My first job at sixteen years old was washing dishes for Raspberries Eatery in Andover, Massachusetts for Chef Dana Wilson — who doubled as my first Buddhist teacher without ever actually saying so. I got paid 6.00 an hour. It was not the last time I’ve got paid for scrubbing saute pans and chopping onions.
I learned to actually cook on summer breaks from boarding school in the clam and lobster joints of Ogunquit, Maine, and Rye, New Hamshire. I waited on tables and picked up shifts as a prep-cook in Boston during college at Joes Bar & Grill, Aquitaine, Jae’s, the list is long one. In my late twenties, I staged with Napolitans in Greece, and a Lyonese chef who said plaintively told me “You will never do what I do” — he was wrong as rain. I eventually had a stint in my late thirties during the recession cooking for celebrities in LA. I’ve earned my appellation as ‘chef,’ or at least a cook, more than once.
I have also grappled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. I don’t mean I sang the blues because my gal hitched off with another dude depression. I mean, I am curled up in a ball in the broom closet, I have no idea if I’m going to make until tomorrow — depression. Drinking, drugs, a few rocky relationships and a particular sensitivity to the bullshit of media drivel and consumerist America haven’t really helped the matter.
There will always be something relatable about the rough and tumble, wise-ass, wry New York chef named Anthony Bourdain for anyone who has worked in a restaurant. I’m not a die-hard fan — but anytime I saw his face or heard that gravely voice I was reminded of my days in the kitchen. Catching sight of the lanky Bourdain, doing his cantankerous thang, causing mischief and mayhem, smoking reds and keeping it real, reminded me that I am still deep-down, an earthy, food-loving chef. I will never lose sight of my days in the kitchen, behind the line, sweating and laughing and enjoying the knife work, the prep, the smells, the tiny moments of satori that come gloriously with each dish.
Bourdain’s suicide is extra terrible because like many of us — we can relate a litte too well. We liked Bourdain — he was a no bullshit kinda guy. But like all suicide, it’s unexpected, horrifying, dark-side of the moon incomprehensible. That is the tragedy folks — and it happens every single day to all kinds of people, not just celebrities.
Suicide is an epidemic. When a high-functioning depressed person without any apparent warning or reasoning decides to hang themselves — it means we that there was a critical disconnect between that person’s day-to-day and those around them. When someone like Bourdain, with a so-called “ideal life,” “the perfect job” and supportive fans and wife couldn’t reach out — we need to talk stock real quick in the emotional accessibility of men in western culture.
Why didn’t he say anything to anyone? Why didn’t anyone in this boisterous man’s life know what in the fuck was going on — really.
He didn’t tell them, is the most likely reason. Men don’t talk about thier pain — especially one’s whose rugged face is plastered everywhere as a “rough and tumble” adventurer and on the road cultural critic.
I’m not particularly enthusiastic about telling people the bit about my own mental health struggles. Maybe the insight is useful here, perhaps it isn’t. Most of the time people nod their heads or shuffle around a bit looking for that elusive bit of empathy. They look at the floor, change the subject, order another drink. Look, I don’t need pity nor does anyone blessed with the “black dog.” I blurt it out sometimes, and I can tell the person sitting with doesn’t know how to respond. I end up feeling bad for them. I don’t really want to talk about what meds I’m on, insomnia, food allergies that trigger depression, or my anxiety driving on the 101 either, to be honest. I too would like to keep up the mask — “I’m fine,” I’ll say, “let’s take a look at that wine list.”
Just so you know — you don’t need to say or do anything for a depressed person. You should sit and listen, hold their hand if they let you hug them — even joke with them a little and that’s about all it takes. No, I am not depressed 24/7. I learned to even manage. I take meds, go to therapy, I don’t drink a lot. I try and work out every day. It’s mostly about routines, sleep and avoiding entanglements with people or situations that drain me.
I have learned to take care of me, a lot. What used to feel like aloofness now sounds like, “You know, I really have not got the headspace for this right now, and no, I’m not required to tell anyone why.”
This last bit, what my therapist and I have coined as, ”healthy self-interest” or “self-care” took a long ass time to learn. It means I can’t be around certain people because in the process of keeping up with their binge alcoholism I will end up depressed for a week. It means that no, I’m likely not coming to your house party or going to a sports bar because my noise sensitivity will drive you bonkers. It means when I say I should be getting home, it is already too late for me. It means being vulnerable, and shedding the one-ton suit of armor I inherited as a male in our Hollywood heroic, wannabe-a-SEAL, velcro & dip culture. It means calling a friend when I feel like I am just about cooked on life in general. It means I have to be human, not a fucking super-hero.
Personally, I do not believe suicide can be reasoned with nor prevented. I think we should all keep that in mind. People who want to kill themselves do eventually prevail in the matter if they cannot seek help.
At the same time, don’t tell me that the sprawling bullshit of vacuous, fake American “culture” is particularly helpful or that all the shit the media spawns is not socially isolating for people who can’t manage “reality” as well as others. What is necessary that Bourdain have the “neo-Marlboro man” look foisted on him? Probably not — but he bought into it. Most of the time depressed people are cloaking what is really up. They are hiding that the never-ending stream of absolute nonsense we are all swimming around it, doesn’t feel a bit like being chained to a massive civil war canon on the bottom of the ocean. Seeming “fine” is a learned mechanism because frankly, it’s risky to tell people what’s really going on when they might say something elegant and idiotic like, “I’m sure you’ll be just fine,” or “It will pass” and in so doing, send you spiraling down to the bottom of Potomac again.
Sure it passes, and then it comes back.
Please don’t try and convince me that this society is healthy or that mental illness doesn’t affect all of us, especially when someone with so much can’t manage to get help or be encouraged to do so. With that in mind — please let the living bury the dead. Please eschew the media exploitation of sympathy for a person most of us do not know personally and talk to someone you do going through a tough time. Please stop posting the suicide hotline number everywhere. You know who your depressed friends are — call them.
Nothing I’ve said here is meant to take an ounce from Bourdain’s tremendous vitality as chef, an author, entertainer, and critic either — my reflection respects him first as a human being just like you and me.
I’m confident Tony would agree.