Doing everything “right” & changing the world: My mental health and Anthony Bourdain

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Anthony Bourdain and mental health
Photo by Bobby Fisher via Gourmet Traveller

The first time I encountered Anthony Bourdain’s writing was in his review of Queens Of The Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork.

I was a huge fan of the album, but this send-up struck me because of how much it had in common with Gonzo journalism. I had just finished writing my Master’s thesis on Michael Herr’s Dispatches whose writing style had a lot in common with Gonzo, too. I loved the way he could write decadently and pointedly at the same time, reaching delightfully hyperbolic heights while hitting home hard. But wait — isn’t this guy a celebrity chef?

Parts Unknown hooked me immediately, but not because of the great cinematography or the interesting places they chose to go, and definitely not because of the food. All of these things were great, don’t get me wrong. It was Bourdain’s writing and his willingness to tear away the veil a lot of travel shows keep between the tourist and real life, however, that made me realize there was something special here.

Just look at episodes like the one in Istanbul where he’s partying with young people on a rooftop who say they know a bomb could go off at any moment. And the most astonishing episode I remember: when he went to Palestine, and actually spoke to Palestinians, and stood up for them to an anti-Palestine Israeli. And of course the episode of No Reservations in Beirut where the whole crew was on lockdown as war broke out in the country. What about the episode about the heroin crisis? How about when he talks to Georgians who show where Russia has just surreptitiously stolen their land? The one in Mexico City where he interviews a journalist who can’t leave her house because of threats against her?

This is a food show???

Bourdain was a bad-ass, obviously. But what attracted me even more was that his writing was visceral and real. The intros and outros of shows where he would read his writing were my favourite parts. Unlike most plumped and packaged travel writing, Bourdain vivisected the places he visited and held the innards up for us to see. His awe was never forced; and he never pretended to like anybody who didn’t deserve it. His empathy was real, and he was genuinely humbled by the mothers who showed him how they make empanadas in lived-in kitchens in tiny towns at the end of dirt roads. His respect for humankind was enormous, while his disgust at those who would disrespect it probably even bigger. He worked to make sure nobody ever saw him as a neutral party. He never hesitated when something needed to be verbally gutted and hung to dry.

He was fiercely loyal and generous to those who deserved it. He was fierce to those who didn’t. I admire the hell out of that.

When I found out he took his own life, I was in shock. I still am. I cried all day. I’m crying now. My shock doesn’t come from a place of ignorance; I have clinical depression myself, and I’ve been medicated for a couple of years. I’ve worked hard to change my habits so that they help my mental health. Overall, it’s working. But there are still days, weeks, months when things are bleak. My shock at finding out about Bourdain wasn’t related to the fact that he had a “dream job.” Of course, he did have a dream job. But depression doesn’t discriminate. In fact, when things are going well for you in your career, depression can be worse. I don’t deserve this comes across one’s mind more often than I’m not depressed because my life is great. This has been said a million times over on social media, but depression doesn’t only affect those who haven’t got what they want out of life. Depression can make anyone feel like a failure.

He was doing everything someone should be doing in that condition to take care of themselves. But it didn’t matter.

My shock came from the fact that I know how hard he has worked in the past few years to help his situation. He became a competitive Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter (physical activity helps a lot, when you can bring yourself to do it). He had a kid, and even his divorce was amicable. He had a new relationship. In that way, he had “things to live for” and he was taking care of himself physically. He was doing everything someone should be doing in that condition to take care of themselves. But it didn’t matter.

This is part of the reason why you see a lot of backlash to tweets about suicide prevention hotlines. I called one yesterday for the first time, though I’ve felt suicidal many times in the past. Yesterday, seeing someone I thought was doing everything “correctly” still succumb to it, was what pushed me to give them a call. The person I spoke to was kind and understanding and very obviously had a “if person says THIS proceed to line 22” script in front of them. But that’s understandable; I was seeking help for something acute and we didn’t have time to get into highly important things. I thanked them for calming me down and ended the call. Then I saw this tweet:

Getting help for mental health is not enough. We live in a world where people don’t want to live in it anymore. We need to change the world.

– Nikki Wallschlaeger on Twitter

Like a slap across the face this tweet made my conflicting feelings come to a clear conclusion with a ringing in my ears. Seeing how hard Bourdain worked to give people voices when they needed to be heard, and seeing how deftly he tore down those who would silence those voices, leads me to believe that the contents of this tweet were at least part of the reason he made the decision he did in Strasbourg this week.

Bourdain was changing the world. He did change the world. And he still didn’t want to continue living in it. This is a gut punch for those of us with depression and suicidal thoughts. Having our friends reach out, getting treatment and working to change our habits, fighting every single day to stay alive — this is all really difficult when the world seems to be changing for the worse.

So what can you do if you want to help your friends with depression?

Fight for them. Don’t just check up on them. Get out and work to change the conditions that make life so unbearable for so many.

Fight for them. Don’t just check up on them. Get out and work to change the conditions that make life so unbearable for so many. Seeing you alongside me at a protest goes a lot farther than any coping mechanism I’ve discerned. Seeing you vocally engage with those who would vote to strip rights from people. Seeing you use whatever power you have, be it privilege or physical energy to just fucking tweet about this shit again goes farther than a “I’m here for you.”

Be there for us by being beside us, by fighting alongside us and for us, and not relying on the Bourdains of the world to do it all themselves. This world needs change by the many and I’m sick of hearing people’s milquetoast lamentations after the worst happens when they sat on their laurels, comfortable in their complacency. Your friends are suffering. We don’t want your pity. We want your work.

This post was originally featured here.

Comments on Doing everything “right” & changing the world: My mental health and Anthony Bourdain

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’m someone who is pretty vocal on my social media about difficult things and I just haven’t figured out a single thing to say about this because I don’t have experience being suicidal, in having a diagnosis of depression, in supporting someone that I knew was experiencing depression… I feel out of my element for helping and I felt like reposting a phone number was doing a disservice to folks, in a way. I’m trying to really listen to everyone who has been in this place and hear what is needed of me and not make it about me – sometimes a clumsy feeling mission.

  2. Thank you for saying what needs said! When you add up the numbers on what percentage of Americans are in drug or alcohol recovery (we can’t get the numbers for those still hiding their addictions) percentage on psychiatric prescriptions, the percentage who compulsively overeat or undereat, the percentage who have admitted to gambling addictions, sex addictions, gaming addictions, etc., the percentage incarcerated (whom for whatever reasons, failed to function within the system) and yes, the percentage of suicides, you have to see that no species could have survived very long with this level of dysfunction. Therefore this level of dysfunction is NOT natural, it’s evidence that we have built an unnatural, unbearable society. How many of our “mentally ill” are in fact inherently healthy people force to live under unhealthy circumstances?

  3. I always wish all the people fighting with mental illness could see what the world has to say about them, and how important they are, before they made the decision – one I believe is not selfish but rather the only response to being in such pain for so long and being stronger than anyone should have to be for all that time, on top of feeling like it’s our fault and no one can mitigate it. Obviously that’s not a possibility, unless we all really committed to the idea of treating each other like we were all in a personal version of It’s A Wonderful Life 24/7. Is love to be able to do that, but we all admire, respect, and love so many people and life gets so busy… but I think about it.
    Thank you for writing this.

  4. I started reading about him and some of his own writing after hearing about his death. I suspect he had been dealing depression for a very long time. Usually the first hints of pain or depression people see on the outside; their friend has been dealing with it a very long time. It’s part of them for some friends. Why would they need to check if they are ok?

    We should be allowing more expression of emotions, feelings and internal thoughts without being judged (I know that it was hard to talk to someone about something emotional without feeling being judged even my boyfriend when I was depressed. I took to writing it out if I couldn’t just say it.

    • I’m glad writing helped for you!

      Bourdain was very open about his demons, and yes he was depressed most of his life. Being open about emotions is vital, but we need to start working on changing the circumstances in our world that make people have those emotions while we validate those emotions.

  5. YES girl. It kind of drives me crazy when I see all these posts about suicide hotlines and pleads of “if you need help, get it.” These lines come from people who, although they may have felt depressed, have not experienced clinical depression. I’ve lived with depression for pretty much my whole life, I guess, and I explained it to my husband this way. It’s like always swimming in a very unpredictable ocean. Sometimes, the water is pretty calm, and I don’t have to put forth a whole lot of effort to stay afloat. I can just sort of calmly tread water, and I can even appreciate the scenery and maybe talk to people who may be in the water near me. But some days, some weeks, some months, there are WAVES. I am pushed around, and I am pushed under. Now, when you’re being pushed under by waves and you only come up for seconds at a time, all you can do is breathe. You can’t swim. You can’t call for help. You can only breathe. And if there is someone around you who can take your hand and pull you into the boat, it’s their responsibility to do that, right? Now, what I would like to know is, why are we, as a society, blaming the drowning victim? Why do we call the person who got lost beneath the waves selfish? If you see somebody drowning, please, pull. Them. Out. Don’t wait and expect them to call out for help, because, trust me on this, all they can do is gasp for breath.

    • And I apologize for improper gender ID. I mistakenly thought Catherine wrote this, and by the time I realized my mistake it was too late to edit. Sorry Caroline!

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