Several weeks after the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, I am still reeling, pondering and researching his life, having watched CNN’s continuous mesmerizing obituary. The question I keep asking myself—is why am I so affected? I would watch his show, Parts Unknown, when it was on. I didn’t really know much about him, but if I watched for more than a moment, I would likely be hooked for the entire episode.
And it isn’t just me. I have noticed that many people are writing and commenting about the loss of Bourdain—even though we hear about suicides of many celebrities, why do some touch as more than others?
Personally, I can see that my own professional life has influenced my reaction. As a social worker for the past 30 years, there have been times when my job becomes the delicate and complicated task of trying to ascertain if the person across from me is actively suicidal and then attempting to put in place steps to make sure that a suicide doesn’t happen. This can never be an exact science. While most of us have momentarily, felt that life is too painful to continue—only a small percentage plan to take their own lives and even fewer succeed. Not only that, but even those who receive support and counselling, may still go on to commit suicide. I am not saying this to underplay the importance of taking every sign of suicidal ideation seriously. It is just to point out that confusion and guilt are often left behind. Did we collectively, do enough?
At the beginning of my career—a patient of mine, unexpectedly committed suicide– by doing the opposite of what was expected. She was hospitalized for suicidal ideation after her husband left her. She could not accept it and went into a deep depression. She eventually began to give more positive responses to the psychiatrist on his short daily visits. He made the decision to allow her to leave and soon after, she drove her car off a cliff. I was in shock. This wasn’t how it was explained in the Prevention of Suicide seminars. She had received help and she still chose to end her life.
Suicide seems to be rampant now. Is it more prevalent or just less hidden? As we learn more about stigma and mental illness, hiding the truth seems wrong. People always find out eventually, but for the older generation, such occurrences were obscured—they were called death by unknown causes, accidental overdoses or “sudden and unexpected.” Religious overtones, shame and stigma—all were a factor.
We want to believe that with the right help—people can all be saved. And many are. Just being heard, learning how to cope, and getting treatment is effective for most people with depression and as a community we all must do our best to be vigilant and compassionate. But being aware that there isn’t one formula or pat answer for those who are suicidal is also important. The flashing number of suicide hotlines is not the total answer. There can be long waits and unanswered calls.
There has also been a constant message encouraging those who are struggling, to let others know that they need support. It sounds logical—but it is easy to be labelled as ‘needy’ when leaving cryptic cries for help on Facebook. How do you tell your relative, your friend or your Facebook buddy—that you feel like ending it? There is a fear of loss of privacy, dignity and even freedom. This might be a clue into why Anthony went the way he did. On his own terms, unapologetic, while he was at the top of his game.
This man is someone who presented as strong, confident, authentic and life loving. Successful and creative, he had merged his love of cuisine and his curiosity about the world into a unique type of journalism that his mourning colleagues now admit—went far beyond their traditional take on the world. He loved, he had friends, he had a child and yet, he chose to take his life in a hotel room in France.
But it still doesn’t make sense to those of us on the outside looking in. Even watching a compilation of his shows now—he seems gleeful and engaged—piercing and intelligent. He must have been in great emotional pain. But to those of us who were armchair travelers—it feels as if we have lost hope; we have lost our defiant hero. Someone who was brave enough to go to the places that we will likely never see and to bring us a taste of their food, their culture and their humanity. No one will ever be able to do it quite like Bourdain. In a world of ignorance and stereotypes, his brand of discovery and hope is greatly needed.