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'Space to Rest': Thoughts on Depression and the Death of Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain has been on my mind, lately. That's not surprising, with his recent suicide – I was a fan of his work, after all. Read most of his books, watched most of his TV shows, although I'm more than a bit behind on recent episodes of his CNN series. Moreover, he was someone I very much related to, a person in whom I could see a lot of my own worldview and experiences reflected. 

He created some of the most strikingly brilliant pieces of documentary film making made for television, mostly because he was never just talking about food and travel. In an episode about the US-Mexico border, he managed to illustrate how inextricably linked the two countries are. An episode where he and his film crew found themselves trapped in a Lebanon hotel as war broke out became a surreal examination of how Americans view conflict around the world, from an illusion of distance and safety. An entire episode dedicated to Spanish chef Ferran Adrià was the single greatest examination of postmodernism ever aired on TV, and the word was rarely uttered, if at all. He was brilliant, and endlessly fascinated with people, and I admired him immensely. 

Mind, I was never a junkie, and am only a passable cook, but we shared a self-destructive youth, and a desire to explore that, at least to all appearances, saved us. So naturally, I'm finding his death to be a bit jarring. Sometimes, the world presents you with the possibility you'd least like to consider: That you can do everything right, and it's still not enough.

I wrestle with depression, and it has, at times, made me erratic. At times, I've been so emotionally volatile that I've sabotaged friendships and relationships, even work. I have spent time curled up fetal on my bed, nearly catatonic from despair. I've called a suicide prevention hotline, although in retrospect, I don't think I was really suicidal, I was just so depressed I couldn't think of anything else to do. Thankfully, I have medication these days, and a stable marriage, and a number of other things and loved ones that keep me from self-immolating.

It's also helped that I've consciously slowed down. I won't lie … I'm most alive when I'm in the midst of my work, when I'm writing or on a stage performing or hosting a show, when I'm reporting on a concert or talking to other artists. If I let myself, I could easily do twice as much as I do, and even now I do a lot. I would pay a price for that, though. I would burn out in an ugly way, and it would damage myself and everyone around me. That was a hard thing to admit to myself: That I had to prioritize my health first. That I needed to give myself room to rest.

When Robin Williams died, I found myself in a brief email exchange with an acquaintance, who is a somewhat more prominent artist than myself. We were disagreeing about assertions he made about depression and suicide that on the surface seemed less than sympathetic. “The disease whispers in your ear, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,"I wrote to him, trying to explain, "that everything you have ever accomplished is a fraud, and that you will be found out as an impostor. It tells you – constantly – that you should be guilty about any achievement or accomplishment, and indeed, should be guilty for every aspect of your life. Imagine that. Imagine that you are physiologically incapable of turning off that voice. Imagine, after years and years and years, what you would do to silence it.”

“Victor,” he wrote back. “I fight it every fucking day. I will fight it to the end.”

It took me months to find a proper reply to that, because I began to realize I perhaps wasn't looking at it the right way.

“The question isn't between fighting and not fighting,” I wrote back, literally months later. “The question is how do we give people fighting this disease enough space to rest safely, so they have the strength to keep fighting?”

There's no answer to that question. Not really. People like me throw themselves into their work because it counteracts the darkness, mutes the whispers that nag at you. About the same time as Williams' death, I wrote in an essay:

“There have been times when I’ve observed myself from the opposite side of a window, watching myself numb and immobile, while beyond the pane I’m screaming, hammering at glass that fails to shatter. Those moments come less frequently these days, their duration more fleeting, but still I find them terrifying. And still each time the question percolates: Is this it? Will I ever feel again? Time is irrelevant to that moment, watching the mind withdraw entirely, not quite overwhelmed, simply … gone. 'How strange to be gone,' writes Jim Carroll, in 'Living at the Movies.' 'To be sure.'”

These days, I am content to spend some time receding from the maelstrom I could throw myself into on almost any given night. I've slowed down on readings, and going to concerts, trying to be sure I take some time to relax, read, watch TV, spend time with my wife and ferrets. To savor the quiet. I try to get at least 5 hours of sleep a night, which I know should be more, but I'm only human. I try to be healthy, and ultimately, I'm happier for that. Still push myself way too far … I don't think that will ever change … but I think I'm somewhere near finding a balance. And still, Bourdain haunts me. There were times I'd watch him on television, off in some amazing place I'd dearly love to see with my own eyes, and I'd say to Lea, “That is a man who loves his job.” And he probably did. I won't play armchair psychologist, but I do have to wonder if he gave himself enough room to rest. Because that's the thing about pushing yourself too far: It extracts a price. At the moment, it's not one I'm willing to pay.

Addenda: I never met Bourdain, but mis amigo Gustavo Arellano appeared on his show once, and held him in high regard. Gustavo's thoughts appear in the Los Angeles Times, where he focuses on Bourdain's championing of immigrants. It's very much worth the read

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