How do you Thank a Dead Person?
Bourdain’s death made me choose life
The air is heavy with heat, sweat runs down my spine, and I’m fighting off the urge to dissolve into a puddle of unfocused exhaustion.
A heat wave is about the last thing you’d associate with the Netherlands but Northern Europe is in the middle of an intense one, which we do not know how to deal with.
The combination of unseasonal weather and unexpected geographical coordinates stuns me into submission.
For what feels like a long time, I can’t do much more than twirl a wooden popsicle stick between my fingers and ponder how I got here.
And how to thank the human who made it all possible.
Why celebrate death when you can choose to celebrate life instead?
June 8 comes and goes, but not without my taking stock of the drastic contrast between now and what came before.
The only thing my past and my present have in common is me; everything else has changed.
A year ago, Anthony Bourdain took his own life.
A year ago, I stared at the BBC News alert on my phone, a sinking feeling in my stomach, suddenly aware that I either had to die or stop dying.
If there was one thing I was sure of, it was that being alive had become unbearable: I wanted out.
By then, I had wanted out for a long time.
Major depressive disorder struck almost as soon as I moved to the US, taking away my writing voice, and my livelihood with it. My marriage collapsed in on itself under the weight of resentment; our union became the sum of two silent lonelinesses in parallel.
Basic needs like food, shelter, and utilities became monthly challenges my household was never sure it could meet.
Bereft of vocation, conversation, love, or comfort, there was little to live for.
I could no longer imagine an alternate reality.
Bourdain’s death is the shock I don’t know I need.
Even though I’m so at odds with pop culture I might as well be impervious to it and do not own a TV, I know who Bourdain is even though I didn’t back when I should have.
A decade ago, he traveled to the archipelago I lived in to film an episode of No Reservations. When I discover his TV work a few years later, this is the one episode I can never bring myself to watch; the Azores is the wound that still won’t heal.
Portuguese dwells dormant in my heart, never to be heard or spoken again.
My pre-America life was always so full of people, places, and prose it makes my then-existence look empty in comparison.
Because it is.
And yet, I don’t have to resign myself to it.
Bourdain’s untimely departure makes me understand that I’m not ready; I’m not resigned.
My narrative doesn’t have to grind to an abrupt halt because yet another chapter hasn’t worked out and the plotlines got tangled up.
I need to get back to writing.
Anger shows me the way forward.
It is short-lived but just enough to kickstart the project of rebuilding a life that works, word by word.
This is as counter-intuitive as it gets. My profession — journalism — has always been to write about fellow humans, not my person. Turning the pen on myself doesn’t come naturally but feels necessary somehow, urgent, and more than a little unsettling.
But I see no other way of relearning my job or indeed break out of the silence that causes so many depressives to die by their own hand as Bourdain did.
What if the material I amassed for five years could help humanize mental illness and chip away at the stigma that blights so many lives?
Outing myself as mentally ill seems like a small price to pay.
It is also a form of liberation as I no longer have to try and conceal the giant crater in my résumé.
I also enjoy the considerable and rare privilege of having almost nothing to lose, be it love, career, status, or indeed money.
Being naked in print takes the kind of self-acceptance many of us shy away from.
Bourdain, I feel, was excellent at it, writing about his demons with candor, openness, and humility.
Using curiosity as a guide, Bourdain traveled the world showing us how other humans did human, which was never as dissimilar to us as expected.
He also seemed to have come to terms with the fact that he’d always walk hand in hand with darkness; he thrived regardless.
On the off-chance there might be more interestingness on the other side, I owed it to myself to figure out a way to function despite the mental mess I was in.
Little did I know it would take many setbacks, many sleepless nights, many essays, and many conversations to come back to life.
I had no idea all the latter would happen away from home either, on the continent where I was born, in the languages I had set aside.
We thank dead people by keeping their memory alive.
Were it not for Bourdain showing me my future, I would likely be dead by now.
I wouldn’t have recovered my writing voice; I wouldn’t have come back to France, I wouldn’t have gone back to Portugal, or Germany, or the Netherlands.
I wouldn’t have recovered the shapeshifting pieces that make up a self still reeling from the brutal reality of depression.
I wouldn’t have recovered the ability to hope for better days even if I had no idea at the time what those might look like.
Instead of co-opting what looked like an inevitable future, I chose to write up a new action-packed chapter that continues to defy the odds.
Do or… ? “Do or do not, there is no die.”
We thank dead people for their protection, too, by way of remembering them.
For what is remembrance but protection against our atavistic fear of the unknown?
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.