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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Ending The Stigma

This op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on January 28, 2014.

 

On Dec. 29, Christopher Peloso, the 40-year-old husband of former Ontario deputy premier George Smitherman, was reported missing.

“Freedom from depression has been elusive for Christopher,” Smitherman tweeted on the eve of the 29th. “We fear for his safety.”

A followup tweet issued just hours later linked to a brief statement which confirmed that Peloso had been found dead, noting (the family) would “find comfort somehow in knowing that he has found peace from the depression that has wreaked havoc on his mind.”

At Peloso’s memorial, Smitherman eulogized his late husband, telling those assembled in the Toronto community centre he would “not be afraid, in Christopher’s name, to tell his story and to tell our story … A man took his life because the pain in his brain was unrelenting.”

Smitherman addressed those who might be dealing with depression: “If you’re holding something back and you bring it out into public life, it is the first step and it is cathartic and it is powerful.”

To that end, Peloso’s father, Reno, spoke of his son, noting “Chris suffered from depression and committed suicide and there is no shame in that.”

Not only was this a powerful message to send during a period of such personal grief, but it was a remarkable, and incredibly necessary, break from the norm; of glossing over the heart of the tragic situation; of speaking in euphemisms and dancing around the issue that caused so much pain, such unrelenting anguish, that the only reprieve Peloso thought he could find was through death.

Though Peloso’s loved ones were widely lauded for their openness in discussing his lifelong battle with depression, the notion that suicide be addressed so matter-of-factly proved disquieting for many. Some feared that accepting Peloso’s final act without judgment somehow glorified it, that failing to attach shame or scorn to the suicide essentially validated, or worse, encouraged it.

These widely held, though unfounded, concerns demonstrate why it was necessary for Peloso’s family to address his illness — including its end — so candidly: to break the stigma about what it is to live with, or die from, mental illness, so that others might find the courage to seek help for their own demons, or, for those who have lost love ones in a similar manner, to leave behind the guilt or sense of having failed the deceased.

And breaking the silence, erasing the stigma, is what Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign on Jan. 28 is all about.

One in five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in a given year. Yet a report from the Canadian Medical Association revealed that only half of Canadians would tell a friend if they had a family member with a mental illness, as compared to disclosing a family member’s diagnosis of cancer (72 per cent) or diabetes (68 per cent). But why is that? Like any ailment, mental illness manifests in a number of ways, and to varying degrees of severity. Not every cancer is treatable; broken bones don’t always heal correctly the first time. Some diabetics are able to manage through diet alone, while others require multiple shots of insulin, daily. That lack of understanding of what constitutes mental illness, especially when it presents as a chronic or severe condition, is what drives the stigma surrounding it. And the apprehension about openly discussing the more extreme cases of mental illness — those who self-harm, commit suicide, are plagued by intrusive, sometimes violent thoughts, are crippled by rituals or compulsions — only furthers the ignorance surrounding such conditions.

The same CMA report found nearly a third of Canadians reported being fearful of being around someone suffering from a mental illness; almost half believing people use the illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, and fewer than half reporting a desire or willingness to associate with a friend who was diagnosed with a mental illness.

How terribly sad. It should be noted, however, that such beliefs aren’t because people want to exclude or isolate those suffering from a mental illness. Only recently have people begun to buck the societal norm of only speaking of mental illness in whispers, of “othering” those who suffer. In many cases, people want to better understand; they are genuinely interested in learning more about what it means to live with a mental illness, about the challenges faced not only by those diagnosed, but how their experiences, in turn, affect the lives of those around them.

The problem is, they are unsure of what, or how, to ask.

They don’t want to intrude, are afraid of offending. So they instead make assumptions, quietly draw their own conclusions.

Which then leads to misconceptions, feeds into the fear, and further perpetuates the stigma. This is why Bell’s Lets Talk campaign is so important: It provides a platform for a genuine conversation between those living with mental illness and those who’ve never experienced it. Those afraid to ask questions can follow as people share their stories of living with the disease, silently gaining a better understanding of what it means to have a mental illness. Many who suffer in silence find strength in seeing others talk openly about their own struggles and, in turn, find the courage to open up, and if they haven’t already, seek help.

The family of Christopher Peloso understood the value in having a candid dialogue about the illness that plagued him, and ultimately claimed his life. They were, in essence, doing exactly what the Let’s Talk campaign aims to accomplish on a larger scale: To end the stigma surrounding mental illness, talk openly and honestly about all aspects of the disease, foster a better understanding about life with mental illness, and to encourage those who are suffering to reach out.

There is no shame in having a mental illness, and there’s no weakness in seeking help.

And there’s no better time than now to talk about it. So Let’s Talk, Canada.