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It’s been less than a week since the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. Even writing that doesn’t help it sink in any deeper, part of it is self-protection, because like so many people I just don’t want it to be true. Part of it is because it is so fraught with emotions that it’s truly difficult to process. I can’t even seem to get past what to call him! Let me back up a little and give you the short history.
I’m fortunate to be connected to the Harm Reduction Coalition, an organization that at it’s core seeks to help reduce the harm for drug users and the communities impacted by drug use. That includes overdose prevention, eradicating stigma, reducing HIV and HCV viruses, and so much more. In these efforts, we try not to just “preach to the choir”, but to actually encourage dialogue with those who think they are on the periphery on substance use issues. With the opioid epidemic taking hold, those on the periphery may sadly find themselves smack in the middle at one point or another. We wanted to hold a fundraiser, we wanted to bring in new people that maybe wouldn’t know about Naloxone (the opioid antagonist) or wouldn’t actually hop over to the pharmacy to get Naloxone (blame that damn stigma.) In that vein (see what I did there), we knew we needed to offer more than just the convenience of an overdose prevention kit for a fundraiser, we needed to offer magic! That magic took shape in the lanky 6 foot 4 frame of Anthony Bourdain. See, he represented everyone, he was a former heroin user who knew what it was like to “itch”, he knew what it was like to struggle and work your ass off, and he was now knowing true success. Everyone loved Chef, and he would be perfect! As I will often do, I piped up and said “We can get him.” Everyone thought I was nuts, I’m sure they still do, but son-of-a-bitch if a couple months later we weren’t standing in the lounge at Cafe Tallulah listening to this magic man preach to the choir, new and old!
Mr. Bourdain was awesome at the event. He hung out for an hour and chatted with anyone who was brave enough to approach him. And when he spoke to the crowd, he had our message loud and clear, and trust me, we did not even attempt to coach or ask what he had planned to say, we knew he got it. He signed cookbooks, had a few beers, and when it started to get a little much, he politely headed out the door in to the streets of New York City. That was the last time I saw Tony, and I never would have imagined that 7 months later I would be writing this with the realization that I would never see him again. And you know I was planning a second annual Harm Reduction Happy Hour!
I followed Tony on social media, marveling at his travels, his food choices, his girlfriend, and he seemed like he was doing ok, like he was treading water just fine. You just never know when the cement shoes of depression will finally pull you under for the last time. Yeah, I’m angry. Yeah, I’m asking the same damned questions everyone is asking. How could he do this? How could he leave his daughter? How could someone who was doing so much good for so many people be so unhappy? He was in love, he was in great shape, he was traveling, he was wealthy. I could go on and on, but the truth is, we can never know what demons invaded his brain, and we will never know. I have been thinking about a friend who took his life a few years ago and even though I knew how much pain he was in, it was still hard to understand. I guess I should be grateful that I don’t know that pain. Anthony Bourdain’s passing has hit many people hard and there are still pieces being written and posted today, his impact is incredible and his loss profound.
Plenty of people have assumed his suicide was related to substance use, “he wasn’t really in recovery, he drank all the time”, “well he was an addict”, “he probably started using again and felt guilty”. You name it, people have been saying it and if they aren’t saying it they are thinking it. Recovery isn’t one size fits all, and it can’t be if we want to actually help people. Look, abstinence may be the right size for you depending on your history. Someone else, like Tony, could drink and not slip back in to heroin use. Some are blaming his girlfriend, that she must have broken up with him or cheated on him or whatever. This was not anyone’s fault, this was Tony’s decision and his decision alone.
The bottom line is mental health, taking care of quieting the demons when they start to pull you under, reaching out and checking in on your loved ones who you know have the tendency to go dark at times, doing whatever you can to stay here, where you can love and be loved. The most beautiful part that became known through this remarkable man’s death, and yes I can find beauty, is the countless messages and phone calls I received the day we learned Chef had passed. So many people checking in on me to make sure I was ok, and asking if I needed anything, wanting to connect because they were feeling the sadness, too. I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain, Mr. Bourdain, Tony, Chef, I don’t know if anyone really ever knew him, but for one night in my life he was a friend, an advocate, a champion, and the rock star we all imagined he would be, and I will always be grateful for that. I have been hearing a line from a song from the musical Next to Normal in my head these last few days that I think is important for everyone to have in the back of your head: “You don’t have to be happy at all, to be happy you’re alive.”
Photos courtesy of and protected by Javier Dominguez