Anthony Bourdain and Grandpa
The Fine Line Between Brilliance, Madness and Suicide Prevention
I’ve always heard there’s a fine line between brilliance and madness. When I think of Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain, I have to agree. They were geniuses in their fields, and made our lives so much richer, and yet their gifts weren’t enough to stop them from committing suicide. How tragic their mental illness proved more powerful than their abundance of creative talent, and all it afforded. Their extraordinary minds were tortured, and some might say broken, pushing them to choose to die because life was too painful. A dark and menacing force extinguished their bright radiating light, but did they have to die?
I was sixteen when my beloved Grandpa jumped from the fourteenth floor of his Beverly Hills high rise; old enough to question why someone who seemingly had it all — his physical health, tremendous business success, family and friends- would commit suicide. Grandpa’s method insured his suicide attempt would work the first time, unlike his father’s unsuccessful effort. My great-grandfather slit his throat after losing his fortune during the Great Depression, only to end up in a coma in a private hospital.
Since Grandpa’s suicide in 1987, I’ve thought a lot about why someone who had such a full life, and was loved by so many, would choose to take his own life. My chance to find out came when I turned forty, and I was finally allowed to look through Grandpa’s high-rise after his third wife passed away. Alone in Grandpa’s Wilshire Boulevard corner apartment, with the million dollar views of Bel Air, the Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood sign, I began my search. I knew mental illness could be inherited, and about the unfortunate legacy of four suicides in my immediate family. I also knew Mom had her physical health and was loved by many, but also suffered from severe mood swings. Was she on track to becoming the fifth family member to take her life? Would I be the sixth?
In Grandpa’s office, hidden below his old business files, I uncovered an unfinished manuscript. I nearly fell from my seated position, because Grandpa ironically intended his story to be titled “Survivor.” I devoured his writings, never looking up as hours passed, when I should’ve gotten home to my kids. Robert Greer, a charismatic Manhattan real estate mogul and raconteur came back to life. Because I already knew the ending, I read between the lines, with a magnifying glass powered by a deep curiosity from where I came. I looked for clues, guideposts of where Grandpa went wrong. I was desperate to break the cycle I hoped to neither inherit, nor pass on to my beautiful daughters.
With the benefit of hindsight, my metaphorical light shone bright on Grandpa’s hypochondriasis, as I recalled the cocktail of pills he took to quell his nerves. His sexual conquest boasting was penned for posterity, likely not meant for me, but rather to fuel his fragile ego and make him feel better about aging. Grandpa’s neurosis and narcissism combined with his high intelligence, a brain that never shut off, causing him to suffer a massive nervous breakdown. It took everything for him to crawl out of Cedars Psych Ward. The subsequent psychotropics he was prescribed and the electric shock therapy didn’t work.
Grandpa’s words, and even the ones he left out, allowed me an inside view of a man who’d traveled the world, building an enviable and big life. Photographs showed a man dressed in custom Italian suits, dining in the best restaurants, staying in the nicest hotels, and playing golf and tennis at the best country clubs. He played hard, but worked hard, busting his ass to rebuild his family’s wealth after his father lost it. He worked his whole life to take care of his family, promising to never do what his father did to him. And yet Grandpa’s family hadn’t been enough to keep him on this earth. Maybe he never got over his father’s, his closeted brother’s, and his wife’s suicide? Who could?
Mom was just fourteen when she found her mother, Doris’ lifeless body on the floor, next to a bottle of pills and alcohol. Doris, a captivatingly impish living Betty Boop, and Grandpa moved from their Park Avenue apartment to a beautiful estate in bucolic Scarsdale. A grandmother-I’d-never-know, and who I’m said to look so much like, was a talented fine artist, had a successful husband, three healthy children and many hobbies, like sailing, fly fishing and rescuing dogs. And yet, her full life wasn’t enough to keep her on this earth. When I asked Mom how a mother could take her life when she had children at home, she said, “She’d rather be dead than face another day.” I shuddered, because it sounded like she spoke from experience. When Mom added, “The trick is to get out of bed,” her solution felt off.
When Mom was depressed I became desperate to connect, making sure she wouldn’t do anything extreme. But when she was manic, I wanted to push her away. Mom’s mania made her personality even grander, attracting both good and bad attention. Her crazy pressured speech, embarrassing vulgarity and exhausting energy hijacked my time and my mood. But because my daughters loved their crazy Grammy, and because I loved her too, I never gave up on her, and never will. But if I’m being really honest, I didn’t want to be the person responsible for putting Mom in the psych ward, a fate she feared. Instead, I accompanied Mom to the psychiatrist, something I’d never done before.
The doc explained mania, depression, and anxiety are the result of a brain disorder responsible for her chaotic, and sometimes tortured mind. He warned when Mom was manic she shouldn’t spend time alone with her granddaughters, because she made poor choices. He didn’t have to tell me my girls shouldn’t be with their Grammy if she was depressed, because that’s when Mom locked herself in her dark bedroom. It’s why I panic when she doesn’t text or call me back. It’s why I’ll always worry.
I understood why Mom ran from the stigma of being labeled mentally ill. It meant she was like her parents, and we know how that ended. It took Mom’s beloved granddaughters to hold a mirror up to her worrisome ways. With her girls in mind, Mom faced her mental illness with a clear-eyed perspective. We exhaled with relief, as she received a proper diagnosis, sought therapy and was put on the right mood stabilizers.
Mom began telling everyone she was bipolar, a brave and honest acceptance. I stopped tiptoeing on eggshells, appreciating the calmer Laurie. I worried about her major drop in energy, but didn’t dare say so, in fear she’d go off her meds. Mom admitted she missed the mania, her natural high. She admitted she had low days, and didn’t always take her meds. It was clear she was working toward recovery, but would forever need help.
As I watch the final episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” I’m reminded how his life seemed so aspirational, a result of his talent and hard work. Anthony wasn’t content staying in the back of a kitchen, inspiring me and so many others to step out of our comfort zones and open our minds. It was what was happening privately, off camera, or off paper, that Anthony and Grandpa hid. Frightened and exhausted, they struggled to fight the demons inhabiting their highly intelligent, creative and anxious minds. Shame and fear held them back from reaching out for help, which in turn made their world feel smaller, which made them feel alone, unable to face another day. I wish I could have told them we are only as sick as our secrets. There’s no doubt Mom is lucky to have an understanding support system, but really, it’s her willingness to be open and ask for help that is saving her from spiraling downward.
Finding Grandpa’s manuscript was either a stroke of luck, or divine intervention. Either way, it forced me to stop running and face the pain and embarrassment mental illness caused me my entire life, as a granddaughter of a depressive, and the daughter of a bipolar. What I found was compassion, as I came to see mood disorders as a brain disease you can’t just snap out of. I gained a deeper love for Mom, whom I now see as the ultimate survivor. I forgave myself for all my judgment, and I vowed to always be there for Mom, especially during her dark days. Hope and love are powerful medicine.
Thirty years after Grandpa jumped from his high rise, it’s clearer now than ever, depression and anxiety are real, require therapy and should never to be dismissed. But I also believe with love, support, honesty and the proper medication, the battle over mental illness can be won. I will forever wish I could’ve reached out to Grandpa, or to Anthony Bourdain, or to anyone gone too soon because of a tragic suicide. I would have reminded them suffering passes, and on the other side of depression is a beautiful life, one worth surviving for.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great resource if you or a loved one is suffering from mental illness. https://www.nami.org
Please call the suicide prevention hotline at 1–800–273–8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org if you need help. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, for prevention and crisis resources.