemed so happy”?
Certainly I would not use the word “happy” to describe Bourdain, but I imagine my kid was pointing to is how full of life, adventurous, and curious Bourdain was. He and I have watched videos of Bourdain over the past few years because my kid is interested in cuisine, and travel, and because I like to show him the lives of people, famous or not, who have worked hard to build and craft an awesome life for themselves. Bourdain was a glorious example, with a rough emotional start, years battling his darkness with an addiction to heroin, entering his industry as a dishwasher, taking risks like his unsolicited article submission to the New York Times, taking the opening that provided him and running with it, and ultimately using his acquired access to help build a better world.
And then he took his own life.
Some parents, perhaps most, would not have mentioned to their child the cause of death. But I started talking to my kid about suicide about a year ago. It was similarly after a news story, about a 10 year old who had committed suicide.
Suicide and Suicidality
I am no stranger to suicide. While I have never felt at risk myself for suicide, I have worked with many clients over the years who have struggled at varying levels with suicidality. Closer to home, one of my closest friends killed herself when we were in our mid twenties, as well as an aunt who struggled with poorly medicated bi-polar disorder, and ultimately my own mother choose death in a slow suicide on the cusp of turning seventy by refusing food and drinking fluids other than alcohol, as she simply could not bear life any longer.
In truth, my familiarity with suicidality is my own internal darkness. I am no stranger to darkness, mine or others. I am no stranger to self-destruction, mine or others. I am no stranger to the destruction of good things, life affirming things, by me, and by those I love. I know my darkness well, as I have to grapple with it routinely: to get out of bed, to see my friends, to do things I love.
If you knew me you would also know that I am full of life and liveliness, passion, courage and generosity. I can laugh until I pee myself and make others do the same. I am grateful for an unbelievably awesome and blessed life and can take the most traumatic of my life’s experiences and squeeze truths and revelation out of them.
The polarity of Anthony Bourdain’s life, and of mine, was described by Sigmund Freud, as the battle between the life and death drives (often poorly translated as instincts). I know many are eager to dispel Freud’s theories, despite his language being used universally to reference basic understandings of human functioning, like unconscious, denial, repressed, superego, projection, ect. The life and death drives are too important in a society filled with self destruction behaviors to throw out with the bath water.
One way to understand addiction for instance, and eating disorders, self-mutilation, self-sabotaging behaviors, and cigarette smoking, is the death drive. The death drive does not mean a conscious wish to kill oneself, or even to be dead. It is a drive towards destruction. It is a drive towards tearing things down as opposed to building things up. It is the giving up, as opposed to the forging ahead. In my own life I often refer to it as the f*ck-its.
The f*ck-its are when we turn our backs on the right thing. The right thing meaning the thing that moves us forward in life, builds on past movements. The right thing is our values, and the things we long to achieve. The f*ck-its is when we eat fast food even though we have made ourselves a great nutritious meal at home because we are trying to eat healthier to live longer. The f*ck-its are when we blow off exercise, or meditation, or a walk in the woods, or journal writing, or some other thing that we feel good about and want to commit to as self-care. The moments between those types of decisions are the battle between the parts of us that want to live, and live well, and the parts of us that resist that pull towards life and liveliness. On a small and unconscious way, those moments contain the battle between life and death.
An interesting thing about life and death drives, is most who support these theories also support the notion that the strength of our drives is constitutional, meaning we are born with more or less drive towards death or life. Those who struggle with addiction/alcoholism for instance, are typically people with strong death drives. People who we see overcome incredible obstacles through feats we can hardly imagine likely have strong drives for life. While certainly nurture, circumstance, trauma and opportunity play a role in the pull people have towards life and death, the strength of the engine that drives it is nature.
Sometimes people are suicidal and we kind of understand why. We look at their lives, or their trauma, and we can imagine wanting to escape that life. In these folks we often see a low-level but chronic suicidality, one that might very well take their lives one day. People may be devastated by their suicide, but not particularly surprised. We might describe this person with low drive for life, besides what ever the strength of their death drive. As a therapist I would describe my work with these clients as helping them grow and craft a life worth living. A good life isomer likely to be fought for than a life filled with disappointment.
Sometimes however, people who battle with suicidality, are in a life and death battle with two very strong drives, that can pull them back and forth between deep appreciation of life, and being so overwhelmed by life they don’t know how to bear another minute. I am not talking about folks with bi-polar disorder, though I suspect it is almost always true of them too. I am also not talking exclusively about depression, though I suspect most folks with a strong death drive also have a depression diagnosis. I am talking about Anthony Bourdain. And I am talking about myself.
Anthony Bourdain clearly loved life. He enthusiastically grabbed life by the horns and rode it hard. He tried to taste as many of life’s wonders as he could, in food for sure, but in relationships, connection, wonder and awe. Just as clearly, from his early life addicted to heroin and recklessness, and his description of those years as having wanted to be “the baddest dude in the room”, along with his haggard, hard-edge persona, his death drive was one to contend with.
A Moment of Desperation
Adults who kill themselves rarely do so in an isolated moment of desperation. While the act of suicide is in the midst of great despair and hopelessness, it is not an unfamiliar experience. For most people who successfully commit suicide, they have survived dozens if not hundreds of moments of similar despair, desperation and darkness without killing themselves. And in the moment of the suicide, their death drive won.
So back to my kid and why we talk about dark things like suicide. We all struggle with some internal darkness. We all have moments we are not up for the work of life, and building upon good things becomes too much and we lash out with destruction. If you are a parent you are well aware of the tower the toddler excitedly builds until part of it drops and the rest gets torn down in rage: death( destruction) drive. As adults no matter how good we may be at self-care, at growth and change, at building our careers, or relationships, or communities, we know well it is harder some days to push us towards those life-affirming activities, actions that build upon each other, almost as if another force is holding us back: death drive. Our kids; they have death drives in them too.
When kids are swallowed up with darkness, what do they have to compare it to? Besides having so little impulse control, they also do not yet have a realistic perspective on time (“are we there yet” every 5 minutes), they have not yet lost their sense of omnipotence ( they think they wont get pregnant or HIV or crash their car when drunk) they haven’t had a chance to find our what is normative (abused kids frequently imagine the same thing is going on in everybody’s houses) and they have not had a chance yet to see what kind of life they can craft. The beauty of the It Gets Better campaign to reduce suicide risk for queer and trans teens is that it really usually does. If external circumstances in childhood are rough, adulthood will provide different options for living.
So when a kid, age 8, 10, 12, or a teen gets swallowed up by darkness, they don’t have enough life experience to know the many ways they might survive that moment. They may have been struggling with darknesses for years, or months, or weeks, or even only days. Their darkness may feel like it has been happening “forever” and will never change, and they cognitively have no way of truly understanding that dead is dead, nor the impulse control to contain themselves even if they do.
When an adult commits suicide, while absolutely tragic, my experience is that it is rarely a mistake. It is not one year, or one month, or one week, or one moment of hopelessness they are responding to. We may not like their choice, but it is hardly a spur of the moment impulse.
Kids Have Darkness Too
What if my kid, or your kid, was born with a strong death drive? What if something horrible happens to your kid, that you know about, or don’t know about, like a rape, or being bullied? What if your kid knows inside themselves something they fear knowing, like that they are queer, or trans and is afraid of how it will be received? What if they get totally flooded with hopelessness? Will they know what it is? Will they know it is unlikely to last? Do they know life is interspersed with terribly painful, awful moments, and joyous, glorious ones? Do they know things they can do when they are suffering that will help it get better? Do they know that death is forever? Do they know there are other ways to let people know they are suffering?
Some adults end their own lives. Some children live with a kind of daily horror that warrants contemplation of suicide, like children living with ongoing incest. But when I hear about an 8 year old, a 10 year old, a 12 year old, killing themselves, I fear that they may have drowned in a horrible pit of darkness that might have dissipated an hour later, of from a situation that might have resolved itself a week later, or at least a year later.
I am not sure how strong my son’s death drive is or isn’t, will or won’t be, and how much life drive he will have to counter it. I do know that he already has thoughts and feelings and experiences that he chooses to keep private, or at least chooses when he is or isn’t going to reveal them to me. And like all of us, he is sometimes so overcome with a moment of disappointment, or a social humiliation, that he wants to cease to exist. And like all of us, sometimes he is so sure no one understands or appreciates his suffering, that he wants to hurt me or others with his truth.
I want him to know about hopelessness and what it is about least he be confronted with a potentially lethal dose of it some day. I want him to have language and understanding of concepts surrounding internal pain, so he might be less frightened by it. I want him to know he is not alone in having dark, hateful, morbid, terrifying thoughts.
While I will hope for him, and try to help him build a world to protect him from suffering, I know neither he nor I are omnipotent. So I want the next best thing. I want for him the same thing I want for myself, my friends and my clients, which is to expand his capacity to bear suffering, so that he might always survive it.
How Can Therapy Help?
People with a strong death drive can greatly benefit from knowing that is part of their struggle. It can me quite confusing to have done so much work to grab at life, and still feel burdened with darkness. In fact it commonly fills them with a fair amount of self-hatred, which adds a whole new layer of suffering. Therapy can help alleviate that extra unnecessary burden.
And for those of us that mean to talk to our children about difficult matters, might need help in how to hold the conversations. But more importantly, therapists can help contain the parent’s dreadful fears for the well being of our children.
Smith is and analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additional the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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