This week, a friend of mine took her life. Out of respect for her family, I will call her Anna. Someone once called her a, “beautiful train wreck,” but as I think about her and the mental anguish of her life, I see her more as a canary in the coal mine than a victim of mental illness. For Anna was broken, yes, but she was also very wise. She could see that the world she inhabited was unloving, uncaring, yet didn’t have to be so. Anna’s despair killed her, and we can label it many things, but in the end, I believe she died from a broken heart.
Anna was lonely. Very lonely. She’s obviously not the only one. After a week of celebrity hangings, it’s clear that even when someone has “everything” — fame, fortune, success, marriage, children (as Kate Spade had) — they’re still as lonely as Anna, a single mother struggling to make ends meet in a housing market dead set against her. Anna’s life was the polar opposite of Kate Spade’s, yet in the end both women were unable to live with the pain inside of them, leaving behind children and loved ones. Money is something Anna always thought she needed more of, and there’s truth to that, yet money it appears isn’t the cure to this painful isolation in which the human spirit suffers.
It’s not easy being in relationship with someone who is suicidal. In Anna’s case, she didn’t hide it from me, and for the past three years would bring it up every time we talked. At first her musings on death scared me, and I wanted to save her. With time I realized I couldn’t talk her out of it, that someday she was probably going to kill herself, and all I could decide was whether or not I’d stay in relationship with her. For at some point, you have to either cut the cord with a suicidal person or dig in deeper. The danger is, if you enter deeper, you could be swept away with their pain and become obsessed with being their savior. I’m no savior. Never have been, never will be. Thus, I considered cutting her off and never speaking to her again.
Yet this is the heart of the negative feedback loop of mental illness — the person who is suffering reaches out and squelches everyone around them with their loneliness, driving most “healthy” people away. No one wants to be sucked into the abyss of suicide because deep down, each of us is hurting, and most people have entertained the thought of checking out at some point. To be with someone so obsessed with actually acting on this impulse is terrifying, and if you know you can’t save them, then what other choice do you have but to leave?
I’ve always been a person of the third — aka neutralizing the binary. It’s not either/or, but both/and. I had no desire to get sucked into Anna’s pain, no desire to save her. Yet I knew the root of her pain was loneliness, her belief that she had no one in life. Thus, to abandon her completely was to add to that pain. So, about three years ago I made a deal, first with myself and second with Anna. I absolved myself of any guilt I might have if and when she died. I saw that I couldn’t save her and that my friendship would never be enough to keep her alive, and remained friends with boundaries. I knew that when we talked, she’d tell me about wanting to die, and that hurt. So, I limited contact, but when we talked I’d listen; then ask if she was seeking help, knowing that she’d say she wasn’t; then I’d advise her to get better medical treatment, which she irregularly attempted, and lastly steer the conversation to those things she could do to make her life more at ease. The best times were when we’d discuss philosophy and society. Then she was out of her pain and her true intelligence and wisdom shown through.
But here’s the kicker, all Anna wanted was a community. My monthly phone calls weren’t going to provide that. She had other friends like me, who were managing to be in connection in their own ways. They too did their best to meet her needs. But what Anna was asking for, a community that she could blend into, was something none of us could provide. We’re all busy with work, running our own households, tending to our children. Yet we all long for what she was asking for, it’s just that each of us deals with the loneliness of the post-Industrial society on a spectrum.
Some of us write novels to live in worlds rich with community (that’d be me), others have workplaces where community is actually developed (I have that now as well, the school I work at is truly a working community), and others pour themselves into political causes or helicoptering around their children (did I just say that?) But none of these communities compare to the actual human experience we’re wired for — to live in small, working groups in order to meet the survival of said group as well as to create culture and technology. The irony is the more we cooperate within these working groups at solving the survival problem (housing, food, health and protection), the better we are at freeing some in the group to create art and culture and innovate novel solutions for said survival. Eventually we got so good at technical solutions for survival, we destroyed our practical need to be together as working groups. But emotionally, even neurologically, we still need to be together.
I’ve written about the loneliness of the nuclear family. It was a story that made the Top 20 on Medium that day, so I obviously struck a chord with many others. We’re lonely, even in our small society of husband/wife (or wife/wife, husband/husband) pairs. Imagine then, if you aren’t a part of a pair, and having to go at it alone. This is the case for most marriages, over 50% end in divorce, and more and more people are putting off marriage. But in a world where no other true community exists, where religious attendance is declining, and work is steadily becoming only about numbers and profits, all we have is to pair up. In Anna’s case, her marriage ended long ago, and she never really recovered from the loss of that dream. There are many reasons why marriages don’t work out, no one is to blame, but we’re negligent when we don’t acknowledge that to be alone in this modern world puts one at risk of deep, aching loneliness.
We seem to be wired, neurologically and hormonally, to work together in groups. The last time I spoke with Anna, she was going through a health crisis. Of course, her entire small group of friends came to her aid to help her, we were supposed to be organizing her upcoming surgery and meal plans this week, not her funeral, and she asked me why it was that none of us were there for her except in a crisis. It hurt to be asked that, I didn’t have a good answer for her at that moment. But I think I have one now. On the day I found out Anna had taken her life, I also got a text that another dear friend was in the hospital. The women were organizing fast, how do we care for his kids (his wife was at his bedside), how do we make sure they’re fed, who is helping who. The moment the crisis hit, the women were in action, working to make sure the family was cared for.
The same thing has happened for Anna’s son as a result of her death. Many people have been stepping up all week to help out with her funeral, to help her son, to help with details, to pray for her. I can’t even keep count of the number of folks who have reached out to me asking to take part. How then, with this many people who care, could Anna feel so alone?
She’s right, we only come together in crisis, but I don’t think that’s because we don’t care. I think it’s because we’re wired to do so, and not necessarily only in a crisis, but because a crisis naturally requires working together to make things right. Essentially, humanity is wired to work together. Before the Industrial Revolution, women worked together ALL THE TIME. We know they hauled laundry to the rivers on laundry day, ground corn and other grains together, spun wool together, weaved together, crushed grapes together. Each day of the week had a chore that the women gathered to do as a group, and in that way they coordinated the work, both to be more efficient and to BE TOGETHER. They sang to make the work feel lighter, told stories, arranged marriages, elected officials, and of course gossiped, all through their time working side-by-side. This isn’t a romantic plea to bring back such hard labor, we can’t go back in time. Rather it’s to acknowledge that while we’ve liberated ourselves from the back-breaking labor of the domestic sphere, we’ve also removed ourselves from one another. Each of us has her own laundry machine, her own stove and microwave, her grocery store to buy the grain.
We’ve even left raising the children to others to conquer to the workplace. In Anna’s case, she was a day care provider, so she was isolated even more from other women, taking their children as they rushed off, Starbucks in hand, to make it to work on time. The women would then rush to her at 5:00 in the evening, not able to stay and connect, but rather to get home and feed their children, put them to bed and then probably catch up on work once the kids were asleep. We’ve gone from working together to passing one another as we rush from one event to the next.
It appears this isn’t just a woman thing, men are suffering as well. The singular focus on profit and quarterly earnings within the workplace has destroyed entire towns as certain labor is sent overseas, thus leaving many unemployed, or creating an environment where you’re just a number, not a person. This affects all the genders. Suicide amongst middle aged men is on the rise, and younger men are taking out their anger at being isolated and lonely not only on themselves, but also communally with school and public shootings by males on the rise. Our kids hurt themselves and have more anxiety than ever.
Perhaps we’re all suffering from a broken heart. Special relationships, the pair-bond of the nuclear family, can’t save us. It’s too much to ask of one person to be an entire community. Best friends are special, but not enough either. We’re going to let each other down. Yet we need to work together, to build together, to create communities together. After the Industrial Revolution extracted men from the community to the factory to work, and then women followed to get a piece of the economic pie, religious communities filled in the gap. Now those too are failing. I’ve been wondering lately how the rise in suicide might corelate with the decline in religious attendance in western cultures. Unfortunately, it appears that the last little society, marriage, is also failing, yet as I mentioned, marriage really isn’t a replacement for community and this could be the very reason it’s losing relevance as well.
How can we meet our need for human connection in a post-Industrial world? This isn’t just about sex, playgroups or book clubs even. We want to work together, to build together, to have a purpose greater than our individual lives. We need to be tugged out of our shells and knit together at a heart level. And not just when there’s tragedy. Our economic lives are changing, we’re moving from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. Perhaps we can use this chance to build a new economy based on community, in whatever form that takes. This is an age where anything could happen. This adds to the uncertainty, but as Anna and the others who have died recently from a broken heart have shown us, we need to think on these things. They truly are the canaries in the coal mine. How can we learn from their loneliness? How can we create families and communities that hold people to the commitment of community? We’re all afraid of getting too close, yet loneliness is killing us.
Anna was beautiful, but she wasn’t a train wreck. She saw the world too clearly for her own good. I couldn’t heal her broken heart. No one could. Yet her message is relevant — in a world of plenty, she felt she had nothing. Suicide isn’t a communicable disease, but it is communal. One person’s broken heart affects us all, for as all the great religions teach, we are one in the heart of God.
Dearest Anna, I’m sorry that I couldn’t heal your broken heart, but as our friend told me yesterday, may your memory be a blessing. Thank you for the challenges you brought and for the righteous way you sought the truth. I hope your heart is one with love.