Anthony Bourdain and the Shadowed Places

I sat in stunned silence when I heard that Anthony Bourdain was dead. The silence quickly transitioned to tears that flowed for the remainder of the day. As I cried at the breakfast table my lovely man looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and helplessness. Once I had a few moments to gather myself, I thought I would try to put into words exactly why I would grieve the loss of a person I had never met. This is the explanation that I sent to him via email.

I know that you don’t understand why I was crying so let me see if I can explain. There are people with darkness in their lives. Darkness is the wrong word because it’s so often equated with evil. It’s more like a shadow. And when I see that shadow in other people I silently acknowledge it. It’s kind of like that not-so-secret wave that motorcycle riders give when they pass each other…hand down…I acknowledge your free spirit…you acknowledge mine. I saw that shadow in Anthony Bourdain. It came out in his cynicism and his wistful looks while sitting amid beautiful landscapes. I believed that underneath those layers of crust was a tender heart, one on display when he listened to someone talk about social injustice or poverty and how those things weaved into their life stories. I often think that the shadow and the tender heart are a matched set. Once you’ve acknowledged your shadowed places you more readily identify those places in others and it hurts you for them because you know how painful your own shadows can be. That’s what I saw when I watched him. I also saw him continue to move forward. My reaction wasn’t really sadness. It was fear, perhaps even terror. If Anthony Bourdain, with his wealth, influence, and access wasn’t able to keep the shadows at bay how does anyone? What hope do I have? That explanation may not have helped but I needed to at least try to explain why I might cry to the point of sobbing about a celebrity that I’d never met.

The six-word reply that I received from him “I know why you were crying” stopped me in my tracks. Of course he knew. That is precisely the reason that I adore him.

In the last week, I’ve seen so many people reference telephone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines. It is wonderful that these resources exist and I am positive that they have saved lives. People have also implored others to “reach out” and let them know that you are facing a crisis. It’s a beautiful sentiment but I’m going to tell you right now that it just ain’t that easy.

Several months ago, my guy learned of an acquaintance that had nearly been pulled under by depression and suicidal thoughts. He asked “why didn’t he just reach out before it got that bad?” Before I could even think about a response I blurted out “because it’s not like drowning!” And it is not like drowning, not at all.

When you are drowning your body warns you that something is wrong and urges you to fight to stay alive. You realize that your feet no longer touch the bottom of the pool or that you are being carried away from the shore by a rip current and you don’t have the ability to save yourself. You kick, you scream, you wave your arms to draw the attention of someone, anyone, who might be able to save you from this predicament. If you’re lucky, a stronger swimmer or someone with the right training will notice your struggle and jump in to save you from the thing threatening to end your life.

The shadowed places aren’t a pool. They are not a rip current. I have never felt the sensation of watching the shoreline recede from my view. I have, however, opened my eyes to find that I’m sinking into a blackness that appears to have no bottom, lungs already full of water, and knowing that, even if I could yell out there would be no one to hear me because this is not a place where people congregate. And as I continue my descent, I try to make sense of it all. One moment I was laughing with a group of people or reading a book and the next moment I am here. There was no warning.

I should be very clear to anyone reading this that I do not have suicidal thoughts; not now anyway. I thought about it more often than I care to admit in the past but it’s not a thing that I have contemplated in a number of years. However, if the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, have reminded me of anything it’s that the shadows creep in when you least expect them. Sometimes they are darker than they’ve ever been and they convince you to believe all the lies they tell before you even get a chance to ask for a second opinion.

Anthony Bourdain ushered me into adulthood. He gave me the courage to eat and explore at the precise moment when I was gaining the ability to do both. His shows figured prominently in the early days of the relationship that eventually became my heart’s home. We watched Anthony and we admired his beautiful combination of cynicism, awe, and humanity. We also talked about the places that we had visited and made bucket lists of places we wanted to visit together.

Anthony’s final departure feels all wrong. It shouldn’t have been this way, but that’s the problem with the shadows. They rewrite the narrative before you even realize that they’ve wrested the pen from your grasp. My hope for Anthony is that he has found peace. My hope for the rest of us is that we continue to believe in ourselves, the love of our families and friends, and the hope of tomorrow more than we believe the lies of the shadowed places.

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