Anthony Bourdain, suicide, and lifelines

For the CBC on June 12, 2018

Many of us experience a heaviness in the early morning hours; a feeling that the Swedish word vargtimmen perfectly encapsulates.

Robert Macfarlane, author of The Lost Words, writes that this term translates to “wolf-time; the menacing transitional hours of night into dawn.” How fitting that during these dark, foreboding hours last Friday, the world learned that Anthony Bourdain, age 61, had taken his life.

Like so many others, I was drawn to the authenticity of Bourdain’s work. His inexhaustible curiosity about the world, his ability to weave together stories of people and cultures, enabled viewers to experience foreign destinations in a uniquely engaging manner.

‘Your realest friend’

As New Yorker correspondent Helen Rosner put it, Bourdain cultivated an intimacy with his audience in such a way that he felt like “your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there.”

How a man who appeared so full of life — whose drive to work and travel and explore seemed so insatiable — could have possibly taken his own is, on its surface, incomprehensible. So too is the question of how someone so demonstrably successful, respected and admired could have felt so powerless, lost and alone, that such a disproportionate, permanent solution seemed the necessary choice.

Suicide is often (though not always) an impulsive act, where one moment’s unbearable despair eclipses a lifetime of reason. Nihilism supersedes all rational thought.

In his 1972 book The Savage God, English poet, novelist and essayist Alfred Alvarez described suicide as “a closed world with its own irresistible logic” akin to “the unanswerable logic of a nightmare … Once a man decides to take his own life he enters a shut-off, impregnable but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and each incident reinforces his decision.”

Because depression is an all-consuming beast, one that incrementally siphons life of meaning, the way the mind works to rationalize suicidal ideation over time can create a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Though Bourdain spoke of his depression and of the despondency he’d sometimes feel, there were hints of something deeper, a vacuum he left unexplored.

While paying tribute to his CNN colleague, Jake Tapper spoke of insecurities Bourdain seemed to mask with bravado, hinting of an emptiness — some sort of persistent wanting that plagued Bourdain — which could never quite be satisfied. Friends spoke of Bourdain’s self-imposed gruelling work schedule, which fed the isolation and loneliness he’d accepted as a tradeoff for his lifestyle. One colleague mentioned Bourdain’s worry of where he might find himself should he ever ease off the workload.

Recently, however, there seemed a calm; a sense of completeness.

“The last I knew, he was in love,” Bourdain’s friend Michael Ruhlman told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Friday night. “He was happy, he said, ‘love abounds,’ some of the last words he said to me.”

Andrew Zimmern, another close associate, echoed that belief, saying he’d “never seen (Bourdain) as happy. He told me that in his relationship, not only had he never been happier, but that he never liked himself more, those were his words.”

So, what could possibly have happened? What changed so drastically that Bourdain, who’d overcome addiction and hardship in the past, felt he couldn’t possibly cope with the present?

His friends say he wasn’t showing cracks; he wasn’t letting people in. Only Bourdain knows why he maintained that barrier, even among the people closest to him. For all his candour about his past, he was guarded in his final moments.

It’s possible that, no matter how long he’d known these peers, there lacked a specific trust that would have made this conversation a safe one to have, particularly among fellow men.

When confiding in someone, there’s a difference between being listened to and being heard, between being heard and being understood. When there’s trust that no matter what is said, there will be understanding — meaning no risk of judgment or loss of respect, no worry of awkwardness later on — one will often reach out without hesitation.

Acting as lifelines

In times of crisis, when anxieties are heightened, that trust is vital. It’s something that is built over time, cultivated through regular, forthright conversations. One would assume Bourdain, a man who so seamlessly connected with others and could converse with such ease, had these sort of bonds. That indications are he didn’t, arguably deepens the sadness of this entire situation.

It’s easy for those who have these friendships to take them for granted, assuming everyone else is as privileged to have secured this most precious thing. While there are no easy answers to what’s become an epidemic of suicide, there are ways one can serve as a potential lifeline for another, should the need arise. And that begins by developing trust.

It’s not enough to ask someone to be vulnerable, the candour must work both ways. There must be a demonstration of understanding, or at least, of sincere empathy. There must be something that will override the lies one’s mind will tell at the thought of opening up. Words alone are inadequate.

In a 2014 episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain traveled to Massachusetts where he retraced his heroin addiction through Provincetown.

“You know, I didn’t have anyone else who could have talked me out of what I was doing,” he told a group of recovering addicts. “The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin … intervention wouldn’t have worked.” One day, however, he “saw somebody worth saving” in his reflection.

If only he knew how desperately people wish they could have talked him down now. If only he caught that glimpse of worth one more time.

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