[Author’s Note: I wrote this deeply personal piece in 2018 for Huffington Post in response to the tragic death of Anthony Bourdain, a man I had spoken with several times, who served as an inspiration. It may be the most read work I’ve done, and was the strongest performer on the HuffPost Personal section for the month. I am heartened by how many people have reached out, saying it helped them.]
Anthony Bourdain joked about failing upward, about making every mistake imaginable yet still ending up with a dream job. He was paid to travel the world, talk about food, and share stories about people. So when the news broke Friday that he had died by suicide, it came as a particular shock.
Bourdain and designer Kate Spade, who also died by suicide this past week, inspired millions and seemingly “had it all.” From the outside looking in, it is difficult to understand how things got so bad for these celebrities when everything about their lives appeared so good.
It would be offensive for me to speculate about what led to these tragedies. However, I can relate to seemingly having it all.
For the better part of 14 years, I have made a living as an entertainment journalist, pundit and television host. I have been paid to travel the world and speak with fascinating people while trying all manner of food and having one adventure after another.
And for an entire year, I wanted to die.
In addition to his literal height advantage over me, Anthony Bourdain was a guy I figuratively looked up to, and who had a gig I wanted. He was gracious with his time, and he invited me along for a drink when I first met him on an interview in 2007 when he was doing publicity for a No Reservations book connected to his Travel Channel series.
We spoke numerous times and, in 2012, as he was making the move from Travel to CNN for ”Parts Unknown,” I happened to be in production as a host and co-executive producer for a show on the Travel Channel. At a publicity event for his Get Jiro! graphic novel at his former spot Brasserie Les Halles, we had bone marrow, and he gave me advice about working with the network.
Time passed, and I was exceptionally proud to have built a career doing everything I wanted to do. My family never had much money to travel when I was a kid, so filling a passport with stamps from my own parts unknown was a level up for my life. My job became talking about superheroes, science fiction, folklore and the paranormal. I shared the stage with heroes and filmed segments spelunking into ice caves, racing muscle cars, skulking around supposedly haunted buildings, and ladling seemingly ancient spirits direct from freshly tapped barrels. Hell, I rode in one of Adam West’s Batmobiles and a DeLorean. Life was good.
But in the relatively short span of 12 months, my marriage fell apart, I experienced significant health problems, had to move unexpectedly, a big project fell through, and I was let go from a job under what I believed were unfair circumstances. Although I had not experienced it before, these events triggered a clinical depression.
Every day I contemplated my own death. On the darkest days, these ideations were pronounced, detailed and dangerously close to an actionable plan. Other days, I clenched my fist in rage, shouting at a deity I didn’t believe in, imploring him or her to do the deed for me in the way of a massive heart attack or out-of-control New York City bus.
The visual I conjured when I’ve thought about my own depression is George A. Romero’s ghouls. I felt like the slow runner in the apocalypse, the one who couldn’t outpace the zombies. They caught up with me when I tripped and fell, and were on me, digging their rotted fingers into my abdomen, ripping me open while I remained conscious. I would watch them devour me alive, but felt too paralyzed and powerless to fight them off, and I wanted to call out for my mother, or my ex, but there wasn’t enough voice left in me to do so. And I was afraid that if I mustered the cry that no one would come to save me from the ghouls anyhow.
I was acutely aware that I did not want these feelings, but they were there anyhow, always either driving the car or loudly riding shotgun. My internal monologue read something like: “Nope, don’t want to be here, not worth it, I’m not worth it, I hate myself, I hate how I am, I hate who I’ve become, but, hey, this fancy work dinner in London is pretty swell.”
Sometimes I admitted aloud that I no longer wished to live. I openly asked others what my worth was. Most of the time, though, I just privately carried this wish to be no more.
I still worked. But the energy I brought to the stage or camera, to hype up crowds or do silly stunts with celebrities, was hollow. The “me” that was the authentic, joyful person on the job became the mask. As I would continue to have adventures and enviable gigs, good-natured friends and supporters would post on social media, “Jealous,” “You’re so lucky,” “I hate you,” and, “I want your life.” In response, I would quietly think, “I hate me too,” and “Please, take my life.”
There were great days as well. Those days spent with loved ones, or feeling high from a job well done. Those days where I felt like I had nailed it, cracked the code, and had finally shed the pain from the past year and was back to my old self.
But inevitably, at the end of those days, I returned home, or to a hotel room I would not have been able to afford on my own. I would once again realize that “I” was the alter ego. The mask would come off, and the grotesque husk would emerge.
The pressure to deliver, to be the person others expect you to be, to live it up and love a life and job others would kill for just served to cement the mask in place. For me, I felt like I had to appear “together,” and that being grateful for my success meant I wasn’t allowed to feel so broken.
I felt I couldn’t allow myself to admit to such pain and “weakness” publicly for risk of damaging my “brand.” The stigma feels real. Who would want to hire the guy who had felt so much pain he couldn’t bring himself to even move from a hotel sofa for several hours at a time, physically weighted down and staring ahead, numb and completely still like a cadaver positioned upright?
I remained quiet. And when I was dangerously close to the precipice, I got some help, and things did begin to turn around. Over time. I re-familiarized myself with who I am versus the depression I have battled.
Again, I cannot presume to know what Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade or anyone who struggles with suicidal thoughts is going through precisely. But I can confidently say no one wants to feel like they are fighting their own mind, and emotions, and losing. And I believe most people put on a mask and tell themselves a variation of, “Why am I dealing with this when I’ve got it good?” or, “I have a great job, or spouse and kids who love me.” Or, “I have it all.” This thinking created a toxic cocktail for me, in particular, because it prevented me from seeking treatment (and in the depths of depression, you don’t even feel worthy of being saved).
If you are hurting, I really want you to reach out to a friend, and call a hotline. Get help. Please.
And if you are that friend, go ahead and reach out to people, even those that seem like they have it all together. Because when the demons of depression claw at someone’s insides, it isn’t about how many followers they have or how many stamps are in their passport or how much money is in the bank.
You can appear to have it all and still feel like you’re not enough or still want to die. And the truth is, it is a dangerous myth to believe anyone can ever have it all. But you can have help, and there is no shame in seeking it out.