The Death of a Hero, Depression and its "Parts Unknown"

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It’s hard when depression takes your heroes. When mental illness kills off one, then another one and then one more. When the minds of the people you so greatly admire, of the people you could only dream of being, betray them in the most tragic of ways. Perhaps it is a cruel way of reminding us all of a lesson we haven’t yet learned, that happiness is not to be found in fame, or money, or power. That happiness does not lie in the hands of your partner, of your job, or your friends, or your family, it lives, grows and dies only within yourself. 

What is tragic about today is the realization that depression is a beast that we yet fully or even halfway comprehend. The tragedy in Bourdain’s suicide is that we all wanted to be him, yet he didn't want to be himself. He had a myriad of qualities that were easy to be desired; his charisma, his humor, his "perfect" job, his meteoric rise to fame: from a young adult-hood ridden with drugs and struggle to being the smartest, coolest, naughtiest “uncle” of America, who went out for beers and ramen one day, stumbled into a TV set and decided to stay there. 

Signs that Bourdain had a hard time coming to terms with how the hell he had gotten so famous and so "lucky", were evident in his self-deprecation, his undying humbleness, and his persistent honesty when talking about his tendency to self-destruct. His friend Dan Halpern told The New Yorker last year that “For a long time, Tony thought he was going to have nothing,”  “He can’t believe his luck. He always seems happy that he actually is Anthony Bourdain.”

Feeling lucky yet empty is one of the most unsettling things that people who have never suffered from depression will never truly understand. How your life can seem so charmed, so joyful, so "lucky" yet you feel an empty kind of pain that makes it impossible to look at life with perspective, to harbor happiness within yourself, to step outside of your problems and your darkness and feel grateful for everything you have. Depression robs you of the most vital and imperative part of your emotional mind which is being capable of seeing the big picture. 

Anthony Bourdain to me was all I could ever wish to be. He was impossibly thoughtful; in his politics, in his approach to new cultures, in his views on re-invention. He was also thoughtful in the way he knew when to be thoughtless when to stop thinking and just move, experience, savor. His job was to listen to people, to listen through their food, to listen through truly looking in the eyes of minds so different, so foreign to him. He tried to show us the most inconspicuous and controversial pockets of the world, not through self-righteous efforts to “understand” them, but just by experiencing and sharing them with love, the very opposite of that infectious disease that poisons so much of our politics, societies and own minds: fear.

I remember being around 17 or 18 and sitting in the shower, where I do most of my self-reflection in the form of a fake talk show where I ask myself questions in efforts to untangle the mangled wires of my mind. I sat there under the hot water, thinking Anthony ’s life story was purely fucking inspirational and that one day I would have a magazine designed for dazed and confused teenagers and young adults with advice by intrepid, independent mentors like him, people who took the road less traveled and consequently were rewarded by finding along the way little raw gems of brilliance. 

Anthony battled with addiction being a young cook in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a place of rascals and heroin. He then found himself in New York City in the 1980’s, perhaps the most prolific playground of pure debauchery in our recent history. After 20 years of guts, blood, burns, butter, pork-fat, booze and drugs in the chauvinistic, hedonistic, dark world of NYC restaurants in the 80s and 90s, he became the executive chef of the French restaurant “Les Halles” and found some success. However, it was not until he was 41 years old that he started to become the “Anthony Bourdain” we are all mourning today. A brilliant article he wrote for the New Yorker in 1999 titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”, is what catapulted him to fame and introduced the world to this loud-mouth, candid, whip-smart truth-teller of the world of ego-maniacal chefs and dirty food that remained relatively well-hidden behind the kitchen doors of New York's most expensive restaurants. 

Anthony’s career kept transforming, from rebellious writer to sensitive, thoughtful travel show host. His almost poetic episodes from his last project, CNN's Parts Unknown, were always filled with the most empathy, the most sincere compassion. He didn’t have to pretend to be diplomatic, he never was, he was just a charming guy with an addiction to frankness and candor and a sharp satirical mind traveling the world through food and kindness. After reading such an exciting life story like this is not difficult to fall into the eternal fallacy of asking yourself how does a person who has it all, who re-invented themselves into a not only a famous and powerful person but an incredibly kind one, want to take away his life?

This erroneous assumption that mental illness is exclusive to those who haven’t found “success” made me think of one of my other heroes, another genius very different from Bourdain but also strangely similar, David Foster Wallace. Foster Wallace, never knew, never wanted and ultimately never understood why in the world he became so famous. An incredibly gifted social recluse who just wanted to write got launched into the stratosphere of money and power but it is unclear if he ever really wanted that, my best guess is that he did not. His battle with depression which ultimately ended in suicide in 2008 was starkly contrasted by his strong moralistic, inspiring opinions on how one should live their life. These views are most strongly delineated in one of the most inspiring commencement speeches in history he gave the year before his death at his alma-mater Kenyon College, titled “This is Water”. In it, he gives the advice to step outside ourselves and our mundane problems and the importance of practicing gratitude in the most frustrating of situations: the check-out line at the supermarket or rush-hour traffic. But this mindset of putting things into perspective, that perhaps is where true happiness stems from, or so David Foster Wallace thought, is exactly what depression impairs you to practice. What is already not easy to do for a person that does not suffer from a mental illness in times of distress, pain or tragedy is almost impossible to do for a person wrestling with the ominous demons of depression.

Both Bourdain and Wallace lost this wrestling match to the hopelessness and blinding darkness of having it all yet being unable to see it and that is the uncomfortable truth that makes mental illness so difficult to talk about. It is not something that is curable by obtaining a fresh outlook, or meditating or getting new friends or moving to a town in the middle of nowhere, it is something incurable, a life-long wrestling match in which your mastery of it is not constant, but erratic. You don’t simply get better at fighting, the more you do it, it is a tangled battle. Both Bourdain and Wallace were heterosexual, white males who found the professional success most people die of old age working for and dreaming about but never achieve. They were the “lucky” ones, the ones with the upper hand at the game of life. But this is only true if we see them as mere figures in our society, as the tortured writer and rebellious travel show host. They weren’t the lucky ones because no one really is. Luck is yet, as Didion used to say another lie we tell ourselves in order to live. They were two souls that found themselves on a path that is rare, a path that more people than usual get to see but they were just like every other human with their minds full of knotted wires, contending a particular battle that millions of people, poor or rich, unknown or famous, “lucky” or marginalized are fighting. 

As a person who has suffered from this seemingly impossible to beat match, I can only offer one solution to all this. We have yet explored and studied the brain enough to understand fully what the hell is going on inside our knotted wires for any one of us to come out and say the cure to depression is Zoloft or yoga or a positive mind. The only thing we can do in our ride through this crazy little planet in this particular, insignificant frame of time, is to look at each other with love and not with fear. To talk about our problems, our insecurities, our lies, our desires to kill ourselves with the love for ourselves and one another we have for that first lover in High School or that song that marked you as a teenager or that book that changed your life, or the dog you selflessly take out every morning. The impossible wrestling match that is depression becomes a hell of a lot less hopeless, maybe, even I would have the audacity to say, beatable, if the people we love are around the ring, without the blindfolds of stigma but the clear eyes of love and compassion, cheering us on in the sidelines with selflessness and consideration. We need honesty and kindness and conversations with our friends and people whom we love in which we look each other in the eye with the same kindness amidst the unknown that Bourdain granted to every person he looked at during his travel shows and tell them that no matter what we will be there for them, that we love them, that we care. It seems simple, but in a world that increasingly champions the ones who repress their empathy and their sensitivity, leaving those who choose to feel deeply the most vulnerable, it is not an easy task but is one that feels imperative to take on with the fearlessness and the pure intentions Bourdain put into the work he gifted to the world.