The loss of Anthony Bourdain this week hit my family hard. He was one of the few celebrity chefs we knew of back in the day, before this culture of celebrity chefs was really a thing. The charismatic and adventurous New Yorker put a solid two middle fingers up to any kind of health food fad or pretentious, showy, Hollywood sensationalism and instead let himself be immersed in what truly mattered: culture and cuisine.
Having grown up abroad, this resonated with me. The foods I was exposed to growing up – particularly in my early childhood in Morocco – have shaped the person I am today in many ways. I am bold, adventurous and forever on a quest to try new things. Anthony Bourdain spoke to that part of me. The explorer. And the part of me that is captivated by the Human Condition, as was he.
I remember watching episode after episode of A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations, fascinated as Bourdain would take himself around the world, trying the most diverse array of foods. He would laugh and ask questions and learn from his hosts and had this way of making those places commonly left off the map newly desirable locations for foodie enthusiasts watching from around the globe.
Although these days I eat in such a way that I try to minimise my environmental footprint, I still can’t help but have a place in my heart for what Bourdain stood for, underneath the surface; food as a vessel for the coming together of people. And food as an art form. Food as the medium through which a culture can express itself and tell its story. Even if those foods include a bunch of things that we know in this day and age we would be better leaving off the table to preserve a healthy planet. Much of the world eats what’s local and what has helped them survive for millenia. Those foods mean something, regardless of whether or not they fit into the current desirable paradigm of ‘sexy vegan cuisine’.
In much of the world, people have a far more intimate relationship with their food than those of us surviving on microwave dinners and single-serving fruit cups purchased and consumed on the go. In these places, food is an experience. Every moment, from the sowing of seeds or birth of new livestock through to the nuturing, harvest and preparation of meals, culture is comprised of the life cycle of food as a whole. We are who we are based on how we deeply we interact with that life cycle.
The headline came through this week that Bourdain had died by suicide and I couldn’t quite believe it. He was so full of life, so fascinating and had so much going for him. How could this be? What drove such a successful person to think this was the only way out? We’ll never know and I sure as hell have no place speculating.
Many people around the world commit suicide every day. That sentence makes it sound like I wrote that without emotion and – believe me – that couldn’t be further from the truth. But I must state the fact; they do. And the majority of those people won’t raise global alarm because they are everyday people with small social circles and their cases considered ‘ordinary’. But whenever a celebrity does it, it always makes the headlines and it’s easy to see why.
Celebrities appear to have it all, don’t they? The status, the money, the power. They’re at the top of the foodchain. They’re the people we should all look up to, right? They had a big dream, worked hard to achieve that thing and have the luxury lifestyle that most of us will only ever aspire to. Get rich or die trying, right?
So how can it be then, that these people with their perfect lives can fall down a cavern of darkness so deep that the only way they know how to escape is through suicide? Ding! You got it: their lives aren’t perfect. I know. It’s a revelation. In fact, the enormous pressure of feeling so bad when you’re supposed to feel the polar opposite can near drive a person to insanity. I’m no celebrity (chef or otherwise) but I certainly know at least a thing or two about feeling the unbearable guilt of asking the universe why you don’t feel better; why you don’t feel the sum of all the wonderful things that you can list about your life. Those things that, of course, you are grateful for. But somehow, those things aren’t enough.
I spent most of 2016 wanting to die. It was the only viable option that I saw for myself. The only way that things would get easier would be if I didn’t have to keep going at all. I felt a million miles from the kind of life that I wanted for myself and a ten-tonne weight bore down on my chest everytime I’d look at all the boxes I ticked which said, ‘hey girl, you’re doing better than most’ and felt an emptiness outweighing them all.
I sought therapy and reduced my work hours and those decisions were the catalyst that turned things around for me and eventually made me come off hormonal birth control which made me realise that that had been about 80% of the problem all along (read more about that here). And after all of it, when I finally felt my ‘Day 1’ of starting afresh, do you know what the most common response was, from the majority of people who knew me best?
“Wow, I never knew you’d been feeling that bad. You always seemed so happy.”
Some of us can hide ourselves under layer upon layer of responsible adulting that can create such an opaque mask over what’s really going on inside that even those closest to us wouldn’t be able to guess in a million years. We still go to work. We do the grocery shopping. We run our errands. We fulfill all of our familial obligations. We make jokes and we laugh sometimes. And meanwhile on the inside we are empty and lifeless.
It really surprised me that my sharing this newfound joy with others elicited such an unexpected response. In my head I had been a shell of myself. How could my closest friends, family and boyfriend not know just how low I’d felt this whole time? How was that even possible?
And then something like Anthony Bourdain’s suicide happens and suddenly it all makes sense. No matter how well we think we know each other, the truth is that none of us are mind readers. And so it is paramount that you ask questions and cultivate your empathy to try your best to step into the shoes of those that you love if you want to truly support them. And not just when they’re turning to drugs or alcohol or sex to numb the pain. Much before that. In the everyday.
These celebrity deaths, as heartbreaking as they are for everyone who’s lives they have enriched, are so vital in triggering a reality check for us all. They show usthat celebrities are, well, people. First and foremost, they are humans with complicated emotions and brain chemistry and inner demons. You can have all the money in the world and a team of staff and great career prospects and plenty of vacation time, but you are not exempt from those demons that prey on us all. You are not exempt from trauma and heartbreak and loss and yourself.
I didn’t know Bourdain and which demons got the better of him in the end. Or well-known fashion designer, Kate Spade, who too was found dead in her apartment from suicide this week. My heart bursts with sadness for those closest to them and their millions of fans around the world. But I hope we learn from this. I do. May they get conversations flowing and may humanity change in their wake.