Anthony Bourdain had the best job — world-traveling storyteller and eater. And he was really, really great at it. And he took his life. Depression is as real as a bullet. This is something I wrote a few years ago (with a few recent additions) in the wake of another “successful” man’s untimely death. Sometimes, it’s a struggle. If there’s a bottom line to the essay, maybe it’s this: There isn’t one way out, there are many ways forward, and there are people and services and other things that can help you find the way!
Robin Williams did a lot of stuff that I’ll never forget, but there’s one standup bit that my wife and I have consistently borrowed over the past 30 years. It’s the one where he puts Mr. Phallus on the witness stand and asks him what he remembers about the night in question. Mr. Phallus answers, “Let’s see, it was light, it was dark, it was light, it was dark.”
Today it’s dark. Really, really dark. Today, nearly four years after Mr. Williams took his own life, we learn about the suicide of another seemingly unstoppable human force, Anthony Bourdain.
I didn’t know either man, and I rarely get choked up when a celebrity shuffles off for his backstage pass. But in Williams’ case, I was not ashamed to be part of the mob that said, “this one got to me.” And in Bourdain’s case, I’m left shaking my head, mumbling to myself, “dude had the best job in the world … why?”
Well, for one thing, life and death isn’t all about the work that you do or love.
Anyway, I can understand a little of what these men must have been going through, I think. Depression is the soul’s dark implosion; hope, will and desire sucked dry of momentum; no reason to live, no reason to try, microwaves of pain constricting and expanding in a nasty mockery of rhythm, and the nagging persistence of a beating heart to mark the endless hours. Or something like that. I’ve pulled over when the convulsions of depression rendered driving impossible, when I wanted to cry or scream, or die where I sat, alone, forgotten and hopeless.
I’ve also suffered a rotator cuff injury patting myself on the back for finding whatever courage or common sense it took to get back on the highway and show up for whatever I was driving to.
So, about 15 years ago I wrote a magazine story titled, ‘Down Time: The High Cost of Depression.’ It was written by a breadwinner, a husband and father whose infant son had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy – his little boy, who seemed to be facing insurmountable, unfair challenges.
It was written by a man taking some sudden sharp turns in his life, a guy who loved and loves his family with a gut-punching fury, a self-pitying, miserable man who felt well suited to approach the subject of depression with a measure of understanding.
The story focused some on the financial toll depression had on businesses, and some on the personal struggles of a few big shots, CEOs and the like, and these dudes shared their serious-shit depression stories.
“I felt enveloped by a darkness. I was going down, down, down, down. It was like being in a deep well that I couldn’t climb out of,” Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, told me. He described times when the anxiety was so smothering, he sought refuge in the safe place under his desk. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Turns out, depression is a great equalizer – CEOs and regular shmoes stand side-by-side and front-to-back in the Prozac line. According to the experts I interviewed at the time, environment (the stress of raising a child with profound disabilities, or a demanding job, for example) accounts for about 60 percent of the risk for major depression, and genetics (dad was depressed, so you might be, too) about 40 percent. Those are risk factors. It’s not the job’s or the kid’s or your old man’s fault that you’re bummed out. Basically, it’s your biochemistry, which doesn’t always react to those factors in a healthy way.
The lions of industry that spoke with me faced their depressions with different arsenals. Drugs, therapy, even shock treatment were part of their assorted proverbial toolboxes. They all agreed on one thing. There was (and still is, God help me) a stigma associated with depression. “Even in today’s enlightened society, you tell someone you’re going to a psychiatrist or taking an antidepressant pill, and you are sort of singled out,” said J.B. Fuqua, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist who died in 2006.
Boy, was he right on. A lot of so-called enlightened people still have a hard time accepting the validity of the vice-like choke hold that depression can have on a person – even if they’ve experienced it themselves (depression doesn’t come with the automatic power of empathy, unfortunately).
That article from long ago ends with a contention from Johnson that treatment – drugs, therapy, whatever – isn’t necessarily a cure. “Sometimes, you just have to make a change,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to get away from whatever is pulling you down.”
It only occurred to years later, when I dug up the old article, what a chilling statement that is. Johnson didn’t mean it that way. He meant, distance yourself from the thing that is destroying you. For Tom Johnson, it meant leaving CNN. But for Robin Williams, and way too many others, it means leaving everything. For them, the sound of their own breathing was something to escape.
I’ve heard people say – people I otherwise respect – that ‘hope’ is for the lazy, that ‘hoping’ is a passive way to avoid the responsibility of actually ‘doing.’ That is misanthropic bullshit. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” For a lot of people, hope is the thing that keeps them going. Hope is the breath of life.
It’s difficult to fathom (especially for a scribe who has, from time to time, pursued the “big gig”) how someone as seemingly self-assured and fulfilled as Anthony Bourdain could be so far down, there was no climbing back.
And while I understand that Robin Williams already was battling incurable Parkinson’s disease, it’s still heartbreaking to think that someone as gifted and beloved as he was, an artist who unleashed such a positive spirit and energy on the world, can be totally incapable of drawing hope or support from the big love surrounding him. This powerful, positive presence in the universe was utterly hopeless. And if it could happen to him …
Well, that’s why it got to me.