Maybe, if he could have found good company to travel within…
I learned about Anthony Bourdain’s death, reported as a suicide, from an early morning patient yesterday. Bourdain had been known to say: “Your body is not a temple. It’s an amusement park. Enjoy it!“ I wanted to believe that he was enjoying the life he presented to the world. His self-disclosed history of heroin addiction and drug and alcohol use led me to assume, initially, that his death was a result of accidental overdose, and that a toxicology report would eventually confirm the terrible reality. As horrible as that would have been, I found it more tolerable than knowing that Anthony Bourdain had wanted to die. It’s hard to imagine that this remarkable, brilliant, accomplished, glorious adventurer, really wanted to leave this world, but he clearly did. He killed himself by hanging.
Anthony Bourdain’s multidimensional, brilliantly conceived and produced television program, “Parts Unknown,” promoted appreciation and pleasure in differences and commonalities among cultures, using the universal matter of food and eating as a way in. For him, “weird” was a synonym for “delicious.”
We who vicariously traveled with him to obscure (and some familiar) places in “this beautiful world,” had little sense of the anguish, loneliness, and haunting despair that sometimes overtook him. A closer reading of the lyrics to the song that opens “Parts Unknown” may be read to give a clue to Bourdain’s less openly expressed experience:
I took a walk through this beautiful world
Felt the cool rain on my shoulders
I took a walk through this beautiful world
I felt the rain getting colder
Sha-la-la -la -la
“I felt the rain getting colder” …
This may be an overreading. However, clear expression of his inner pain can be found In a 2016 episode of “Parts Unknown,” when Anthony Bourdain traveled to Argentina to taste, of all things, psychotherapy.
The camera picks him up on the psychotherapist’s couch.
Well, things have been happening. I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.
It’s like that with the good stuff too. I have a couple of happy minutes there where I’m thinking life is pretty good.
Bourdain also spoke about feeling out of place.
I feel like Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame — if he stayed in nice hotel suites with high-thread-count sheets, that would be me. I feel kind of like a freak, and I feel very isolated.
I communicate for a living, but I’m terrible with communicating with people I care about. I’m good with my daughter. An 8-year-old is about my level of communication skills, so that works out. But beyond that I’m really terrible.
On camera, Bourdain also told the therapist about a recurring dream he had “for as long as I can remember.”
I’m stuck in a vast old Victorian hotel with endless rooms and hallways trying to check out, but I can’t,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in hotels, but this one is menacing because I just can’t leave it. And then there’s another part to this dream, always, where I’m trying to go home but I can’t quite remember where that is.
The dream is haunting. Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy, used to look at dreams by understanding every element in a dream as an aspect of the dreamer. I have found that some dream elements seem to bear a common symbolic meaning for many. Houses or dwellings often seem to represent the Self. Reading Bourdain’s dream through this lens, he seems to be terrifyingly stuck, alone, in the experience of trying find his true self.
Today, knowing that Anthony Bourdain has killed himself, I read this material with particular sadness. I do not know if ever he turned to anyone for real help with these very painful feelings, but I do know that such help might have been found somewhere in this world. In the episode he shot in Argentina, he exploited himself in revealing his intimate feelings for the sake of entertaining his audience. In order to benefit himself, he would have had to find a helping person and stay put somewhere. Stay put and stay sober enough “to feel what he had to feel, to think what he had to think, and, finally, to put it all in perspective.” But it appears that traveling within was not Bourdain’s way.
These last quoted words were the words of my wisest teacher, Elvin Semrad, who also used to say: “No therapy is comfortable. But there’s one comfortable thought: Two people sharing pain can bear it easier than one.”
Thinking and writing about all of this … what am I doing? I’m flailing around for something on which to focus the futile wish for something that might have made Anthony Bourdain want to stay in this world. He made the world richer and more beautiful for others. If only …
Rako, S, & Mazer, H. (2003). Semrad: The Heart of a Therapist. iUniverse.