Being impacted by a celebrity death is an odd phenomenon. How strange to find ourselves grieving the loss of someone we never knew — not in the sense that the loss of a life is tragic, but in a more particular way. Our lives are impacted by a creator’s work or persona, and we feel a deep personal loss when their light goes out.
Anthony Bourdain’s suicide hit me hard last week, much harder than I would have anticipated. It bored into my mind, sunk down into my chest, and rooted itself with a distracting persistence.
I wasn’t a religious follower of his work. I’d read Kitchen Confidential, watched videos of his various appearances and takes on food culture, and caught one of his shows very occasionally, but his presence in my life wasn’t daily or even weekly. Yet, here I was, feeling legitimate shock from his death. As that first day wore on the impact grew, the shadow lengthening.
The truth is that while I didn’t consciously hold him up as a hero, didn’t light candles at his altar as I do for some other artists, I realize now that his presence was significant in how I understand myself and the world. In the mid aughts, as I came into adulthood and was deciding who I would be, he was a trustworthy guide into the pursuit of life and culture as I began to realize that was a priority for me. It’s a sentiment that echoes many who have shared their thoughts about his life and loss over the last few days.
In him, I see so many of the things that make up my idea of a good life — not just good as in pleasurable, but good as in making the world better by living and being. I’d never suggest that traveling enough, or eating well enough, or experiencing enough of the world could ward off depression. Depression is often at its worst in the wake of my best experiences. However, I did hope that living a good life in the other sense would help.
Bourdain was curious, constantly learning, relentlessly searching for connection, was always creating, and most importantly to me, his hospitality was legendary. As a bonus, he also never took any shit or tolerated nonsense, so his hospitality never seemed false or saccharine. He clearly saw the world as it is, not as he wished it would be, and he found it worth exploring even while he railed against the things he saw as unfair toward the marginalized. The stories pouring out from those who only met him once reinforce that this was his way on and off camera.
He had a life filled with so much light and humanity. Yet, there was always that sharp edge. Cynicism and quiet rage were always part of the package. He had a punk rock core that added to his legend. And in part, this made it easier for me to believe that I could perhaps bring light and joy to people. There’s nothing punk rock about me at all, but Bourdain helped me believe that I might be a source of light and life for others, helping people expand their view of the world, even with all the bitterness and rage I carry around and can never truly suppress or hide.
I want to be someone who helps make the world bigger for others. I want to help people discover new things. I want to show people the beauty of what it is to be open and welcoming to new things and ways of seeing. Yet, my mental illness and the weight of my horrible insomnia mean I never have the internal resources I wish I had. I’m never as hospitable as I want to be, never as curious, patient, or kind as I wish I was. I want to be better, I want to make the world better, but I honestly don’t know where to begin.
Bourdain was a good place to start.
When I think of the reasons I’m so depressed and my life is so unfulfilling, the things that come to mind are that I am too closed off, too isolated, too limited, and that I’m not doing good creative work – or any creative work for that matter. So I was inspired by the way that Bourdain was open to the world. He was connected in profound ways to all the variety and diversity the world has to offer, with old friends or people he’d just met. He was always doing good work, telling stories and sharing different ways of seeing and experiencing the world through flavor and culture. He was living proof that we can find ways of seeing each other better if we’ll just sit down and share a meal or a drink.
And still, he decided he had to leave.
I wouldn’t say this makes me feel hopeless, but it removes one of the primary ideals in which I’d invest hope when I found it. I always feel rudderless, like my sail is ripped, the rudder is shattered and the boat is riddled with small cracks, forcing me to constantly bail water. That is the apt metaphor for my life. The better times are simply when I feel more energetic as I keep removing water from my boat one bucket at a time.
Yet, I also believed that there was land just visible in the distance, and that maybe, just maybe, I could eventually find a way to fix my boat just enough to move towards it. What Bourdain’s death makes me feel is that, all this time, what I’d believed was an island on the horizon is just another mirage. Even though my rudder didn’t work and I wasn’t sure how to get moving, I still had a course heading if I could ever figure some shit out.
Now I see that’s not the case. The things I thought might save me never will.
I still believe I need to open back up. I still believe it will help if I start working creatively again. I know there are things that help me feel better when I practice them consistently. But now I also know, more than ever, that even then it will never make things better. Nothing fixes this.
Depression is such a dangerous predator. It adapts to the changes we make. It waits patiently and pounces on every weakness, often attacking viciously in the wake of our best and happiest moments, turning even our triumphs into a mockery. So often, you hear family members and friends say of a loved one who took their own life, “They were so happy last night, we had no idea they were in such a dark place.” That’s because the quiet, lonely moments after we let ourselves be happy are often the darkest and cruelest, when we pause and notice that fetid scent on the air and know what’s waiting in the shadows for the lights to go out.
Depression is an incessant voice in the mind, force-feeding the most poisonous lies again and again until they seem like truth. It is also like the hackneyed murderer from slasher films, always returning for the next installment in the franchise no matter how final the victory seemed the last time around. Chop it up, burn it, sink the ashes to the bottom of the sea, yet still it will return, and when it does, it’s going to be pissed.
It can take away the best of us, and too often has. Even badass tough guys with high emotional IQs and a ceaseless appetite for good food, good company, and amazing experiences.
Goodbye, Chef. The world will be darker without you.
[[Also, let me make it clear that I’m ok. I’m neither suicidal, nor in danger. I just want to be honest about where I am. I’m usually hiding the extent of my troubles. Only Emily sees what my life is really like, the constant struggle and futility. This is appropriate to a degree, but I think I may hide too much at times, and it is stifling. This was simply an honest, mostly stream of consciousness processing of my feelings concerning Anthony Bourdain’s passing, and the surprising depth of feeling it elicited.]]