Anthony Bourdain, Chez Pazienza, And The Urgent Need To Get Help

I woke up this morning to the terribly sad news about the great chef and travel host Anthony Bourdain’s untimely death at the age of 61. Bourdain apparently hung himself in a Paris hotel during filming for an episode of “Parts Unknown”. Reported CNN:

Anthony Bourdain, the chef and gifted storyteller who took TV viewers around the world to explore culture, cuisine and the human condition for nearly two decades, has died. He was 61.

CNN confirmed Bourdain’s death on Friday and said the cause of death was suicide.
Bourdain was in France working on an upcoming episode of his award-winning CNN series, “Parts Unknown.” His close friend Eric Ripert, the French chef, found Bourdain unresponsive in his hotel room Friday morning.

Bourdain’s death immediately brought back memories of my friend and Banter writer Chez Pazienza, a similarly talented, troubled soul, who died last year of a reported heroin overdose. While not a suicide, Chez’s death stemmed from mental health issues that he could not control and an addiction that held a terrifying power over him. His death, like Bourdain’s, came as a horrible shock — but unfortunately not a surprise.

Creative forces like Chez Pazienza and Anthony Bourdain almost always have troubled pasts — drug use, divorce, depression and anger issues that can erupt at any time. They can appear to be one way in public, but behind the scenes are often incapable of holding it together. Some of the most successful, creative and dynamic people I know live two completely separate lives, and live in constant fear of falling apart.

Chez would frantically email me late at night sometimes, distraught over something he had written or anxious about his financial future and the stability of his job. I had a hard time squaring his brash, confident public persona with the fragile person he appeared to be at times, but the older I get, the more I see it.

There appears to be a general rule that the more successful you appear to be outwardly, the more vulnerable you are inside. I’ve known elite level professional fighters with astonishing physical abilities who have suffered from crippling depression that would be impossible to detect if you met them in person. I’ve seen incredibly wealthy media executives struggle with drinking, drugs and terrifying bouts of anxiety that are completely hidden from the people they work with. Who they appear to be is not who they really are, and at some point those two disparate realities inevitably collide with disastrous results.

I have greatly enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s work and have followed him for years. His down to earth, no-nonsense persona translated incredibly well onto the screen, and his travel shows were some of the best television I’ve ever seen. He seemed like a real person — a former bad boy with a giant heart who used the medium of television to shine a light on the plight of those less fortunate than himself. “Unknown Parts” was ostensibly a show about food, but it was really more about people and how they used food to create communal bonds. Bourdain was more interested in the stories behind the dishes he tasted, the history and culture that created them and the colorful characters who brought them to life. Bourdain opened up the world for his viewers, and he made it a better place.

It is impossible to know what demons Bourdain faced as a man, but evidently they were too much for him to handle in this lifetime. He has gone too soon, and leaves too much behind — a girlfriend, a young daughter, and a worldwide audience of devoted fans who wanted to continue exploring with him. It did not have to be this way, and it should never be this way.

I have never suffered from depression or mental illness, but an unexpected bout with anxiety during my wife’s pregnancy shone a light onto a world so many people live in. It was a frightening experience that shook me to my core, and it has given me a deeper understanding of just how fragile the human psyche really is (I wrote about it at length in the Banter Members section if anyone is interested). Under the right circumstances, I discovered that mental health issues can affect anyone.

Thankfully, I had great people around me during my crisis, and I took pretty dramatic action to pull myself together. But had I not had my specific upbringing and lots of loving people who wanted to help me, I’m not sure how it would have been resolved. Mental health issues are incredibly serious, and there are literally millions of people who suffer from it on a daily basis who feel like there is no way out. The mind is a tricky thing, and when depression or anxiety strikes it can genuinely feel like impending doom and the end of the world. Of course it isn’t, and only a calm mind can reassure you of this. But when you are not calm, almost nothing is reassuring as your agitated mind will work frantically to convince you of the worst case scenario.

If you feel like this regularly, or even infrequently, get help. Now. There is no shame in reaching out to your fellow human beings for assistance when you are feeling like this — it is how we evolved and the only way we can survive. In our highly individualized, materialist society, many of us have become convinced that we are alone. There are millions of people out there who feel like this, and if only they could talk more to each other, I think we would all be alright. There is no shame in feeling depressed or anxious. Your friends on Instagram posting about their perfect lives are struggling too. The rich and famous who have everything going for them cannot hold it together either. Our society is going through a period of extreme change, and our cell phone cameras and internet connections mean we experience it at a truly intolerable pace. We are increasingly connected to one another technologically, but increasingly disconnected emotionally. This isn’t normal, and your depression and anxiety is a perfectly rational reaction to it.

The way out is to reach out, to ask for help and share with others the struggle you are going through. No one is born feeling anxious or depressed, and it is perfectly possible to return to a state of well being and happiness. The help is out there, and before you decide to call it quits, give life one more chance. The world is a magical place, and you have a right to enjoy it.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255

 

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.