Some thoughts on Anthony Bourdain, suicidal ideation, and the “switch.”

Those with “good neurotics’ calendars” (HT J.D. Salinger) will remember the first week of June 2018, when both Kate Spade, an internationally beloved designer, and Anthony Bourdain (whom I probably need not introduce) took their own lives. Something seems to have been in the air: suicides often come upon us like that, in small clusters, for no apparent reason (although there does seem to be a cluster effect for suicides, which may or may not have tipped Bourdain’s own hand). I can vouch for there being something unusual about that week, because that was the week I came as close as I ever have to taking my own life.

The shock and grief brought on by the deaths of Spade and Bourdain took some familiar forms. Over and over, you would hear that these two people were beyond accomplished, had love in their lives (or so it seemed), and by all accounts were in no financial trouble. There’s no reason to doubt that any of that is true. And yet.

I know Bourdain’s life and work far better than I know Spade’s, so I’ll focus on Bourdain in this piece.

Anyone who has personal and extensive experience with depression will find ample evidence of the black dog in Bourdain’s writing and spoken word. Fortunately for Bourdain, he appears to have found a way to enjoy what his life had to offer, up to a point. No one can know how often Bourdain had contemplated suicide, or for how long that had been going on. I suspect he’d dealt with suicidal ideation intermittently for years: turning one’s face determinedly to the good things in life can be a way of denying one’s thoughts of suicide. I should know.

Despite best efforts at self-care, the years 2017 – 2018 brought me the most intense and frequent suicidal ideation I’d ever experienced. (I’ll refer to suicidal ideation from now on as “SI.”) That period has passed, probably permanently, for reasons I’ll get into later. But for a while it was grueling and almost proved to be lethal.

I have a classic setup for SI: I’ve been moderately depressed since my teens (I’m now in my fifties). I also happen to be one of those older non-men who, once their parents die, do not have stable, close relationships to sustain them, and, what’s more, can’t form them. This despite therapy, medication, recovery groups, prayer, reiki, a great education, lots of interests … bla, bla, bla.

My mother died in 2015; my dad had died years before, and I have no siblings, no partner, and I placed my only child for adoption in 1999. I spent a lot of time after my mother’s death trying to “fix” a lifelong tendency toward isolation. I wondered dozens of times a day, in good obsessive-ruminative fashion, why my life had come to this point: the physical feeling was of being hunted and something finding me. The intensity of the feelings of isolation and the despair that came about because of them led (for me) inevitably to suicidal ideation. All the while, of course, I was working fulltime at tech jobs and getting great reviews, involved in recovery, seeing a counselor….

At the end of May 2018, I embarked on yet another “fix” attempt: a mettabhavana retreat, where you sit quietly for a few hours a day (with breaks) and attempt to summon feelings of lovingkindness. For some people, this type of meditation is fruitful. I. Felt. Nothing, other than my habitual anxiety and restlessness. I looked around, saw people feeling peaceful. I heard them talk about the feelings of lovingkindness that seemed so easy for them to invoke. All I could muster were lists of things I wasn’t getting done, and lists of people who were no longer in my life. Once again: what, the hell, is wrong with me. Why am I so different from so many people.

So: I left the retreat early, and unsurprisingly a bout of SI came on. I bought a plane ticket to a city where I knew on good authority that a good means of suicide was available legally, cleared out my fridge, made sure my will and my account beneficiaries were in order, and boarded that plane on June 3. I fully intended at the time to execute on a crystal-clear plan.

But … for me the experience of SI is like a switch: up until quite recently, it flipped on and off beyond my control. As I waited at an airport gate during a layover in the early morning hours of June 4, I looked up from my book and around me at the other people at the gate and …. I no longer felt like taking my own life. Nothing about my life had changed: I simply lost interest in the project in the blink of an eye. I still felt hollow and entirely alone, but, being the resourceful fruitbat that I am, I knew that my destination had quite a bit to offer to a traveler other than a reliable means of suicide. So I got to my city of choice and started to explore.

I hopped around, I ate well, I stayed hydrated. I don’t drink or use street drugs (sober 17+ years in a fellowship), so the influence that those substances can have on the formation of SI was not a factor. The city was lovely in a rugged way and people-watching was superb. Dogs roam the streets there, a few of which are friendly, and picture-taking opportunities abounded.

I got up on the morning of June 5 and refreshed Twitter, where I learned that Kate Spade had taken her own life. When I hear about a suicide, I generally look for the presence of alcoholism first, since the abuse of alcohol increases the risk of suicide attempts. I did not have far to look: Spade was candid about her abuse of alcohol and it’s not likely that she ever was able to find any recovery. I’m not that familiar with Spade’s work, but as a fellow alcoholic, I felt bad for her that she didn’t have the extra chance that sobriety would have given her.

I continued to hop around, eat well, and drink a lot of water. And on the night of June 5, the SI returned. Nothing happened to provoke it. For me, SI is a fast-moving storm of thoughts and feelings. Once again, I resolved to get what I ostensibly had made the trip for. Is it possible that the news of Spade’s death influenced me? Maybe. It’s hard to say. But it’s not worth it to put suicide down to being influenced by other’s suicides: there’s too much else in the mix. And it also leads to blaming people who take their own lives.

I got up the morning of June 6, determined to find my quarry. I drank some water, got out on the street, and … up came some spite against a Problem Person in my life. Just like that, I lost interest in killing myself. Because, you see, then he Would Win, and I couldn’t have that. But if it hadn’t been that thought, it would have been another: the switch simply flipped back. And it stayed in the off position for the remainder of the trip.

On June 7, I went on a wilderness excursion, before which I ate some of the local produce. This led to my getting a nasty stomach bug. So. I got to the top of the mountain (barely), found privacy by tucking myself into literal nooks of the forest, held on to vines to keep from falling downhill as, mere feet away from other tourists, I shat violently and uncontrollably, and then got myself back down the mountain (my guide had left me in his dust). I settled my very smelly person in a local restaurant and realized I was too sick to make the return trip back to my base. I asked for help from my waiter in a second language, who walked me to the cheap and quiet hostel where he was living for the summer. I checked in, made a trip to the pharmacy across the street for electrolytes and an antibiotic, and began a physically miserable night. Absent and unaccounted for: depression and SI.

That evening, I had to go to the train station to get myself a train ticket back to my base. As the attendant mansplained to me why it wasn’t practical for me to do that, a small child found me and started jumping up and down in the bit of space between me and the top of the ticket counter. Why this child would have picked slouched-over, smelly me as a target for hijinks is beyond me. At any other moment in time, I would have found this incredibly annoying, especially as sick as I felt: instead, I found it comical and, in a weird way, affectionate. The child grabbed for my glasses, which I’d laid on the ticket counter, and I quickly moved them out of the way. They jumped up and down for a little while longer, then moved on, perhaps to another hapless yokel. Sadly, I didn’t make eye contact; at the time I didn’t want to egg them on, but now I’m sorry I didn’t look at them. I am not sure I didn’t hallucinate this child: I was running a slight fever. Either way, I’ll never know. And in the meantime I had carped at the agent with sufficient force to secure a train ticket for the next day.

After I got back to my room, I rolled around most of that night between the bed and the toilet, and my WiFi connection was poor. So I listened to the audiobook of Angela Davis’s “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle,” which I can recommend to anyone who needs some spiritual, realist sustenance in the late Anthropocene. I didn’t have WiFi till mid-morning, and when I refreshed Twitter I saw the news about Anthony Bourdain. That day, Twitter was a good place to be, just to be among the many who grieved him.

I thought: how odd, and not odd, that Bourdain and Spade, who seemingly had everything to live for, are now gone, both by their own hand. And I, who have very little in terms of close human connection and nowhere near their level of creative success, am still here.

Bourdain aptly described himself as an “enthusiast” in his Twitter profile. I watched his first show for quite a while in the aughts, then left off when I stopped subscribing to cable. By most accounts I’ve read, he became a gentler and more expansive presence after that. He could have taken a gentrifying, neocolonialist outlook on the world, as people of his ancestry and wealth so often do. His show would have gotten great ratings anyway, because many white U.S. TV viewers lap up scorn against the poor and people of color. Instead, he tried to be a student of and friend to the people in the countries he visited, especially the poor and uncelebrated. And grownups all around the world responded to him as children had done to Mr. Rogers. There are no doubt people who still bear some resentment against Bourdain; his wit, and the anger behind it, could be savage. But he mostly punched across or up, rarely down. And anger frequently hides grief.

Part of the reason I am still alive when Spade and Bourdain are not is because I no longer suffer from active alcoholism. Bourdain may have walked away from heroin, but it’s clear that he was not able to do the same with booze, and what looked to many like fun party times in the last few years of Bourdain’s life looks very much to sober alcoholics like active alcoholism. I am quite sure that alcoholism contributed to Bourdain’s suicide, and I’m having a really hard time with talk online about Bourdain’s “successful” recovery. If you move from heroin to alcohol, it’s not your fault, but you are not in successful recovery. I am not faulting Bourdain here at all: he kept his demons at bay as long as he could. Alcoholism is a treatable disease, not a moral flaw, and I wish keenly that Bourdain could have found his way into recovery and stayed there. The world was a far better place with him in it. But it didn’t happen that way.

I returned to the States a few days later with a deep sense that my life was worth living: I kind of marvel now at my ability to navigate that trip up and down the mountain, deal with people in a second language (especially while I must have stunk like a latrine), and find something to laugh at in the tricks of a child (real or hallucinated). I will say right now that the locals did not bat an eye at my stench (setting them apart from a lot of white Americans), and they were helpful to me without looking for return.

I’ve had one more bout with SI since my return, brought on by failure to see that one of my old scripts with respect to human connection was running in a destructive way. I didn’t make a plan, though. Since that time, I have not experienced SI at all, and one critical aspect of my recovery is due to reducing my carb intake greatly (<100 g a day). Like alcohol, but even more insidious, diet is an immense factor in mood regulation. For me, low carb eating works really well, but for others, it can backfire.

This spring, I was assessed for autism and had my suspicions in that realm confirmed. Perhaps I’ll write more about that topic later but for now, it’s sufficient to say that seeing myself as an autist has reduced some of the self-blame I have had regarding my lack of intimate relationships. I have started to see myself as one of those people who belongs to the world, and who draws comfort from social interaction with other people in recovery, online friends, and literal fellow travelers whom I meet in faraway places with strange-sounding names. I’m also very, very good at spending time alone, and generally prefer it (as do many autists). What’s mostly gone is the self-recrimination that I should have been another way.

If you suffer from SI: you are not a bad or weak person. Use of alcohol or street drugs is something to look at, as is your diet, and of course seek help from a medical care team if you have not already done so. I do not take psych medication (although I used to) but each person is VERY different with respect to the efficacy of meds. If you are experiencing SI, you’re not drinking alcohol or using street drugs, you’re eating well, and you haven’t tried psych meds…. you in particular should consult your doctor right away. Hell, do it anyway.

People take their own lives every day. It’s my firm belief that they have the sovereign right to do exactly that, no matter what. We can’t know how much they’ve endured to stay alive or how tired they are. There is no valor in excessive suffering.

However, the “switch” of SI is something, in my experience, that is susceptible to treatment and prevention. For me, keeping the switch in the off position has saved me literal days of mental and emotional suffering: even if the suicide attempt is not completed, the bouts are exhausting. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to deal with them any more. Sadly, that is true of Bourdain and Spade as well.