Parts Unknown: How Anthony Bourdain’s Death Prompts Me To Question My Life
Thinking (and Writing) About Suicide and Survival
Warning: These are my thoughts and feelings related to suicide. I am not a professional therapist or social worker. I am making observations and writing about them as they relate to my own thoughts and experiences. But they might not be what you need right now. If you are feeling suicidal, talk to a real professional like those on the suicide hotline:
At around 7:30am on June 8, 2018, my watch told me that Anthony Bourdain was dead in Paris at 61 by apparent suicide. I squinted and did a double-take. I had to read the message again. Suicide? Bourdain? I immediately texted my partner, who is a food stylist and photographer. Her reaction was raw and immediate. She went food shopping, built a beautiful charcuterie plate with crackers and fruit, and then spray-painted the whole scene black, tray, flowers, and all. It looked like something Death might serve at a dinner party. It was her version of putting on a black veil, her way of mourning the loss of someone who shared her passion for food, and could articulate it better than most persons alive. And now he was gone.
I don’t know how to write about suicide. It is the ultimate dichotomy. To write about suicide feels reckless and dangerous, liberating and foolish. On one hand it is the saddest, loneliest, act. On another, it is myopic and selfish. It can be deliberately and meticulously planned. It can be emotionally spontaneous. It can be cowardly and it can be brave. There must be as many kinds of suicide as there are people. If life is a ticket to ride, then suicide is the emergency stop. It’s perhaps the last thing you can control, the final authority to say, “I’m out!” Or maybe it is a compulsive lunge for the exit, brought on by a momentary surge of uncontainable emotion and a need to get off the train. Who can know?
Yet everyone affected by suicide—everyone left over, everyone grieving—gathers the evidence. They think it will help them understand, make sense of things. They look for reasons. They mine their own ideas of themselves. They reference psychology, poetry, religion… They search for patterns and for meaning.
He Must Have Killed Himself Because of:
- A Bout of Depression.
- Dark thoughts.
- A Fit of Rage.
- Chronic Anxiety.
- A Recent Loss.
- Imposter Syndrome.
- Mental Instability.
- Mental Illness.
- A Diagnosis of a Terrible Disease.
- Past Trauma come to Light.
- Unbearable Emotional Pain.
- Unbearable Physical Pain.
- An Unspeakable Mystery.
But who are we to know? It’s a fictional projection of our own inner-workings, superimposed over a now-silent victim. What we blame suicide on says a lot more about us than about those who died. We say suicide is selfish, and then we make it about ourselves.
And that’s the thing: suicide makes us think about our own self-worth. Who am I, compared to Anthony Bourdain – the articulate, empathetic, foul-mouthed gadabout? I looked up to him. I idolized him. I took pleasure in his adventures, I took pride in his explorations of places I knew. He was someone that affected me. I always thought of him as brave. I always thought of him as an example of a good man. I always thought of him as a creative person who was successful without selling out, someone that could be himself.
But all of these ideas could be wrong. I didn’t know him. I just pretended to because it made me feel good. I have tethered parts of my identity to Anthony Bourdain and his death is dangerous to me, because those parts are now in jeopardy. They are being dragged into the unknown, into places painful and dangerous. Into places all-too-human, yet seldom visited.
Human emotion is complex and volatile under the best of conditions. Human emotion is impossible when your brain isn’t working the way it is supposed to. My own brain has been sabotaged many times. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression my entire life without really being able to name it. And then I had a stroke which scrambled my emotional control centre and threw me into the deep-end of adolescence again at the ripe old age of 40. It took me five years just to stabilize. I call those my ‘forty-teens’. And the lack of control I felt during that time compounded my shame and self-imposed isolation.
But I tried. I tried to make sense of things through self-medication, self-guided meditation, self-forgiveness, self-help, self-destruction, self-reinvention, self-discovery: all the selves. But looking inward will never get you outside. When selfishness didn’t work I tried therapy and medication. Eventually things equalized. But I really suffered. And those I loved the most also suffered. And I found it almost unbearable that I should be the cause of that suffering. A few times I tried to blow-up my life so that I could be cast away to a deserted island to live out my fate without causing pain—which ironically, blindly, hurt everyone around me.
And yet I never tried to kill myself. I say this not with pride, but with relief. It’s hard to speculate what could have tipped the scales. I am very, very lucky. My family still loves me, despite my best efforts to test them. And I still struggle, just not as much. Even with all of this support, life can be unbearably difficult. Why is that? What is the purpose of these mental triggers, this emotional volatility, this self-doubt? To what end? Surviving these flaws is what makes us human. And not surviving them? Perhaps that makes us the most human of all.
“You can get caught up in something that’s beyond you, and never understand why. The world we are part of now is difficult to accept, unimaginably difficult. I don’t know if I accept everything even now. I don’t know how I can. But acceptance moves past denial, and maybe there’s defiance in that, too.” — Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance: Book Three of the Southern Reach Trilogy
So I keep trying. I will take the things I love about Anthony Bourdain, and I will do my best to embody them. I will attempt to write better, listen more, and stay open, even in the face of a sometimes cruel world. I will share my pain, my struggles, and celebrate my joys and creations. I will stay alert for my friends and family, I will be strong and assist when I am able, and I will lean on them when I am not. I will continue to be self-critical and aware of my own privileges and biases, yet open and engaged to new experiences.
“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” —Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
I miss you, Anthony Bourdain. You blazed a trail, now you can rest in peace.