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
- You can only fake it for so long before the shell starts to crack, and
- 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.