This Lawyer Therapist column to which I’ve been honoured to contribute since 2013 isn’t about me. I may occasionally make reference to myself as a therapist or as a former lawyer or student, but the purpose of these musings is to humbly inform, entertain and affirm the reader about issues of human vulnerability, mental health, addiction, self-judgment, compassion and their intersection with membership in the legal profession in Canada.
Now that I’ve said that, I want to talk about me for a second. I’m very sad. Very sad, indeed.
Anthony Bourdain is dead, the apparent victim of a suicidal act that ended his otherworldly life. To be clear, he didn’t “commit suicide.” You commit a crime. And suicide is no crime, no matter how tragic and painful and even hurtful to some. If I must refer to it, I’ll allude to his completed suicide. It may be a technicality, but it’s one I consider important.
Either way, he’s dead. He killed himself. Hanging, we’re told. His friend, Eric Ripert, the lovely multiple Michelin star chef (for whom my wife says she has considered leaving me) was the unfortunate person to have found him in his hotel room, unresponsive. By my humble estimation, a deeply talented, thoughtful and profound a person as has ever walked the earth ceased to exist. Something we cannot comprehend compelled him to end his own life. He has an 11-year-old daughter who one cannot imagine will ever recover fully from this trauma. He has a force of nature girlfriend, the actor and artist Asia Argento, who, after a lifetime of traumatic experiences — not the least of which was alleged abuse by Harvey Weinstein — is forced to endure yet further agony. Pain begets pain begets pain. There’s no shortage of it in the world, some comprehensible, some not at all.
If the uncomputable nature of one suicide weren’t enough, the spectacularly creative and original designer Kate Spade took her own life recently as well. She, too, leaves behind a grieving daughter as well as a husband. As I think of her, my mind then goes to perhaps the favourite performance artist of my lifetime, Robin Williams. I loved him since Mork from Ork made this little boy laugh and feel a little better about himself. Is there something about outsized talent that leads to an inability to cope with life? Is Icarus afoot?
I’ve heard a few people desperately reaching for explanations, trying to understand the unfathomable. Some of that is based in fear for ourselves or those we care about. For some, it’s an intellectual exercise. Still others take voyeuristic interest in this age of celebrity and personal dramas aired for public consumption. Here’s my take: Life can be hard. Mental illness can make it harder. Loneliness and self-judgment can make it unbearable. Isolation and myopia can be fatal.
This, to me, isn’t about genius or celebrity or talent. It’s about basic humanity. Perhaps some are more susceptible to depression or suicide than others, but life presents its myriad and various challenges to each and every one of us and we all sometimes have difficulty coping. Not everyone finds it so hard to cope that they consider ending their lives, but more do than you would think. I’ve been known to say that suicide is rare and pervasive. By a wide margin, most people don’t so much as attempt suicide . . . and too many do.
It’s not an amoral, selfish act. It’s the act of a desperate person in agony, seeking relief from intolerable pain, sometimes even, in a perverse bit of self-delusion, seeking others’ relief from having to deal with us any further. Simply put, it’s the extreme act of a person reaching for a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
So, here I thought I was writing about my feelings and, instead, I guess I’m writing about all of us. This profession of ours is full of brilliant, talented, thoughtful souls, strong and accomplished and no less vulnerable to pain and sadness than any other less famous or “successful” souls. Giants like Gerald Le Dain, Orlando Da Silva, Michelle Hollins, Patrick LeSage. All, as it turns out, human beings like the rest of us, susceptible to the vicissitudes of life and the impact that those have on our mental health and quality of life. In fact, a recent study from the University of Toronto suggested a greater incidence of depression among “successful” lawyers, meaning those with more prestigious, higher-paying, higher-workload jobs.
So, after all of this, can we once and for all dispense with the myth that people who are depressed or anxious or addicted or who succumb to suicide are weak or of bad character? Do we ever say that about cancer patients? Can we stop falling into the Darwinian fallacy that those who avoid the most daunting mental health challenges are just stronger than others? Can we allow that, in whatever station one finds oneself in life and career, we’re all ultimately the same? The ultimate commonality among all of us is that we all have our stuff to grapple with. The less we judge — ourselves or others — and the more compassion we show — to ourselves or others — the better off we’ll be.
If you’re struggling, don’t suffer alone. Reach out to a loved one, a clergyperson, a therapist, a helpline, a friend, a colleague, your local Lawyer Assistance Program or anyone who will listen with kindness. You’re not alone. May their memory be a blessing.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker and a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.