Bourdain, Depression, and Work

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. 

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

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.

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. 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.