Losing My Idols

Photo by Mark Seliger

Photo by Mark Seliger

Let me preface this by saying a few things: I’m speaking entirely from my own experience and not that of any kind of expert on mental health…I’m just a person who’s been dealing with the ups and downs my whole life. Also let me be clear that I am NOT against any form of mental health treatment, and I think it’s absolutely essential for some people. This isn’t an opinion piece on the inspiring life of Anthony Bourdain, but rather my personal reaction(s) to his life and death and what it means to me and probably some disorganized shit that I just needed to get out.

This one feels particularly heavy. It’s a sentiment that is shared by my peers and people around the world today. The loss of one of my idols this morning, Anthony Bourdain, has got me feeling a lot of things. He was an idol to so many of us because he, like Bowie and countless others, represented the misfits and he did it well, giving us a voice and endless inspiration.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a habit of talking to myself. Sometimes I’d even talk to the photos of rock stars on my walls, knowing full well that I was actually just talking to a piece of paper and some tape. Probably the result of being an only child (with a hard-working parent) who was home alone a lot. While I’ve outgrown talking to walls, I still talk to myself.

This morning I dug out my copy of Kitchen Confidential from my bookshelf and held it for a few minutes. I stared at the photo of Bourdain on the cover and thought about how sad I was feeling, then about what that book means to me, and what it meant to me the first time that I read it. I was in my early 20s and drifting in and out of depression, experiencing the first doses of adulthood, in both healthy and unhealthy relationships, and trying to figure out the general uncertainty that comes with that age. Kitchen Confidential was the first book of his that I read, shortly after discovering him via the Travel Channel show, No Reservations, in 2005. I’ve re-read it a few times over the years and often found solace in it when I was feeling sad or just generally weird. I said “thank you” out loud to his photo on the cover of the book in my hand and immediately started crying.

I don’t know what it’s called when you overly relate to fictional and even non-fictional characters and/or people who you don’t actually know, but I do it a lot. I don’t think I’m delusional, but I think I’ve spent a lot of time alone. Of course I didn’t personally know him and only knew him through a curated collection of his words, television shows, and interviews, but I hold kindred spirits close. I soak up other peoples’ lives like a sponge, for better or worse.

I’ve lost a number of people in my life, so loss is not a new concept or feeling for me. Losing an idol is a different experience. Though people have been affected by the death of their idols forever, in a time where we have closer proximities to them through the internet and constant access to media, it can really feel like you’ve lost a friend when an idol dies (a dangerous concept that probably needs more exploring, in my opinion). When someone so brutally honest and open, whose literal hunger and lust for life you admire dies, it can hit you harder than you ever thought it could.

At the risk of sounding completely tacky, I might as well start labeling the major events in my life as “Before” or “After Bourdain,” though I’m sure he’d laugh at this Christ-like comparison. But the truth is, he appeared in my life at a very influential age. Again, being put on any kind of pedestal seems like the kind of thing that he’d probably hate, but his influence is undeniable.

I was the Editor in Chief (I’m rusty, don’t judge me) and Art Director for my college newspaper when Bourdain made his debut in my life. He instantly made me want to become a better writer, a better traveler, maybe even a better human. I’m very grateful to come from a family of artists, chefs, and makers. But like everyone else, after I discovered him, my life was infused with so much more curiosity about travel, food, art, politics, and everything else that he became synonymous with. I’d devour (all of us, right?) any article that I found on him. What was my fascination with him? The same as it was for everyone else who admired him, his story and his enthusiasm for life, I guess.

“The demons” that everyone talks about when a tragedy like this happens never go away. Well, maybe they do for some people, but I doubt that they will for me and they probably never did for him. When I heard that it was suicide, I felt physically sick. Part of me thought “of course,” while other parts are still trying to (probably selfishly) reconcile and make sense as to why this celebrity stranger, who felt like a friend, would actually do it after all these years. Then there’s the part of me that said, “I get it.”

There’s a much larger and more complicated story here, but the short(ish) version is that I’ve dealt with manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder - I just happen to prefer this term) and anxiety (and who knows what else) my entire life and I’ve remained medically untreated. 

Some backstory is necessary. My parents, whom I love and remain very close to, are aging bohemian punks (now with typical age-related health ailments) and they’ve been dealing with their own shit in the form(s) of drug use and abuse, depression, anxiety, and ADHD — some of which they medicate, some of which they ignore or have chosen to not medicate or intermediately medicate — my entire life. I knew something about their experience was different before I even started to understand what that different was.

Bear with me for this part; it’s long-winded but as short as I can make it in order for it to make sense. As a small child, we were wealthy. I lived on a houseboat in Cape Cod and sometimes in a nice condo in Arizona. Then, all of a sudden, by the time I was eight, we were poor and lived in one bedroom at my grandparent’s house and my dad was in jail. Because of this, I had the privilege of growing up in an extremely affluent town — thanks to my grandparents, whose residence I used to attend the school. It was a beautiful town. A liberal atmosphere full of art and culture and families that came from old money (not mine - our family was a typical American Dream story), but frankly, also full of snobs. People turned their noses up at my family and sometimes even at me, an 8-year-old.

My mom busted her ass in the food industry, catering and waiting tables while my dad was gone. Eventually, she got us our own little government-subsidized apartment together. She bought me a small book called “Home,” which illustrated the various meanings of a home. I still have it. My dad was in and out of my life after he got out of jail. Without getting into too much detail, we didn’t really start communicating again until I was out of high school.

I used to feel incredibly embarrassed to be different; the growing pains of a misfit. My parents were never like anyone else’s. They listened to punk music and took me to my first shows. They swore (profusely) and still do. They had patches on their clothing, wore jangly jewelry and crystals, and they didn’t care what anyone else thought. Despite their flaws, those are all things that I greatly admire about them now as an adult.

When I was about 18 I finally came to that very important realization that my parents were people, and just like me, they were trying to live and breathe through all of their own bullshit. That kind of changed everything for me. The teen angst dissipated and I think that’s when I truly started becoming a more sympathetic and empathic person.

Today, my parents live a very unconventional lifestyle that sometimes even still puzzles me, but it seems to work ok for them. They were never legally married, as my mom married her gay best friend in the ‘70s for citizenship (she’s from England). They had a fake wedding at a hippie commune in Allston where they lived at the time, officiated by their rabbi friend (we are not Jewish). Anyways, they’re currently together, but they choose to live separately…at least for a few more years until they reach an age where they’ll probably need to live together again.

As part of this narrative, the experiences that I had and the way that I was raised, I “grew up” at an early age. I was always a worrier and still am (thanks, anxiety). Because of this, I never wanted to burden my parents with my issues, which was completely of my own volition. I hid it from them and I became good at hiding it from everyone.

Though they lack any semblance of a conventional parental structure, my parents have shown me great love throughout my life. I’m sure if I had expressed that I was having mental “trouble” in high school, when it really began to develop for me (at least in a way that I could finally recognize as depression or anxiety), they would have found a way to help. An issue that I struggled with then, and struggle with to this day (and a fairly common one for anyone struggling), is not wanting to burden anyone else with my problems. They were going through their own shit and I couldn’t imagine overwhelming them with mine.

The first time that I really went to therapy, I was 28 and I had recently been dumped by an extremely troubled and emotionally abusive ex-partner (who, against my better judgment, I ended up dating for another year and a half and briefly moving out of state with). Though expressing your feelings after a breakup is completely healthy and normal, I think that this might be the first time that my parents truly saw that something was different with me, too. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t stop crying. I was obsessive over small things. I was a mess. My Mom showed up at my house, picked me up and drove me straight to therapy, which she paid for out of pocket even though she couldn’t really afford it. She repeated this scenario for my first few visits. I don’t even know if she knows how much that meant to me. Though I got back together with that partner before ultimately realizing that I couldn’t help this person in the way that they needed, something in me changed for the better after I went to therapy (twice a week for three months — before the insurance that I eventually got ran out).

When I tell people that I deal with manic depression, a common response is something like, “Wow I had no idea. You seem so level-headed.” When I was 23 I wrote a poem about killing myself in a bathtub that was not received well in my poetry circle. In hindsight, it was dramatic and naive, though I prefaced it by saying that I was not serious. It was more of a fantasy. Then I started drawing illustrations that sometimes exhibited examples of the current state of my mental health, like one that said “I’m 23 and sometimes I want to kill myself” below a self-portrait of me laying on a floor. I’m 31 now, and that sentiment still remains…sometimes. When I say that, what I mean is that sometimes my brain wanders into this familiar territory that almost feels good, which is admittedly as confusing and fucked up as it sounds. There's a term for this, but I can't remember what it is. When I’m feeling particularly low, which is sometimes triggered by something but other times it just happens, I’ll fantasize about a scenario, like driving my car off of a cliff or walking into the ocean or something equally as typical and poetically tragic. I’ve had some extremely dark times, but as I try to explain this clusterfuck of chemicals and how they make me feel, please know that I have absolutely no intention of acting on it. Ever. I’m just trying to describe the places that my brain takes me.

So why didn’t I seek help as an adult? Well, partially because I’ve always felt like I could deal with it. I’ve learned and developed my own coping mechanisms throughout the years, from utilizing art therapy to listening to rock ‘n’ roll in the dark with a bunch of candles (rituals, if you will). Immersing myself in texts that speak to me, poetry, whatever. I absorb all of it vigorously so that I can live vicariously. The second half of why I didn’t seek help is because of our healthcare system. As someone from a low-income background, I’ve been in and out of health coverage my entire life. As soon as you become comfortable navigating one system, you get thrown into another. Plus, as so many people struggling with depression or similar issues knows, seeking help when you’re already feeling In A Way can feel damn near impossible.

When I was about 25, my Mom, who has lived a much more colorful and interesting life than I have, full of travel and magic, bestowed some knowledge to me that I’ve never been able to forget. She said, “You know, I’m in my 60s, but I still feel like I’m 25. You get older and you gain more life experience, but you never really feel any different.” I’m reminded of this all of the time and it only makes more sense the older that I get. No amount of success or wealth will actually make you feel different. Maybe that’s why certain demons never disappear.

Now more than ever people are being vocal about mental health. And we should be. Not only because it creates awareness and more outlets for us struggling with it (and maybe eventually…someday…it will finally be addressed politically in the way that it requires), but also because it’s an important reminder that we’re not alone in this completely isolating place. While I, personally, couldn’t see myself calling a hotline, I’m glad it exists. I’m happy to see people and even brands letting its existence be known. And while I’m endlessly grateful to have a small but beautiful circle of friends and a support system, it’s probably clear by now that I haven’t always been comfortable utilizing it. Not to mention, not everyone has access to that or even any healthcare at all. And even if you do have these things, reaching out to someone, anyone, seems to be the go-to response these days, and it’s not always easy to do that. Sometimes treatment won’t even help. Depression is selfish and many of us, even the most open of us with the most resources, hide what we’re going through for one reason or another.

Everyone starts thinking about the concept of death by their 20s, but thoughts on death and mortality seem to take a different form in your 30s. I imagine these thoughts only evolve as you age. I have far fewer fantasies about death these days, even though I still get depressed regularly. Perhaps those Old Familiar Feelings will come back someday, but for me, each time they reappear they’re a little bit easier to shake off. I’ve experienced more, I guess, and navigated through some deeply painful times, leaving me fairly jaded and even cynical, but happy to be alive.

I’ve been scrolling through photos, moving recollections, stories of encounters, and quotes from and about Anthony Bourdain all day. Every time that I read something new that he said, or perhaps something that I’ve seen before but now has a new, tender meaning, I think, “YES! This dude gets it.” Anthony Bourdain got it.

Maybe that’s why the loss of Anthony Bourdain is hitting me so hard. When you feel like you’re a part of a subculture or you're just someone who sees parts of the world differently, you find those rare ones who also get it and hold on tight. You see someone like Anthony Bourdain and think “maybe I won’t get fucking lame as I get older” and feel reassured by the thought. Sure, he was eccentric but show me a cool person who isn’t. He was a seemingly solid human with the best sense of humor and signature snark. His words changed my life. He was candid and honest, yet mindful and inspiring and ultimately delightful. He taught me to approach life with more curiosity, more aggressively, and with greater wonder. He was one of my idols and now he’s gone and it demands reflection.

Food, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll forever.

- A