Photo by Thomas Iannaccone/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock (6908974a)
Designer Kate Spade with a handbag of her own design on March 13, 1998 in New York
It’s such a terrible tragedy that we’ve lost Kate Spade. I was driving with NPR on and the moment I heard she’d committed suicide, my first thought was (and I even said aloud) “I’ll bet she had bipolar disorder.” I do that a lot, and too often, I’m right. Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and far too many more that you and I don’t hear about on the news because they’re not mega-famous. As someone who struggles with bipolar, I was deeply affected by Kate Spade’s death.
I’ve experienced first-hand how this illness can seduce you with the idea of ending your own life when you’re under the spell of mania or a mixed episode. For me it’s the mixed episodes that are the most frightening: you’re depressed and feel hopeless, but you’re manic too, so you’re obsessive, resourceful, impulsive and driven to take action. It’s a horribly toxic combination and the one that landed me in the mental hospital in 2013.
I can’t help but wonder what Kate was thinking, how she was feeling, in the moment she took her own life. And it’s a double blow to see that she, of all people, the queen of playful, bright, colorful designs had so much sadness and pain inside her. But that’s what bipolar is like. Some of the most beautiful, fun, whimsical, happy-looking art can come out of the same person who suffers from deep, dark, devastating depression. I thought I was alone in this specific reaction, but I came across a wonderful article in the Huffington Post by a woman who struggles with depression and felt the same way.
Since she died, media commentators are saying things like “she had it all, she was so successful, so adored by her fans, this is a shock.” Those people obviously don’t understand bipolar disorder, or depression. Just because your life looks and even is amazing, doesn’t mean you can’t lose sight of everything in the grip of bipolar disorder. This illness trumps (excuse my wording) everything else at times, it throws everything out the window: insight, perspective, knowledge, experience, and so on. It’s like being possessed by a demon whose sole aim is to kill you from within.
Kate Spade was a charismatic, successful, talented, beautiful woman who lived many people’s dreams. And it may have been her very bipolar illness that gave her the passion, the creativity, and motivation to accomplish what she did. That’s just something that comes with the territory. Don’t believe me? Just read Kay Jamison’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment. While it’s true that not everyone with bipolar disorder is a talented, successful creative entrepreneur, many many of those people also happen to have bipolar disorder. It’s the double-edged sword of being blessed with the positive aspects of mania and cursed with the wrecking ball of depression.
I hope this sad news helps get rid of the stigma that everyone with this bipolar is crazy, dangerous and unable to function in society. Maybe Kate Spade’s death will show people that suicide is a very real risk with bipolar disorder. I’m not saying Kate Spade didn’t take her meds or take care of herself, I don’t presume to know what exactly precipitated her suicide, but regardless I hope everyone learns the very valuable lesson: take care of yourselves and please, take your meds people!