Underneath my yellow skin

Anthony Bourdain and the legacy of depression

Content Note: In this post, I’m going to talk frankly about suicide, suicidal thoughts and ideation, and severe or chronic depression. Please don’t read if these things are trigger points for you because I want you to take good care of yourself.

I read about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide the first thing when I hopped on social media on Friday. I saw one of the people no my Twitter TL posting a clip of Bourdain and saying it was a good way to remember him. With a sinking heart, I Googled Anthony Bourdain and found out that he had died earlier that morning. For whatever reason, I immediately thought it was suicide, and I was saddened when I saw it was true. I felt even worse when I read that it was his good friend and fellow chef, Eric Ripert, who found him. I can’t imagine being in that position, and my heart hurts for Ripert.

I’ve always loved Bourdain, ever since I first saw No Reservations many years ago. His lust for life, food, culture, and people (not to mention alcohol and cigarettes) was fully displayed wherever he went. What I loved best about him is that he would approach every culture with respect, not viewing them as a curiosity or specimens in a zoo. He showed the good and the bad of the country he was in without sensationalizing it in either direction. He was a good ally, even though he probably would never use that word or recoil in horror if he heard himself being described in that fashion, which is one reason he was a good ally. But, this post isn’t about that. I will write more on that later, however.

I watched No Reservations voraciously, living vicariously through Bourdain. I like to travel, but I also…don’t. I’m very much a homebody, and I have a hard time with the actual travel. I love visiting new places and exploring, and very much like Bourdain, I prefer not doing the touristy things. I’d rather eat where the natives eat, see the funky local stuff, and go way off the beaten track. I am never as bold as Bourdain was, though, as my anxieties oftentimes got the best of me. I loved the way he would eat anything placed in front of him, and he was gracious about it, even if he didn’t care for it. He was a good model of how you should act when you visited another country. He was the opposite of an ugly American, though he’s painted as a bad boy in his own country. Or was when he was younger, at least.

I hadn’t watched his shows recently, but I saw him being fierce about #MeToo, which started because he was dating someone who had been one of Harvey Weinstein’s victim. Again, I will write more about that later, but for now, I’m going to focus on the suicide. Every time I saw a tweet or quote from Bourdain standing up for #MeToo, I smiled. Even though I no longer watched his show much, I still had a soft spot for him. And, yeah, I’ll admit I had a massive crush on him when I first started watching the show, and I still found him intriguing years later.

So, the news of his suicide hit hard. Really hard. I was surprised by how hard it hit me.  Like, I felt a pain that didn’t make sense given that I didn’t know him or even follow him recently. I also had the immediate thought of, “He’s the last one I’d–” before I cut it off. I knew better than anyone that depression could happen to anyone, that it didn’t give a shit about your status. I tweeted:

I’ve written many times about my depression, my suicidal thoughts, and my struggle to stay alive. I’ve talked about the notion of it being selfish versus self-centered (mentioned briefly in this post), and I’d like to unpack that even further now because I’ve seen people say how selfish Bourdain was to kill himself. Oh! Before I get into that, while I was reading about Bourdain’s suicide, I found out that Kate Spade killed herself, too, a few days prior. I am not a fashion/accessory gal by any stretch of the imagination, but I liked her whimsical style. It also reinforced the idea that depression is the great equalizer and it doesn’t give a shit about how rich, famous, or important you are. Anyway, the idea that suicide is selfish is pervasive, and it’s one that needs to be pushed back against because it’s harmful to people who are in such pain, but also because it’s simply not true in the traditional sense of the word.

“How could someone do that to the people who love them?” is the common cry, and while it’s understandable, it’s, well, let me say, misguided. My usual rejoinder is that it’s not selfish as much as it’s self-centered, which depression absolutely is, but in the wake of Bourdain’s suicide, I’ve been thinking about my framing as well. I’ve decided that while it’s technically true, it’s not helpful to frame it in that way, either. I mean self-centered purely in a neutral reading of the term, whereas it can’t help but be seen as a negative. After much pondering, I’ve decided that a better way of saying it is that it’s all-absorbing. Depression, I mean. Let me tell you what severe, chronic depression was like for me so for those who have never experienced it, you can hopefully get a whiff of what it’s like.

When I was deep in depression, my mind was constantly flooded with negative thoughts about myself. “You’re fat.” “You’re hideous.” “You’re grotesque.” “You’re toxic.” “You’re not worthy of being alive.” “The world would be better off without you.” “You should just die.” These were the most common ones, and they were playing on repeat 24/7. At the time, I slept maybe four hours a night, and my sleep was filled with nightmares. I even died once in my sleep, being murdered by a Tyrannosaurus Rex/woolly mammoth-like creature, which was a really interesting experience. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to sleep, mind you, but I just couldn’t. It didn’t matter how exhausted I was during the day (and I was plenty exhausted); once I laid down, I was wide awake.

During that time, I managed to do what needed to be done, but if I didn’t have any obligations, I’d lie on the couch for hours, not moving. This was before I had my cats, and it was just me stewing in the toxicity of my own thoughts. A side note: depression manifests itself differently for everyone. One thing I really hate when depression is talked about is that the laundry list of symptoms gets trotted out. “Lethargic, can’t get out of bed, doesn’t bathe, doesn’t eat, slow speech, a loss of interest in hobbies.” They can be true, and some certainly are for me, but others aren’t. In addition, they don’t all manifest at the same time or in exactly the same way. For me, when I was out and about in the world, you would never be able to tell I was depressed unless you were a close friend of mine. I was cheerful and funny, and I interacted like a normal human being. It’s only when I couldn’t fake this that I completely hid myself from the world in general.

During that time, as I navigated my way through the world, I saw all the ways I could kill myself. It was especially bad while I was driving. I would see a median and have a sudden almost uncontrollable urge to drive into it. There were times when I literally had to fight myself for control of the wheel. Doing it several times on one drive was exhausting. I didn’t want to die, per se; I just didn’t want to be alive. I’ve said this a million times, but my negativity actually kept me alive. I was convinced whatever was on the other side of life was worse than life, so that’s a big reason why I never killed myself. Another reason was because I was never brave enough to kill myself. Yes, I’m calling it brave because while it’s drastic, it is a solution to the problem of terminally being alive.

I know for people who’ve never been depressed, it’s probably uncomfortable to read this sentiment. How can it be brave to kill yourself? How can life be so unbearable that the idea of death is a welcome relief? I’ve tried to explain this in the past, but I’ll give it another shot. Imagine the most unbearable pain you’ve ever experienced. Now, multiply this pain by ten. Now, imagine that nothing you’ve done mitigates the pain. I have to note, I wasn’t in pain, exactly; I was deeply numb. It was the kind of numbness that was protective as it covered such massive pain, it would have killed me if I experienced it all. But, the pain was there beneath the numb surface, and the numbness itself hurt me in a way that I can’t quite express. Anyway, think about living with this kind of pain constantly*. It’s all you can think about from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed. No matter how you tried to put it out of your mind, it found its way back to the forefront of your brain.

Every part of you aches. Every breath you take hurts. Every movement brings you pain. It amplifies until you’re nothing more than a ball of pain. You will do anything, and I mean anything to get it to stop. It’s with this mindset that suicide starts making sense. To someone who is severely depressed, life is the problem. What is the solution to life? Death. I’m sorry if that sounds flippant, it’s gallows humor. It’s also true. See, when I was depressed, life was a burden. It was something I did because I had to, not because I wanted to. If I could have gotten out of it without any ramifications, I would have.

Another thing I have to emphasize about depression is that you cannot reason with it. At all. I’ve seen people say, “How could Bourdain do that to his friends and family?” Or more specifically, “How could he do it to his daughter?” They list all the reasons why he should have been on the top of the world, and, yes, if you look at it rationally, he certainly had it all. As I’ve hopefully made clear throughout this post, depression doesn’t give a fuck about that. It doesn’t give a fuck about anything. It lies, but it’s so fucking persuasive in its lies. Since depression springs from the part of your mind that knows all your weak points, it’s no wonder it’s so damn fucking convincing.

Know this if you’re dealing with a friend who is severely depressed: you can’t talk them out of it. More bluntly, you’ll make it worse if you try. By presenting them with a list of reasons they should be happy to be alive, you’re underscoring the shame they’re probably already feeling. Plus, you’re not telling them anything they don’t already know. In addition, nobody likes to be told that they should be grateful for what they have, and it’s double-fold for those who are depressed. See, we already castigate ourselves enough for our depression; we don’t need someone else to do it for us as well. You have my sympathies, however, because it’s fucking hard to deal with a friend who is seriously and persistently chronically depressed. It’s draining, and it’s OK for you to set boundaries. In fact, it’s more than OK, it’s necessary. Here is a comic I love that shows the best thing you can do for such a friend sometimes.

The other thing we need to do is stop the stigmatization of depression and suicide. Depression is a mental illness, and it’s not something someone does to themselves. It’s not something you can just pull yourself out of with positive thinking or other such bullshit. It takes therapy, medication, alternative options such as taiji, and a shitload of time. There is no ten easy ways not to be depressed list, and god knows, I’ve tried all the suggestions. It’s hard to talk about suicide. I should know. Even though I’m doing it now, there’s still a small voice in the back of my mind saying, “Hey, shut up. You shouldn’t be talking about that.” It’s easy to sweep it under the rug and pretending it doesn’t exist except when such an iconic figure like Bourdain is involved.

I have more to say about this subject, lots more as it turns out, so I’ll stop this here and pick it up in my next post. Please take care of yourself and those around you. We need you here!




*I know people who have chronic pain problems probably better understand what I’m talking about.

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