Bourdain was My Tribe

Many friends were quick to eloquently share their thoughts about the loss of Anthony Bourdain; quotes from him that summed up the essence of the person he showed the public – a person I do not doubt was very close to the man he really was. But, it’s taken some time to articulate how I feel. I’ve needed some time to digest this loss.

My immediate reaction of shock and deep sadness was not unlike the one I had when I learned of Robin Williams’ suicide. The idealism of “success” and what that word means was quickly replaced with thoughts of my personal awareness of and familiarity with depression, and the reality that

  1. You can only fake it for so long before the shell starts to crack, and
  2. When one is experiencing clinical depression, it’s not a matter of changing your attitude, lifting your chin up, or taking a pill.

Clinical depression, the kind that leads to so many suicides, comes from such a deep, dark, seemingly infinite place that no drug, hug, or kind word, success or fame can touch. If you haven’t experienced this kind of deep internal anguish – either personally or vicariously through someone close to you – you don’t know how helpless and free falling it feels.

Without knowing Anthony Bourdain personally, I knew that he struggled with depression. Like so many who suffer, his language and personality even in his lightest moments, always had a cast of shadow. His quick-witted, snarky, at times self-deprecating humor, his intolerance for bullshit that was equally matched with a depth of gratitude and humility, gave him away.

He never experienced the world on the surface. He always dove deep and took the world into him; each meeting, meal, culture, person, and story that was shared with him he took into himself and then he turned around and shared it with anyone who would listen. He wanted to connect people, and bring them along with him on his journey.

I confess that I haven’t actively followed his journey in recent years. His shows were on channels that my cable package didn’t cover, and then when he wound up on CNN, I had lost touch with his comings and goings. But I always admired his work.

I loved his raw, unfiltered delivery. I loved how sincere his reactions were. Whether he loved or hated something or someone, he left no one guessing about his feelings. He was as quick to applaud and laud as he was to shred through something he disapproved of. But when he was inspired or touched, he was soft… gentle… kind. He chose words that conveyed his sensitive soul; words like “awe” and “gratitude” and “changed.”

He wasn’t riding life. He was swimming through it. The tough New York chef, former drug addict/alcoholic exterior belied a tender heart that felt everything.

What does all of that mean to me? Well, that’s how I experience life. Raw, unfiltered, at once snarky/sassy and tender/deeply. I come from a family history of depression. I have struggled through bouts of it and watched people I love fight for every minute. When I travel, I connect with a place through its people, food, history. I share my experiences in the hope of connecting people, to help them feel connected to each other, to leave them saying, “Yeah, me too.”

I felt that even though I never had the fortune of calling him friend, even though we never met, I knew him and he knew me. We were part of a tribe that is rough around the edges, sometimes awkward, frequently uncomfortable, but always pushing through personal comfort zones and boundaries to feel life wash over us.

And now one more of us is gone.

I’ve had a lot of death in the last 12 months. I’ve lost people very close to me: my mother, two uncles, my cat, who would have been at my side to comfort me through my mother had she been alive. My best friend’s father. I should be numb to this loss. I didn’t know him in person. Why should some celebrity chef leave me feeling grief? Because we keep losing good people to depression and there is no magic answer.

It’s not about awareness, reaching out, having a hotline or a miracle drug. I think even Anthony would say that, in his case, it wasn’t a failure of the mental health system – there are so many other failures there, but this is not one of them. Suicide is a very personal, individual decision. It is no one’s fault. Whether it’s Anthony Bourdain or military Service men and women, or our own family, we feel helpless and so we grasp to solutions – we pound our fists in frustration, demanding that things MUST improve.

I don’t think there is anything to be fixed. I don’t think there’s any sweeping change to demand here. Life is hard and I think most of us feel like it’s gotten harder, and that there’s really no end in sight – except our own end, which would end the pain of this life. But in my belief system, death is not the end of suffering, it’s only an example of it. There is no escape from it, it just takes on another form, until we are able to release our attachments and become enlightened. (It’s ‘that simple’ – ha!) I think there are just some souls, and some that happen to be in the public view, who could not take the pressure of life anymore. I understand that feeling, to wish for some relief from it, and I know how awful that bottomless, endless, terrifying depression feels.

Some of us are willing to keep fighting. Some of us are not. I think it really is as simple as that.

I think all we can do, the best we can do, is honor their memories, drink life up with a bendy straw, take it into us and try to remember that we are not alone and to keep reassuring the people that move in and out of our lives that they are not alone either.

2 Comments

  1. Kunzang says:

    While this is beautifully written, I have to disagree. As someone suffering from clinical depression, who has also ideated suicide, medication – as you say, taking a pill- and other treatments – can make a profound difference. Had I i allowed myself to be diagnosed and medicated 40 years ago, I would have lived an entirely different life. Medication can be transformative and indeed remove the thoughts of suicide. My mother and sister, whose clinical depression was/is more severe than mine both attempted suicide, spent time in psychiatric hospitals and ended up having shock treatment. My mother told me it saved her life (I was 6 years old at the time, so was pretty unaware of why she was absent for a period of time). I witnessed the extraordinary change in my sister.
    We do need to talk about mental illness and it’s consequences, and I applaud you for speaking out. But equally, I disagree that nothing can be done and.its just that some people don’t want to keep fighting. Depression is a disease that has the potential to be treatable, and everyone should have the opportunity to know about, receive and be supported during the process of exploring options.
    I also, as a youth worker way back when, visited a young woman we were working with, in her apartment one evening. That night she committed suicide. I was not educated enough to recognize the signs that suicide was imminent, and while I do not consider myself responsible for her death, I do believe had an intervention been made, her death that night would have been averted. Who knows if at some other time she would have tried again – the point is we can and should do something to understand depression, and how best to assist someone when they are in that darkest space.
    Suicide has terrible karmic consequences, the details of which I cannot recall. But you are ending a precious.human rebirth, and that is very negative. So as practitioners committed.to ending the suffering of others, not increasing it in future lives, then if we can be familiar with how best to intervene, then we are better equipped. I cannot imagine a Buddhist teacher saying nothing can be done.
    The suicide rate has increased significantly in this country over the past decade. It went up in every state except Nevada. The rate for women grew two times faster than for men. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, as to the whys, and what needs to be changed so rhat this is not considered an easy,acceptable option.
    Specifically for Bourdain, since his death I have read of horrific things he did to animals as part of his raw exploration of cultures, like cutting the heart out of a living duck, and eating a living octopus, and then crushing it’s brain with his teeth. From my perspective, engaging in animal abuse is unacceptable. Period. Not even in the name of immersion in a culture. You can make the choice to observe but not participate. Perhaps the negative karma he must have accrued with these acts was itself a contributinfg factor in his depression and the decision to kill himself. I dont pretend to know that, I have no understanding of karma, I am just saying every cause has an effect.

  2. Kristin says:

    Kunzang, first, I would like to thank you for sharing your experience and for fighting the fight every day. I am so glad that you are here on Earth to share your wisdom, and I’m grateful that you have explained the karmic consequences of suicide that I was unable to articulate. Second, I want to explain that I am not dismissing awareness, intervention, treatment, and medication as possible solutions for someone with depression and suicidal thoughts, nor diminishing the positive experiences anyone you or anyone who struggles has had. But as someone who has experienced both personally, I also feel that it takes something… a spark, however faint, within the individual for any of that to work. In my darkest hours, I still found a will to survive and carry on. Eventually, that became strength, and those dark hours are long behind me now. My point is that there is no pat answer for a struggle that is so individual and personal, and, sadly quite often held privately, out of reach of answers and solutions. Thank you again for your words and for being in this world. Om Mani Pedme Hung

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