Years ago, in the midst of a bout of depression, I bought myself a Kate Spade day planner. The bright fuchsia floral-covered book was a reminder — there are better days ahead. Hang on.
For me, surviving the darkness of depression involves focusing on the good and beautiful in my life, the yet-to-be, and the hope and belief that things will get better. Spade’s style — fun, feminine and full of joy — seemed the antidote to a bad day, even if it couldn’t erase my depression.
Because the Kate Spade brand is so colorful and cheery, many people were shocked to learn that the iconic designer was found dead from suicide. After all, how could a woman who “has it all” — fame, fortune, family — take her own life?
Well, as a middle-aged woman who also appears to “have it all” (maybe not quite on the scale of Spade, but still), I’m here to tell you that when you suffer from depression, there’s no house big enough, no marriage committed enough, no bank account large enough, no family stable enough, no work motivating enough — and no one pill or treatment strong enough to insulate you from fears of failure and loss or from the “imposter syndrome” that creeps in when depression takes hold.
“It’s OK to not be OK.”
I heard that this morning on the radio in relation to Spade’s death. I believe it, but there’s a bitter truth we ignore: It is less OK for some people to not be OK. Often, the very people who need to know it’s acceptable for them to be struggling are the ones who are shamed, mocked or simply ignored for their struggle: women who are successful, women who are mothers, women who are well past the age of ingénue and whose mental health issues are not supposed to impact their lives.
Spade — successful entrepreneur, wife and mother — was one of those “have it all” women we’re supposed to envy, not worry about or watch over. And yet, she was at an age when she was most at risk. A study by the Centers for Disease Control examined the rates of suicide among men and women in 1999 and 2014 and found that women between ages 45 and 64 had the highest suicide rate among women in both years.
In a world where being a “have it all” woman is considered a sign of ultimate success, there are many women like Spade — ambitious, put together, organized, passionate about their careers and family — who also suffer from depression.
I know this firsthand because I am one of them.
It’s OK to not be OK — it’s the kind of phrase a nurturing older woman would say to anyone but herself. Did Spade feel like I do sometimes: that it’s not OK for me to admit I can’t always cope with everything life throws at me? That there are times when I desperately need to take care of myself and be heard? That some days I just can’t take care of everyone else because I’m barely hanging on to my own mental health?
In the years since I bought that cheery Kate Spade planner, I watched her iconic color palette pop up everywhere from department stores to my optometrist’s office and I discovered I shared a few things with the woman behind the style. Like the late designer, I was born in Missouri in the 1960s and majored in journalism in college. Also like her, I’ve been married for over two decades and had my first child at 42.
A 2002 interview she did with the Palm Beach Post highlighted some other similarities between us: We both had a dog named Henry (mine, a lab/sheltie mix; Spade’s, a Maltese), we both loved comfortable pajamas, peonies and cinnamon Pop-Tarts. Silly little details of everyday life, made all the more poignant because of her death.
We may never know the details of Spade’s life that lead to her death at age 55, but it isn’t hard to imagine that the same demons that have pursued me since my teens might have plagued her as well. Having grown up with a mother who suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, I’ve learned to be aware of my own bouts of depression and anxiety and to use all the resources available to me to combat it.
Last year, I asked my doctor for something to help me during times when I can’t manage just by using logic, distraction or exercise. And yet, “It’s OK to not be OK,” is not a phrase I’m comfortable using for myself. How can I be? I am a woman who has it all: a devoted husband, two adorable sons, a beautiful house in the suburbs, an education, disposable income and a freelance writing career that allows me to work from home as little or as much as I want. How can I ever not be OK? How dare I not be OK when so many others have so much less?
This is the thought process of a depressed woman whose very entitlements, combined with her age, make her — and her depression — invisible to others. I am a middle-aged wife and mom with all the accoutrements of suburban success, but depression keeps me from truly having it all because I do not have the ability to quiet my mind and find the calm I need.
How does a woman who “has it all” admit — to herself as well as others — that she still doesn’t have what she needs to be at peace? I have an abundance of riches, and still I want more. Depression feels like a shameful indulgence.
Letting go of what I cannot control has always been a problem, one that Spade seems to have shared. In an interview for the BUILD series, she spoke of worrying too much, and wishing she could worry less. I understand that sentiment all too well — especially at 2 a.m. when my brain won’t stop racing. What-if scenarios fill my thoughts in the hours when I am supposed to rest but can only worry.
I worry that I’m not doing enough for my family, my community or the world. I come up with reasons that I’m not a good enough mother, wife or writer. I fixate on the fear that time is slipping away and I need to do more for the people I love and be a better person, somehow. Be happy. Why can’t I just be happy? I have it all.
I have spent my adult life fending off depression, only to discover there is no permanent way to kill off that particular demon. There is no way to “fix” my brain even though I logically know there is nothing at all wrong with my life. Unfortunately, depression isn’t logical.
Instead, I do my best to keep my head above water with all of the resources I have available and ride the waves of sadness, loneliness and fear, paddling fiercely for a distant shore where life will even out again and I can keep my depression at bay for awhile.
As I hear the chatter and speculation about Spade in the coming days, I will try to focus on all of the good in my life right now and the good things I hope are yet to come. Most of all, I will remember that having it all doesn’t mean being above it all — especially the insidiousness of depression.