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How ‘Roadrunner’ Gives a Glimpse into Anthony Bourdain’s Mental Health Challenges

Yesterday, I finally saw the much-anticipated new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” and I’m still recovering from it. I laughed… I cried… I cried some more. I hate crying — especially in public — but I couldn’t help it. So many feelings came rushing at me, it was almost overwhelming. As odd as it may sound coming from a petite cisgender female with a pixie cut who has a “Peter Pan meets Tinkerbell” kinda vibe, I saw myself in Anthony Bourdain. In his lanky, cocky, tattooed person existed a tender, curious, creative heart that spoke volumes to me.

The enigma that is Anthony Bourdain first came on my radar in the early 2000s as a graduate student at UNLV. I was pursuing a master’s degree in cultural anthropology with an emphasis on the relationship between food and culture. Someone gifted me a copy of “Kitchen Confidential” knowing I was considering becoming a chef, and I was smitten. It was Bourdain’s writing that first captured my attention. Sure he was this bad boy chef who had a reputation for being a little rough around the edges. But, he was also witty, charming, fiercely intelligent and had a way of telling a story that made you feel like you were being let in on a secret. I continued to follow him for the remainder of his life, a kindred spirit to the chef-writer-anthropologist within me who also often felt misunderstood and like she somehow didn’t quite belong anywhere in the world and yet simultaneously belonged everywhere in it.

On June 8, 2018, I woke up and grabbed my phone like I always do. As I scrolled Facebook, I saw the report of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide and my heart literally stopped fleetingly. It’s not often that I’m moved by a celebrity death. This, though; this was something else. I felt that old familiar knot in my throat that I had become very good at stifling and I couldn’t stop it. The tears flowed like a river. I couldn’t believe that this man who I admired so much and who had occupied such an influential part of my life was gone… and even more specifically, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the cause of death.

I knew that Bourdain had always had a rather dark sense of humor. He often mused about death, flippantly commenting on what he fancied his death would look like the way others might talk about what they are eating for lunch. He had a cynical view of the world that appeared to get more ingrained the longer he traveled and the more he saw. This was abundantly evident in the documentary and something that I think made him not only a brilliant writer but a great documentarian of the world. He didn’t travel the world seeing it through rose-colored glasses; he sought out the darker sides of reality, often commenting on the conflicts, tribulations and challenges faced by those on the fringe of mainstream society. His wasn’t a polished Pollyanna view of life, it had an element of stoicism, of having experienced things that he couldn’t articulate and didn’t fully trust anyone to hear.

Chefs are an interesting lot. We are often cut from a similar mold: Misfits who are creative perfectionists, have a tendency toward extremes of behavior which makes the long hours and grueling work a welcome challenge, and introverts who often feel like they are alone in the world and frankly prefer it that way. Many chefs operate on the edge of chaos because that’s where the magic occurs… somewhere between the kitchen burning down and complete burnout.

Even though my business model for our restaurant and inn wasn’t to operate in a bustling city serving hundreds of patrons per night, the idea that I was going to do everything myself without any staff in the kitchen for a couple of dozen patrons per night was perhaps slightly ludicrous in its own right. After 16 years of doing this, I still love it, but I also understand that it can come with a heavy price tag in terms of your mental health.

So to say I understood full well the world in which Bourdain evolved would be an understatement. I know it and its pitfalls intimately. Success is intoxicating and something that became both a blessing and a curse for Bourdain. Wanting to be able to make a decent enough living to be able to pay your bills is only one aspect of it. Needing validation and a constant appreciation for what you have created, be it a culinary creation or a book, is an entirely different thing. In striving for acceptance, you start to lose yourself and you begin to realize that you cannot say no to any opportunity that may come your way because that opportunity might never come again. It can lead to a profound loss of a sense of self that is fertile ground for addiction, anxiety and depression. 

For all of his fame and fortune, the thing that Bourdain always wanted more than anything it seemed was to be loved for who he was. He wanted it so desperately that he almost couldn’t tolerate it when he had it and was constantly alert to the moment it would disappear, a feeling I understand all too well as someone with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). My addictions, depression and anxiety present differently but were born from many of these same insecurities, needs for validation and fear of losing it all.

We may never entirely comprehend what trauma led to this lifelong melancholy that Bourdain experienced, but it was a through-line in everything he did. He was always unsettled, searching for something inexplicable that he never seemed to be able to find. Toward the end of his life, his relationship with Asia Argento and her involvement with the #MeToo movement appeared to haunt him in some way. He saw the devastation that sexual assault had on her and it engrossed him in a way that became almost obsessive and isolated him from those who had been alongside him throughout his journey.

We often push those we love away when we are wrestling with our own demons. In my lowest moments, after my own sexual abuse memories resurfaced where I felt the most lost and needed support the most, I shut down. I didn’t want to burden anyone with my “neediness” or overwhelm them with my negative thoughts. I figured others would be better off without me because I was dragging them down with me. It’s a haunting, desperate feeling and one that played out to a tragic ending for Bourdain. I consider myself fortunate that I was surrounded by a husband who doted on me and sensed something was amiss, a therapist and primary care physician who knew the right questions to ask me to ascertain my actual frame of mind, and just the right people in my life at the time who “got it,” who saw that I needed some extra support and insisted on my accepting it.

“Roadrunner” didn’t provide a lot of closure for those wondering why Anthony Bourdain died by suicide, but it did illuminate and celebrate the life of the man by offering glimpses into his state of mind and relationships. For those who admired him and loved him, it was a beautifully and respectfully rendered retrospective of his life. For me, specifically, it was a reminder of why he in particular resonated so strongly with me. Our histories may have been slightly different, but our identities did merge around our mutual love for food, people and stories and our underlying mental health struggles.

You are and shall remain sorely missed, Tony. Your life may have been cut short, but your light shines brightly within all of those who you touched so movingly with the tenderness of your soul through your writing, sharing and giving of yourself.

Image via YouTube/Focus