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Suicide, Celebrities, and “Having it All”

By: Josh Rivedal

With the recent and tragic high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I’ve heard so much chatter around the topic of suicide. So many are asking “why,” “how could this happen,” “they had it all,” or “who’s next.” Unfortunately, we’ll never know the exact “why,” but what these two brilliant human-beings were going through was probably a layer of several crises or obstacles that contributed to feelings of hopelessness that caused them to feel as if life would never get better. And because mental health and suicide are still seen as taboo topics, getting help for their lingering feelings of hopelessness was probably not seen as an option.

The idea that “they had it all,” isn’t really an insulator against suicidal thinking or attempts. If you’re familiar with the idea of the iconic “white picket fence,” that someone has everything: a great family, house, and job; a symbol of outward perfection—what we don’t see is the other side of that fence. The side that only the owners of the white picket fence can see. The side we can’t see could be termite infested, chipped, broken, and well-worn without paint.

More than half-a-decade ago, a good amount of people saw my “white picket fence,” and thought that after many years of struggle that I had a lot going for me. I painted the outside of my fence really well, but the inside of that fence was broken and in need of repair—and so was I. It was the darkest place that a person could be in—without hope, without a feeling of purpose, and believing the world would be a better place without me.

How could a person get to such a place? And how can a person get out of such utter despair?

* * *

Captain’s log, Stardate January 2011. Where unfortunately many have gone before. I’m twenty-six years old and thinking about dying… actually I’m not being entirely truthful. I’m dangling halfway out the fourth floor window of my bedroom in New York City.

I don’t really want to die. I just want the emotional pain to stop… and I don’t know how to do that. Two guys in my life—my father and grandfather—each didn’t know how to make their own terrible personal pain stop and now both were, well, dead.

My grandfather, Haakon—a Norwegian guy who served in the Royal Air Force (35th Squadron as a tail gunner) in World War II—died from suicide in 1966 because of the overwhelming post-traumatic stress he suffered because of the war.

My father, Douglas—an American guy who was chronically unhappy and an abusive man—died from suicide in 2009, the catalyst being a divorce with my mother along with some long-term depression and other mental health issues.

How did I get to such a dismal place in my life so quickly, just a month shy of my twenty-seventh birthday? Coming out of secondary school and high on optimism, I thought by the time I reached my mid-twenties I’d have it all together. After a couple of years singing on Broadway, I would have scored a few bit parts on Law & Order, and transitioned seamlessly to being cast with Will Smith in the summer’s biggest blockbuster. After which, my getaway home in the Hamptons would be featured in Better Homes & Gardens, and my face would grace the cover of National Enquirer as Bigfoot’s not-so-secret lover. Not to mention, I’d have my perfect family by my side to share in my success.

But instead, “perfect” was unattainable (it always is). I only managed to perform in some of small professional theatre gigs and on one embarrassing reality television show; and over the course of the previous eighteen months my father died from suicide, my mother betrayed me and sued me for my father’s inheritance, and my girlfriend of six years broke up with me.

This storm of calamity and crisis had ravaged my life… and I wasn’t talking about it to anyone. My silence led to crisis and poor decisions—to the extent that I was hanging out of a fourth story window.

Both Haakon and Douglas suffered their pain in silence because of the stigma surrounding talking about mental illness and getting help. I too felt that same stigma—like I’d be seen as “crazy” or “less of a man” if I talked about what I was going through. But I didn’t want to die and so I had to take a chance.

I started talking. I pulled myself back inside and first called my mom. She helped me through that initial crisis and we became friends again. She never called me “crazy.” I then started reaching out to the positive friends I had in my life. They hugged me and helped me with open arms. They never told me I was “less than a man.” Soon I got more help by seeing a professional counselor, and by writing down what I was going through in a journal.

But this idea of keeping silent continued to bother me. I did some research while in my recovery and found out that each year, suicide kills over one million people worldwide… and that many of those one million never speak up about their emotional pain because of stigma.

I had to figure out a way to reach people like that. So, like any other actor, writer, or comedian living in New York City whose life dealt them a crappy hand, I created a one-man show… and it toured theatres and universities in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia—and people were getting help.

But I had to keep talking because this isn’t just a Rivedal problem or United States problem… it’s a world problem.

I had to get other people to tell their stories, and I did—publishing blogs and books about real and hopeful stories of overcoming abuse, despair, suicide and more. Why? Because storytelling is one of our oldest traditions. Stories can make us laugh or cry… or both at the same time. They can teach, inspire and even ignite an entire movement. And storytelling can save lives—that could include the life storyteller or it could be the life of the person listening.

It’s been seven years since my crisis and life is definitely looking up. I love my work, I have an amazing family; but most important I’m able to give and receive help and love, and with hard work I’m able to stay mentally well—all because I took a risk and told my story.

No matter what society says, it’s COOL (as in “okay”) to talk about your feelings. Don’t ever forget that you are important, and your story needs to be heard so we, the human race, can learn how to live and love better. The world is a beautiful and complex tapestry and we need every single thread, your thread. We need YOU.

* * *

What can you do if someone you know is thinking of suicide? You can ask them: “Are you thinking of suicide.” The question is simply a gauge or meter to see how strongly they’re thinking of suicide or if they’re thinking of it at all. Listen to them. Listen, listen, and listen some more. Listening shows empathy and that’s a huge gift to someone in crisis. Don’t try to fix them or give answers or solutions. This generally doesn’t work even if someone isn’t in crisis and someone in crisis might see your “solutions” as uncaring, not listening, or absurd. Instead, as they speak, listen for clues that might make them feel grounded, important, and that they matter. Tell them that their life is important to you. Make sure they’re safe and not in any imminent danger. Be persistent. And refer to professional help—a counselor or therapist, a trusted advisor or mentor, a parent or guardian, a professor, or a crisis hotline.

In the US, you call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.