On June 8, 2018, I was just waking up when the BBC News notification on my phone told me Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life.
I pulled the duvet back over my head and willed the day away, as I would many of the ones that followed. Sleep became an urgent matter of self-preservation in order to limit the hours I’d spend asking myself how much longer I might be able to keep my own inner darkness in check. As many who live under the cloak of major depressive disorder know, a high-profile suicide is your face being reflected into the Grim Reaper’s scythe when you least expect it. Especially when the celebrity in question is someone you feel you can relate to.
To me and to countless others, Anthony Bourdain was a kindred spirit. Not only was he open about his own struggles with addiction and depression, but he was also driven by curiosity, and celebrated our shared humanness wherever he went. Despite being well-read, he had no qualms about acknowledging that he knew precious little (as is the case with all of us, if we’re honest) and was on a lifelong learning journey.
All too rare attributes in today’s America, his intellectual hunger, honesty, and humility resonated with me, an immigrant to the U.S. with a formerly nomadic life. Besides journalism, I used to earn my living traveling as a tour escort, and while this was a far cry from Bourdain’s work, there were many moments of grace in what can be a difficult job, especially for a woman. Time and again, it was strangers — hospitality staff, restaurant workers, drivers — who made my work possible when the going got tough; time and again, it was guests who allowed me to rediscover my own culture through fresh eyes.
And when I was in parts unknown, as was sometimes the case, I surrendered to discovery. No matter how challenging, every day in that job was always a gift, a privilege, and a learning opportunity.
When Anthony Bourdain died, I was suddenly confronted with my own mortality and reminded that the parasite in my brain was likely still plotting to kill me, even if I’d managed to tame it for a while, as he had. And then he was gone, but I was still here. Why?
No matter who you are, no matter what you do, life with depression means a mind constantly under siege, a mind occupied by a parasite intent on destroying you. Depression is the ball and chain others do not see, the sinister black cloud constantly hovering above your head, blocking out the sun.
This is why many depressives are quick to relate when celebrities choose to end their life. Unlike those of unfamous people, celebrity suicides are so widely reported they’re impossible to ignore. And yet, every 40 seconds around the world, one human being dies by their own hand while more than 20 others try, according to the World Health Organization.
If death is the inevitable conclusion awaiting all humans, a depressive is wont to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to expedite their own exit in a last ditch attempt to reclaim a modicum of control over a life often gone awry. Under the influence of the treacherous mind parasite, suicide may present itself as the ultimate gesture of compassion and empathy, a long overdue and redemptive act of self-care. That the depressed brain is but a purveyor of assorted apocryphal truths, spurious claims, and wonky reasoning is a well-documented fact — one every single depressive I’ve ever known is painfully aware of.
Our brains lie to us but we must live with them.
However, when language-defying despair collides with sticky exhaustion, the mind parasite takes on the allure of an oracle delivering prophetic pronouncements which no amount of knowledge can override. When all you yearn for is relief and a solution finally appears, your reflex isn’t always to push back. Ongoing resistance requires stubborn strength but after being engaged in a brutal solo conflict within the confines of your own cranium for years, how can you possibly win every single battle?
Day in, day out, you cope, you fight, you survive whichever way you can. Until the day you can’t. And until societal stigma disappears, mental health will remain a war one often wages on one’s own. In America, it doesn’t help you’re expected to go it alone and practice self-care, a hallowed term both exclusive and exclusionary as it implies far more than this country has ever been willing to offer. If you’re sick here, tough luck. Sort yourself out, take full responsibility for whatever’s ailing you, and Godspeed. Should you have neither the financial nor the mental wherewithal to do so however, you’re screwed.
If you have the strength, you can always try an online fundraiser, which literally requires staging and performing your illness in order to tug at the heart strings of strangers’ wallets, offering up your dignity on the altar of capitalism in the process. But, frankly, fuck dignity when your life is at stake — I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for those who put themselves out there and ask for help. Asking for help is hard, and asking for money even harder. Meanwhile, in every other advanced and civilized country, there’s health care available to all regardless of means.
Although you’d be hard-pressed to tell based on the outpouring of sympathy following the death of Anthony Bourdain — and to our collective shame — there’s an undeniable dearth of fellow feeling among Americans. Ours is an ultra-competitive society fluent in meaningless hyperboles, a society that abhors any display of human frailty because it jars with its sanitized self-image of a world where everything is always great and awesome.
America doesn’t do real unless it is heavily redacted, and lately it hasn’t been doing human either. The constant awkwardness in talking about mental illness only briefly lifts when someone famous kills themselves but it never lasts. Instead, it is compounded by the fear anyone should think of you as flawed, lesser, inferior somehow for being ill so you continue to hold back as much as you can, you continue to don masks so you can pass as well.
In this context, is it really any wonder the ticking time bomb in our brain often detonates early, regardless of our circumstances?
Illness is never a choice and depression is no exception. And yet, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told to snap out of it, I’d easily have been able to fund therapy and I’d probably be living quite comfortably by now. It isn’t the case. There’s scant empathy for my predicament. Depression as some strategic feint to dodge life’s most basic responsibilities remains a prevalent and enduring opinion, and one of the many cliches I encounter regularly.
At first — and for quite a long time — rampant prejudice prevented me from sticking my sad and disheveled mug above the parapet and outing myself as sick. It’s a strange thing with mental illness, sufferers are expected to self-flagellate in public in order to be believed and taken seriously and even then, it doesn’t always happen. In such a hostile environment, pretending you’re fine is the most basic of survival tactics.
This is why I wasn’t exactly keen on exposing what those around me still regard as an unbecoming quirk when they’re feeling generous, or as malingering when they’re not. Instead, I tried to drop polite and repeated hints about being unwell.
One year passed, then two, then three, then four, almost five.
Now that the issue has been grudgingly acknowledged, all I can do is blame the U.S. healthcare industrial complex for my inability to access therapy despite having insurance and try and show willing as I single-handedly MacGyver some magical self-care out of intermittent grit, an empty bank account, thin air, and — potentially restorative — anger. (This bears repeating: health insurance is worthless in the U.S. if you’re unable to afford the co-pays. This is why many insured folks in America do not get the care they need.)
What’s more, waking up in 2018 America is calamitous and I suspect this is why suicide may look increasingly like a rational choice in a world gone nuts. Among those being dehumanized by the current administration in countless Venn diagrams of hatred, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia — to name but a few of the many plagues infecting American democracy — despair is real, palpable, and widespread.
While I’m quick to joke that the force field of incandescent rage I exude at any given time doubles up as a makeshift armor, I’m no less sick, I’m no less exhausted, I’m no less broke today than when I was placidly, politely, silently depressed and the president wasn’t an asshole. And I’m certainly no less aware of the possibility of suicide as the final stage of depression.
As the twitter hashtag goes, #depressionkills but it isn’t — it never was and it never will be — the whole story.
Stigma kills. And yet, it lives on.
Individualism kills. And yet, it lives on.
America’s staunch refusal to regard healthcare as a basic human right kills. And yet, nothing has changed. Worse, America is going full retrograde as the current cabal of hatemongers allegedly in charge of running this country attempt to eradicate the Affordable Care Act to allow insurers to charge those with a pre-existing condition even more for coverage, or deny it altogether.
Anthony Bourdain was very vocal about the political establishment. Even though he’s already disappeared from the headlines, if he’s taught us anything it is to continue speaking up, be it about mental or political illness while we focus on harnessing the power of our shared humanity and prying minds open, one narrative at a time.
Put another way, speaking up is the only way to prevent more people from dying either by their own hand, or at the hands of this grotesque regime.
For all of us, speaking up is a matter of survival.
National Suicide Prevention Helpline (U.S): 1–800–273–8255
Suicide Prevention Service (Canada): 1–833–456–4566
Suicide Prevention Service (Quebec): 1–866–277–3553
For other countries, check out Befrienders Worldwide.