When They Leave

On Anthony Bourdain, and me, and you

Photo by Paulo Fridman/Corbis via Getty Images

WWhen we look at a mountain we see one face of it, and even if we wake up and gaze at that same mountain every single morning of our lives, we do not see its wholeness. We can hike it, fly over it, traverse its circumference a thousand times and still we won’t see its entirety, every layer, every element, every atom. To know a mountain, or a person, is to see a whole being in its fullness at all times in all seasons — every mood, every moment. If there is a God, this is what God sees. But we are not gods, and so our view, no matter how vast, is always partial.

I admire Anthony Bourdain as much as anyone who never met the man could. I say “admire” in the present tense rather than the past because I don’t see a future in which I will not admire him, and I certainly don’t live in a present moment in which I have anything less than absolute respect for the man, be he here, elsewhere, or nowhere.

In 2001, the Taliban blew up a pair of giant medieval-era statues of the Buddha in the Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region of Afghanistan, northwest of Kabul. At 115 and 175 feet tall, carved out of a cliff, the Buddhas adorned part of the Silk Road that runs from China through the Hindu Kush mountain region onward to parts west. For centuries, they inspired awe. How could humans with such limited means build towering monuments like these? And then they were gone, profanely smote to smithereens in a giant “fuck you” to cultural diversity, to real history, to heritage, and to international presence.

I admire them still, though they are dust.

You don’t forget what emerges from the earth, or what returns to it.

I’m not here to analyze Bourdain’s leaving. His reasons were his own. He has given us all the words we’ll ever have from him, and he’s given us plenty, and I am grateful for them. I don’t need his final words. They are for someone else, or for no one at all. And while I do not have personal anecdotes to share about Anthony Bourdain, I do have something to say about the manner in which he left us.

It’s the way Kate Spade left us this same week, the way many artists and scholars and teachers and seers have left us, the way my friend the football and lacrosse star left us in high school, the way some of my other friends have attempted to leave us, and indeed the way I’ve often considered exiting, particularly in my younger years.

I’m not an expert. I’m not a shrink. I don’t like research papers or conferences and I find APA style annoying. I’m a stand-up comedian and an author. But I wrote a memoir about agoraphobia and suicidal depression. For the past nine years, I’ve traveled often to speak at colleges and universities about suicide prevention and mental health awareness, and so I listen to a lot of young people across the country tell me their stories. When people on planes and in airports ask where I’m going and why, I tell them, and as a result I hear a lot of stories from adults beyond adolescence.

I spend perhaps more time than most talking to people about their suicide attempts, their suicidal thoughts, their grief or lack thereof after the suicide of a friend, a family member, a teacher, a coach. These conversations, as well as the reading I’ve done and my own experiences, have led me to a few conclusions.

Suicide can be an act of depression, of despair and of true belief that nothing will ever improve. It can also be an act of absolute panic. When the noise inside your own head gets so loud, or perhaps the physical pain seems so impossible to escape (as we get exactly one vehicle to take us through this life, and sometimes that vehicle gives us a very bumpy ride) or the abuse seems like it will never, ever end…in those moments, suicide may appear to be the ultimate act of relief.

I understand when people are shocked that a wealthy person, a successful person, a beloved person would kill himself. Or herself. When someone has the external trappings of success, we may find ourselves astonished and even pissed that he’d choose to shuffle off this mortal coil. I think this is because we imagine that if we had the TV shows, the wealth, the fame, the books, the adulation, the acclaim, that everything would be all right. It’s what we are taught. And it’s bullshit.

It is also incorrect to regard the suicide of a parent as the act of abandoning a child. This assumes the parent believes his presence on this earth is a boon to the child, a benefit rather than a burden. This assumes the parent is thinking logically and clearly and calmly. This assumes the parent is not also a person who has to live every moment inside the torture chamber of an unquiet mind. This assumes the parent is just that role and not many other things, too.

We are all people, all of us — the rich and the poor and the vast in-between; the parents and the grandparents and the people who choose not to have kids and the people who wish they could but can’t; the wives and the husbands and the single people and the people deeply in love who prefer not to put a label on it; the queer people and the straight people and the people who are figuring it out. None of these roles and labels confers or removes happiness or sadness.

Bourdain was a brilliant memoirist. Personal nonfiction writing can give the illusion that you know its author quite well, that he is your friend, that she really understands you. It’s only an illusion, and when it works, it’s because the writing is good. I didn’t know him. Probably neither did you. And when this short essay ends, you won’t know me either.

But I need you to know a few things so that you understand why I am writing about a stranger and also about myself and also, maybe, about you: I have a good life; I have taken medication for years and it works pretty well; I have a therapist; I have a wonderful support network of family and friends; I get fan mail and not infrequently receive very kind compliments from strangers on my hair and choice of sneakers; I can order delivery from one of the overpriced Los Angeles restaurants Bourdain would’ve either loved or taken a spectacular verbal shit on, and I can do it a couple of times a week and still stay in budget; I make okay money; I can walk into a bookstore and sometimes see my books for sale; I’m funny; I’m good at writing; I’m a decent sister and friend; I’ve done some cool shit; I’d really like to write more for television and film; I want to visit a bunch of states I’ve never been to; my back hurts only part of each day; I love performing but I love writing more; I know some good stretches; I’m paying down debt; I am glad to be alive.

And yet.

There was a time early last year when I was sunk so deep in depression that suicide seemed, not entirely remotely, a feasible choice. It would at least end the feelings of grief, loneliness, worry and guilt. I had been there before, several times since I was a young teen. But it had not been this bad in years. In the worst moments my rationale for sticking around was that I would like to meet my nephew, who had yet to be born, and that I didn’t want to put undue pressure on my family and particularly on his parents. That thinking sounds illogical and overdramatic because it is. When you suddenly find yourself about to drown at sea, with weights tied to your ankles, flailing about for something to buoy you up, you don’t stop to wonder if it’s a well-constructed object built with clear logic that will sustain you for as long as you need. You just grab for whatever the fuck floats by and cling to it until you stop coughing up the ocean. Once you’ve kept your head above water long enough to breathe regularly, you can make clearer decisions. I clung to those thoughts until I had better ones.

I’m still here, clearly. I went to the therapist, I saw a nutritionist, I talked to my friends, I started moving my body more, I started meditating. It got so much better. I’m not typing this with ghost-fingers from beyond the grave, although that sounds like a decent premise for a shitty movie I would most certainly write for a paycheck. I am happy now, today, even amidst my sadness at the loss of one of our greatest storytellers.

But I share these things because even with the suicide prevention work that I do, and the stories that I hear, and the things that I write, and the care that I receive, it still becomes an issue. Still.

And so if this is true for me, a person you don’t know but about whom you now have a little bit of information, it is understandable that it would be true for many others. Perhaps you. Certainly for people you know. They’ve likely never brought it up, as thoughts of suicide are not typically considered palatable dinner party fare, but I can assure you that many of the people you see each day have thought about suicide, or have been touched by it in some way.

It is neither a failure of character nor an indicator of a genius mind to contemplate suicide. It is just a thing that happens, and it happens oftener to some of us than to others. There is no romance here. There is pain, and the management of it looks different to all of us, and sometimes the managing of it becomes exhausting. For some people the allure of death is that it can look like the lie some adults tell children: “He’s just sleeping.”

I am fine now. There will likely be times in future when I am not fine, and then I will be fine again. I accepted that pattern long ago. It has gotten better and continues to get better.

I am telling you these things so that you can feel less alone if you feel this way too sometimes. I am telling you these things so that if you’ve never felt this way, you can walk around for just a moment in this essay and read my small story, because this may engender empathy or compassion when your coworker takes a mental health day, or your buddy looks embarrassed when his bottle of Prozac falls out of his backpack, or your kid comes to you and says she wants to die and she’s sorry and can you help.

I was lucky. My parents helped. You can help too. Don’t try to fix it. It doesn’t need fixing. Listen, and help someone access care. You can’t save anyone from themselves. It’s not your job. You can assist, though. And if they leave, you didn’t fail. It isn’t about you, and that is terrible and wonderful to know.

And now, finally, something about Bourdain.

If you spent an hour reading his words, watching his TV show or listening to him on the radio and didn’t want to eat with him, drink with him or fuck him, then we have decidedly different taste in humans. He was a real one. We’re lucky we had him for as long as we did.

This morning I cried about a stranger and I am glad he was here and I am sorry he is gone and I am glad I am here to feel sorry he is gone.

We are here. We are still here. We can stay here, if we want.

Call a friend. Call a shrink. Find a meeting. Find another one. Take your meds. Get your exercise. Get 15 minutes of sunshine and then put on sunscreen and go take a walk. Check in on somebody. Drink more water than you think you need.

And for fuck’s sake, don’t forget to eat. Mountains grow and recede on their own. You’re a human. You need food.

Please make it something good.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast. Patreon.com/SaraBenincasa

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