Jeneé Osterheldt

Superwomen like Kate Spade smile to hide the pain. Time to hang up the cape and live

Kate Spade was a wunderkind.

And like most successful women, she was expected to smile. So she did. When her body was found on Tuesday, a shock wave shook the world.

Kate Spade died by suicide? She had it all, everyone said.

Kate was happily married and making millions in her early 30s. She couldn't find the kind of handbag she wanted, so she made the bags of her dreams, cheeky yet sophisticated. Her structured and bold, bright silhouettes broke the legacy of neutrals.

She lived colorfully. And her bags had fun secrets to hide.

Isn't that the way of independent women?

We are strong. We lead. We are go-getters who grit through the pain and maintain grace in public. "Good vibes only" is the motto. Never let them see you cry.

Reta Saffo, Kate's big sister, told The Star on Tuesday that Kate had struggled with depression. She self-medicated for the last few years and wouldn't seek treatment because she didn't want to hurt the "happy-go-lucky" Kate Spade brand.

Like many women, she hid behind her mask of success. We keep trying to do it all, said April Jackson, director of advocacy and recovery services for Mental Health America of the Heartland.

"I thought I was a superwoman," she says. "Sometimes you need someone to hold your hope for you because you can't find it. I had to hang up the cape and knock down my perceptions and ask for help."

We all need to check in on even our strongest friends. There's an assumption of well-being attached to happy faces and dollar signs.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16.2 million adults experienced at least one major depressive episode.

I've felt this kind of sadness. It lingers for weeks. You don't want to get out of bed. You want to be around your friends, but you just can't. So you roll into a hidey-hole. Or you go out and pretend you're having the time of your life while something bitter eats away at your insides. At least that's how it was with me.

I didn't know Kate well. Two years ago, we spent an hour on the phone for an interview. The Kansas City girl celebrated her Midwest roots even as a New York woman of fashion. She proudly told me she was 53.

We met a few days later and gushed over each other's outfits at Halls in Crown Center and hugged like old friends. She glowed with the kind of energy that embraced strangers as friends.

And she said her daughter's name no less than a dozen times in a single conversation.

Kate sold Kate Spade in 2006 and left the company a year later, all for her daughter. She returned to the fashion world in 2016 with a new name, Kate Valentine, to match her new brand, Frances Valentine, inspired by her daughter, Frances. It's a family name carried by Kate's dad and brother. Her daughter was 11 then, and Kate thought she'd struck the work-life-mom balance.

"I think what's nice is that she gets to see both the stay-at-home mom and the working mom and know there is an option," Kate told me. "One is not better than the other. It's my choice and that's amazing. And even though we're launching the new brand, she is my priority. And I'm still making time for class mom duty."

After news of the apparent suicide broke, I heard someone ask how she could do that to her daughter. My jaw dropped. Someone else claimed that when you have kids, you have to just push through the pain. It made me think of how we look at childbirth, celebrating the women who forgo meds as their bodies experience miraculous agony. In our culture, swallowing the hurt is heroic.

But this type of grit is killing us.

Don't question Kate's love of her daughter. Question how you frame depression and suicide.

"Depression doesn't have a face," April says. "It doesn't matter how much status you have, how much money is in your bank account, how many people love you. When people are depressed, sometimes they can lose themselves. Sometimes it is so difficult for them to process reality, and they get stuck. And sometimes they hide it because of the stigma attached to mental health."

Think about it: Kate was seen as a strong woman, a woman with confidence and style. Why can't we share our broken bits and still be easy, fun and breezy?

"You're living in this neon glittery world, and a lot of people can look to you as an example, and you're more than willing to help," says Whitney Manney, a Kansas City fashion designer. "People will look at your achievements and shame you for being in a low moment."

I'm not famous nor a designer. But I used to be the strong one in my sister circle, the curator of good times and the planner of parties. While sitting at brunch on a Sunday last summer, an old friend told me our friendship had hit a rough patch.

"Your divorce, your mother's death," she said. "The last couple of years have been hard for us." Us?

A decade of friendship, of me lifting their spirits and lighting the candles on birthday cakes, and my grief was too hard for them?

Maybe it was. But we can't afford to hide our tears in our purses anymore. There's no drinking away the pain in party dresses.

Our life depends on smashing this toxic idea of "good vibes only" and nurturing our brokenness so we can find the hope on the hard days when it all feels too heavy.

Don't just live colorfully. Live truthfully. Live lovingly. Live another day.

Get help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255

Missouri Mental Health Crisis Line 888-279-8188

Johnson County Mental Health Center Crisis Line 913-268-0156

Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist. On Twitter: @jeneeinkc
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