“On June 25, we are all going to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend and beloved Tony Bourdain,” Ripert says in a video shared thousands of times.
More than a year after he died by suicide in a hotel bathroom in Kaysersberg, France, Bourdain still occupies a place in our hearts — and perhaps always will until the day we shuffle off this mortal coil. On the first anniversary of Bourdain’s death on June 8, tributes and remembrances flooded Twitter, some so raw they were hard to read. Chefs and friends also piped up, including food-truck maverick Roy Choi, who probably spoke for many when he told People magazine, “I still can’t believe it.”
CNN, which was rewarded handsomely for taking a risk on Bourdain, has been working hard to make sure the “Parts Unknown” host’s memory does not fade to black. In May, the network released “Anthony Bourdain Remembered,” a coffee-table book of photos culled from the host’s countless trips, interspersed with quotes and anecdotes from famous chefs, writers and dedicated fans. CNN also has a documentary on Bourdain in the works, though it’s in the early stages of production.
It’s almost certain that Bourdain would despise these tributes and attempts to transform his messy life into some towering monument at which we can pay our respects. But, then again, these tributes are not meant for Bourdain. They’re for us, the survivors who have to carry on without his wit, without his surgical skill at cutting through artifice and without his utter disdain for life’s freeloaders, a group into which he seemed to lump himself and his TV career.
With time, it’s easy to forget or ignore the way in which Bourdain exited the stage: by his own hand, during a dark night of the soul that most of us will mercifully never know. When news outlets first started reporting Bourdain’s death, some underscored the rising rates of suicide in the United States, as well as ways to help those souls thinking about taking their own lives, including the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).
It’s human nature to want to recall only the good stuff, and there were, of course, many good things about Bourdain. He took us on journeys we never could have afforded otherwise, and he supervised our excursions at each step, willing to show us all sides of a country: the good, the bad and the violent. His gift was never to judge a destination by any one act or any one era. He took the long view of each place he visited. He could find beauty — and something good to eat — literally anywhere. This is one of his legacies and maybe the main reason we loved him so: He didn’t preach the gospel of open-mindedness. He practiced it.
But another of Bourdain’s legacies is one we don’t care to talk about: his suicide and the mental state that led him to that awful moment. Yet evidence suggests the more we ignore the problems that beset us and/or our loved ones — the fears, the shame, the fevered thoughts in the night — the more we contribute to the growing suicide rates. Talk, experts tell us, can help save lives.
I have been thinking about the role that others play in our mental health, even when every “instinct” rattling around our skulls tells us to isolate, turn on Netflix and forget about the world for a while. Kat Kinsman, the food writer who has become a patron saint to restaurant workers and managers by providing them a safe place to vent and find support, recently shared with me that there are more than 3,000 members of her Chefs With Issues Facebook group. That’s nearly four times the members that the group had on June 8, 2018, when we first learned about Bourdain’s suicide. There’s clearly a need for a sympathetic ear and guidance.
“At this point in time, to me his life is still inextricable from his death by suicide,” Kinsman wrote via email. “I work closely with people in the industry who are dealing with mental health issues. I have directly seen the blast radius of his sudden and senseless death. I was caught in it myself. I understand the impetus to wish to just remember the wonderful things about him — and they are many — but I don’t have that luxury right now, and I can’t say I think it’s entirely responsible to do so when people in the industry are still so actively suffering. I hope there is a balance in there somewhere.”
A place to talk is not, by itself, always enough. A friend of mine, a man I had once sought out as a mentor, committed suicide several years ago. He committed suicide even though he had countless friends who would listen, without judgment, to anything he had to say. He committed suicide even though he was a gifted therapist. He committed suicide after the last of his beloved Siberian huskies had died and he was alone with his worst thoughts.
As with my friend, I didn’t see Bourdain’s suicide coming. Of course, I didn’t know Bourdain like I knew my friend — or thought I knew my friend. I do remember the “Parts Unknown” episode on Argentina from 2016, the one that some reporters, in the wake of Bourdain’s suicide, treated as a portal into his deteriorating mental health. Maybe it was, or maybe Bourdain’s confessions from a psychiatrist’s couch were just a bit of reality TV shtick/comedy to underscore a fact revealed during the show: that Argentina “has the distinction of being home to more headshrinkers per capita than anywhere else in the world.”
Still, amid the tongue-in-cheek disclosures that bad airport hamburgers send him into a “spiral of depression that can last for days,” Bourdain did, in fact, reveal something important about himself. Outside the psychiatrist’s office, he told the shrink, over a drink, that “I’m not going to get a lot of sympathy from people, frankly. I have the best job in the world.”
“Let’s face it,” Bourdain continued. “I go anywhere I want. I do what I want. Look, that guy over there loading sausages onto the grill? That’s work. This is not so bad. It’s all right. I’ll make it.”
Bourdain’s perspective is probably not unique to those who have a front-row seat to the world’s miseries: They trivialize their own pain. They deem their own problems insignificant compared to those who really know suffering. They say their life is not so bad. That everything’s all right. That they’ll make it.
Until they don’t.
This is the part that scares me most: our ability to discount our emotional troubles until our emotional troubles eat us alive. Which is why I want to come clean, right here, right now: I struggle with depression. I was about to type that “I struggle with depression, too,” as if I have some insight into Bourdain’s medical records. I don’t. I struggle with depression, period.
I’ve tried to cover my depression with arrogance and anger. I’ve tried to cover it with alcohol, food, material things and work, lots of work. But none of this could change the fact that, ever since I could remember, I had no sense of personal value. I have carried this mental detritus around for decades, like a dead animal, the result of a childhood in which I was left to my own devices, untouched and unheard. It was an emotional vacuum that whispered to me, without a single word, what I was worth to those around me: nothing.
I’m telling you this because not telling you this is a sure road to destruction. I’m telling you this because I want to help destigmatize a condition that’s literally killing off people who make our world a better place. I’m telling you this because, if you’re a fellow sufferer, I hope you will find your way to a good therapist, as I have. I’m telling you this because I have so much left to give.
So Tony, my friend, rest in peace. Your death was not in vain, not to me.
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