When I was a kid, my hero was Andy Taylor, the character played by the actor Andy Griffith on his eponymous television show from the 1960’s. Growing up a child of divorce, I took my male role models where I could find them, even from television.
In my teenage years, my hero was Minnesota Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett. Kirby was a fireplug of a player, standing 5’8” and a sporting a body frame best described as “stout.” Being short and chubby myself, it was only natural to latch onto a guy with a similar build. Good thing Kirby was a helluva player, too.
In my twenties, I had no heroes. We will get to that in a moment.
It was in my thirties that I found Anthony Bourdain. I was hooked from the first time I saw him in 2005 on his travel show, No Reservations. That first episode he took us to Paris to explore the catacombs, drink Absinthe, and showed us the behind the scenes of the early morning markets that restaurants order from. I could tell that his show wasn’t ordinary.
Anthony Bourdain became my hero. And now my hero is dead. Tony took his own life this week. No one saw it coming.
Tony was New York cool, someone who might say “fuck you” as a dire warning or as a playful rib, depending on the circumstance. He had a swagger about him. Tony had a grungy backstory that he told in his writings, starting with his book “Kitchen Confidential.” His writing had character. He was a character.
Anthony Bourdain, Chef, Traveler, Advocate
Tony was a chef, so he knew good food when he sat at a table. It didn’t matter if that table was at a Michelin starred restaurant in France, or a rickety card table on a sidewalk in Thailand. He was equally at home with renowned chefs like Paul Bocuse and Ferran Adriá in their restaurants as he was with a local guide’s grandmother in her kitchen. He knew the value that food plays in our lives and wanted to show us how much we should respect it.
Tony was an explorer, not a tourist. He would bypass the normal tourist destinations and show you a back street or remote area. Tony showed you the people in those areas. He sat down and asked questions, sometimes tough questions about politics, race, class, sex, gender, and life. Tony was listening and learning everywhere he went, and through him, I was learning and yearning to travel myself.
Tony had a voice. He used that voice to speak up for and shine a light on others that were misused, mistreated, maligned, and forgotten. He famously spoke out on Palestinian oppression. He viewed the tourist trade in some countries as another form of colonialism. He railed against systems and preconceived notions, stereotypes and hatred. Tony wanted you to see the world for what it is, both good and bad, and hoping that by showing every side, the parts that bothered him the most could change. Those things should change.
On Depression and Suicide
Earlier this week, I wrote a post on Instagram about suicide. I don’t really know why I wrote it. Fashion designer Kate Spade had just taken her own life. I knew nothing about her other than my wife owned a couple of bags that she produced. I knew her name and that was about it. But something was bothering me this week. It was gnawing on my insides. I wrote about my history with depression and anxiety, my close call with death, and the fears I still have of taking my own life. I guess I hoped that someone may see the post and take a minute to think about themselves or about a loved one who may need help.
Twenty-four hours after I made that post, Tony took his own life in a luxury hotel in France. He was filming for the next season of his current series, Parts Unknown. He was on the shoot with his best friend, Eric Ripert. All the reports since Tony’s death are about how good of a mood he was in and how much fun he was having on this shoot with his friend. Tony showed no outward signs of what he would ultimately do this week. No one saw it coming.
Suicide is the end to a lengthy illness for many people. Make no mistake, depression is an illness. It is no different from diabetes or cancer. Yet it is still stigmatized and mental health care in America is almost an afterthought: hard to get any type of treatment, it is expensive, medication costs are astronomical, and most insurance companies do not like to cover those costs. This is from my own personal history. I’ve been fighting against my own depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. That is thirty years of fighting. I am still here.
In my teenage years, I didn’t know what was happening. I had moods. In social situations, my stomach would go haywire on me. I was quiet. I didn’t talk much. I was sullen. Some of these things I could see myself. Some things other people saw. The advice I received most? “Snap out of it!”
I mentioned earlier that in my twenties I had no heroes. My twenties were a dark time. I don’t remember a lot of that time, which is odd since my wife will tell you that I rarely forget anything. But it was such a dark time that I guess my brain does not want to keep some things alive in my memory. Maybe it is for the best. It was during these years I was diagnosed, misdiagnosed, counseled, and medicated. I also self-medicated. I was in a dark and lonely place.
I tried to take my life when I was twenty-seven. The events that led up to this were not the reason why I tried. Those events were the symptoms of my illness. It was the depression that caused it. I woke up in a hospital with a raw, hoarse throat and a sick feeling. I didn’t know how I got there, but somehow, I reached out for help during this ordeal. I was asked by a police officer if I still felt like harming myself. I said no. I was discharged and sent on my way. Back to that dark and lonely place. That’s how much we value mental health.
It has been eighteen years since that night, but it is still in my mind, in a corner, waiting. I could say that I have a greater control of my depression and anxiety today. I was able to find a medication that works for me and I am lucky enough to pay for it. But what control I do have, may be fleeting. I still have moods. I have ruined relationships due to my illness. It has affected me in ways that I cannot explain thoroughly. Yet, through this, I have found love and my life has become better. It’s not perfect. Life is not perfect. I just have to hang on, even when that dark thought sits in a corner in my mind, waiting.
This is selfish, but I wish Tony could have seen my Instagram post on the day before he took his life. I wish he could see how much he was loved and how many people were inspired by him. How his love of food, people, and cultures was shared with multitudes and made the world better. How his family, close friends, and colleagues will now have a hole in their lives where he should be. But no matter how much Tony was loved, he couldn’t see it from the depths of despair he was in. And that is the sad part of this story.
Life goes on. I don’t know if I will have another hero to fill Tony’s void. I do know this: thanks to Tony, I will travel, I will eat, I will meet new people, and I will experience new cultures. It’s what he wanted us to do. It is what I will do.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. suicidepreventionlifeline.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness: NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. nami.org
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA’s mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. samhsa.gov