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Anthony Bourdain and Reckoning with Depression

Photo by Peabody Awards, via Wikimedia Commons

As a writer, Anthony Bourdain’s voice was like a combination of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. His words tumbled out in energetic sentences. His descriptions, in Kitchen Confidential, of life in professional kitchens had the energy of Kerouac’s descriptions of life among the Beats or a night in a jazz club. It also rang with Thompson’s wit, cynicism, and love for the dark side of life. Reading him, you could see the flash of knives and fire, the sounds of searing meat and banging pots that fly across the kitchen into stainless-steel sinks. Bourdain loved the kitchen, and he loved cooks in all of their broken strangeness. It was a dark world of drugs and sex and too much drinking. Simultaneously, it was a world of brilliant chefs and untrained Guatemalan line cooks whom he swore could outcook some of the best-trained chefs.

Bourdain’s passion was even more evident on television, where his actual voice turned out to be just as warm—and potentially cutting—as his writing. He traveled the world, eating street food in Asia or with tribes in the bush. He also took us to some of the world’s finest restaurants. I’ll never forget Bourdain sitting across from Fergus Henderson at London’s St. John, telling him that a simple dish of toast, blood sausage, and fried eggs was his “death row” meal—the meal he’d request if he knew it’d be his last.

I wonder if it crossed his mind early on Friday morning.

Fall or Flames

Bourdain hanged himself on Friday. David Foster Wallace once wrote that people who hang themselves aren’t just killing themselves. They’re embracing a form of suicide that is judicial, like capital punishment. They not only think they want to die; they think they must. Wallace attempted suicide several times in his life, and he successfully hung himself in 2008. He described the desire for suicide in several of his books and essays. He wrote:

The so-called “psychotically depressed” person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of “hopelessness” or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling “Don’t!” and “Hang on!”, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Often when people commit suicide, we hear that their actions are incredibly selfish. “Look at all the people they’ve left behind.” Wallace’s account, I think, partially deconstructs that narrative. There is something about depression that creates “a terror way beyond falling”—a terror beyond the consequences of suicide that compels them to do it anyway.

Haunting Presence

This is what’s monstrous about depression. It is not simply a bad day or even a bad few months. It is a haunting presence, a grayness that covers all of life. It insulates you from joy under even the best of circumstances, and it makes you feel as though joy has left forever. Thus someone like Wallace, who was nearly finished with another great sprawling novel, or Bourdain, who was in the midst of a shoot for his show Parts Unknown, will “jump out the window,” or in Bourdain’s case, end his life with the belt from a hotel bathrobe.

In times like these, I want simplistic narratives. If only he’d asked for help. If only he’d acknowledged his pain. If only he’d found a friend. If only he’d found the hope of the gospel. There may be some truth in each of these, but reality is always more complex and harsh. Bourdain had many friends who loved him. He’d spent almost 20 years talking openly about his struggles with addiction. His love of humanity, culture, art, and food reveal someone who knew that life—in its complexity and tragedy—is not without beauty and joy.

Even so, Bourdain is gone, and his family, friends, and fans are left to wonder why and to wish it otherwise. Some are scratching their heads, wondering how someone so successful could do this. One family member told The New York Times, “He had everything. . . . Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams.” But Bourdain himself told us it wasn’t enough. On an episode of Parts Unknown in Argentina, he said:

Well, things have been happening. I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days. It’s like that with the good stuff, too.

It’s like that with the good stuff, too.

Our souls need so much more than food, money, and grand experiences.

Our souls need so much more than food, money, and grand experiences.

Need for Holistic Care

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is forced to flee into the wilderness. There, he collapses and begs God to end his life. Instead, God lets him sleep, miraculously provides him food and drink, and does it again: sleep, then food. God cares for Elijah’s body and Elijah’s soul. Only after he’s physically recovered does Elijah retire to a cave and begin, once again, to hear the Lord speak and call him into action.

It’s a picture of holistic care. Elijah lacked rest. For those who are depressed among us, it may be because their brains aren’t producing enough serotonin. They may not process folate properly. Perhaps stress and fatigue have left their neurons shot. Maybe years of sleeplessness have taken their toll. There may be any number of physical, biological, or neurological reasons that people find themselves trapped in a metaphorical burning building, and we’d be wise not to speak too glibly or simplistically to them or about them. Instead, we might offer them what God offers: a safe place to come and rest. A warm meal. The company of our presence. We might point them to the care of doctors and therapists, and we might work in our communities to remove the stigma that comes with the label “depression” so that we see it in the same way we see chicken pox or the flu. These things can happen to anyone. And they can kill you.

Of course, we can and should also point them to a Savior who is a “man of sorrows” and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). The world simply is not what it is meant to be, and its brokenness takes a toll on everyone. Some of us might just be more sensitive to it than others. The creation itself “groans” (Rom. 8:22) with longing for something better . . . for some relief.

The world simply is not what it is meant to be, and its brokenness takes a toll on everyone. Some of us might just be more sensitive to it than others.

And when we see the world in that light, there is perhaps nowhere better to look than Gethsemane, where God incarnate felt “deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38) and where his sweat fell like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Jesus’s friends failed him in that moment, falling asleep while he wept in despair and anguish. But his Father did not; he sent angels to comfort him, much as he did Elijah in the desert (Luke 22:43).

All Who Are Weary

I wish everyone who felt the plague of depression could feel seen and known, comforted by the fact that they aren’t alone. For those who know and love depressed persons, this is a holy calling, and a difficult one. But Scripture makes clear that even when we fall short of this lofty work, God himself does not. He who was so deeply acquainted with grief, who knows better than anyone how tragic the world truly is, does not turn away when the darkness descends on our minds and hearts. He sees us. He knows us. He stays with us even when we feel utterly abandoned.

He who was so deeply acquainted with grief, who knows better than anyone how tragic the world truly is, does not turn away when the darkness descends on our minds and hearts.

I pray the promise of Christ’s redemptive, acquainted-with-sorrow presence would spread throughout our depressed and depressing culture. I pray Christians could work to be faithfully present to those around them. And today, as I should do every day, I pray that those who feel lost in a gray cloud or trapped in a burning building would know that there are people longing to help them and a God whose grace is real.

“Come to me,” Jesus said, “all who are weary and heavy burdened . . . and I will give you rest for your soul.”

If you’re struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please seek help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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