Are you as sick of this word as I am?
Today I woke up to the sound of my daughter saying, “…he was 61. He killed himself…” She was telling my husband the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. I woke up to this.
No, I didn’t know Tony, but I felt like I did. I’ve seen almost every show he’s ever done, what to me looked like fantasy vacations that I never dreamed I could ever take, eating foods that I never wanted to try. And he became somewhat of an idol for me. My husband and I watched his show on CNN and talked about the places we wanted to visit someday, and I talked about the strangers in each locale that I wanted to pull up a chair with and learn about. Because he made it look so easy, the travel to exotic places and the gathering of people, the interviews with the locals that made strangers living 3,000 miles away feel just like the people down the street. Tony was so gifted. It wasn’t just about the food with this talented chef—it was the people, the connections that were created through sharing a meal, breaking bread together. He said, “Food is the entryway.” He took me so many places. He showed me so many things. This West Texas girl lived vicariously through him.
Maybe it’s silly to become so sad, so disturbed by the death of someone I never even met. And maybe this is the strength of our celebrity culture, globalization, technology—people we see on television or the internet every day become like family members.
He wasn’t a family member. But I lost a family member to suicide, and days like today bring it back full force. I found out about my brother’s death upon waking, too. My husband woke me to tell me my family had been trying to reach me on my cell phone, but I’d been napping. I flipped through text messages—“Call me. It’s an emergency”—and listened to voicemails from a few friends—“Page, I am so sorry… I don’t know what to say… I’m here…” The only person I hadn’t received contact from was my brother Paul. And I knew immediately that he was dead.
The shock is almost unfathomable. I felt that shock again this morning when I heard my daughter say, “It’s Anthony Bourdain. He killed himself.”
All day long I’ve read social media posts, watched news clips, read news articles, and every single one of them includes the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). I also included the lifeline on my own Instagram post. So I’ve been thinking all day long about Tony, about suicide, and about that lifeline. Would I, if I was in despair and hopeless and just wanting to be done with life, pick up a telephone and call a 1-800 number, talk to a complete stranger, and even believe that life would get any better? I don’t know. Tony was obviously a bright man. He knew there was a lifeline—seems like most of us in this country today know about this lifeline as a result of so many celebrity suicides—and certainly he knew there were therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists available to help him. The simple fact is, he chose not to receive help. He rejected help.
Robin Williams rejected help, too. Hell, he was receiving help at the time of his suicide back in August 2014. And his was another death that completely floored me, shattered me, took me days to stop thinking about. He was another person I followed, admired, was so inspired by, and felt like a good friend, like a family member. Silly, I know, but such is the human heart. His suicide came just four months after my brother’s, and the pain was so raw and visceral. I sat on the couch and screamed. And now we learn that the rate of suicide in this country has increased by 25%-30% since 1999: what is going on in our world? Are you angry? I am. I’m thoroughly pissed.
I’m pissed that Robin and Tony rejected help. I’m pissed that my brother didn’t tell anyone that he was dying inside. I’m pissed that the stigma of emotional pain and hopelessness keeps human beings from sharing their despair, which is often enough to help them endure and live another day until they can get the specific medical care that they need. I’m pissed that boys and men are told to “suck it up”, “be a man” to the point that they don’t even know where to begin to share their suffering. I’m pissed that our world views success as an immunity to emotional problems and mental illness, as if money will make you happy. I’m pissed that we are so concerned about image maintenance that we refuse to be authentic with each other, we refuse to say that we’re struggling and need help. And selfishly, I’m pissed that these people who brought so much to my life decided to check out. The pain was too great in that moment, and they could not see a light in their darkness.
Here’s the truth: more than 90% of people who survive a suicide attempt go on to live out their full natural lives. For people who are seriously contemplating suicide but don’t have the means available to them to complete it, there is a high likelihood that they won’t make an attempt in the future. Many suicide survivors report that they regret attempting to end their lives, some even saying they regretted it the minute they jumped, swallowed the pills, lost consciousness.
Despair is a part of the human condition. Suffering is inevitable, no matter who you are, no matter how successful you are. And for some, despair can be the greatest temptation, can become the focus of their life. But within all human beings is the spark of life and resilience that, if we are able to endure our suffering, will keep us living on in spite of it all.
And this is what pisses me off the most, that suicide is often an impulsive decision formed in the fog of despair that confuses and hurts and lies to us: “This pain will never end. This is the rest of your life. There’s no way out.” That’s a lie. That’s a lie.
The significance of 1-800-273-8255 is that it rejects that impulsive and permanent decision of suicide. Calling that number, reaching out to a friend, talking to a therapist is that spark of life reaching through the fog of despair. It represents hope and the truth that life can and does get better. I wish Tony had just said to his friend, “I don’t want to be alive.” I wish Robin had told his doctors, “I’m scared, and I’m thinking of ending my life.” I wish my brother had known that his suffering wasn’t shameful and wouldn’t have made him any less of a man, a father, a son, or a brother.
Lastly, I’m just pissed at all three of these guys for leaving the rest of us to carry their pain for them. Because that’s also the truth. The loved ones of those who take their own lives never recover from suicide; we just learn how to cope with it. At least, that’s the hope. Some survivors cope very poorly for a long time, and the suicide becomes a legacy they just can’t shake. Those who commit suicide must think that we’ll all go on without them, life will somehow be better once they’re gone, we won’t be burdened by their pain. But that’s a lie. The suicide is the burden. And we survivors will carry it forever.
If it would do any good, I’d stand on my rooftop and scream to the world to be authentic, be vulnerable, reach out and ask for the help to just get through another day. Teach your children that it’s human to suffer and how to express their emotions and ask for help. Know the signs of suicide—hopelessness, substance abuse, impulsivity, major life changes, access to lethal means, isolating, mental and physical illness—and don’t be afraid to talk to someone who you suspect may be suicidal. Talking about it does not cause it to happen. Often, it gives the person the time and space to open up and stop the impulsivity of suicide. Check on those you love. Start a conversation about the increase of suicide in our nation. Let’s talk about it more, not less. And if you are suffering and in despair, please know that it can get better. If you feel like you just can’t endure any more pain, tell someone. Surrender. Allow them to help you. Through medication, through counseling, through their time, and through their love.
I didn’t know Tony, but I think he would like this: yesterday my husband and I booked our flights for a winter trip to Israel. This dream-come-true began with an episode of Anthony’s Parts Unknown on CNN in which he, too, traveled to Israel and introduced me to the food, the beautiful people, and the sacred and controversial place. I vividly remember thinking during that episode, “I want to go to Israel. Maybe someday I will. Maybe.” So I think of Anthony today with sadness, but also with gratitude, because it was him that sparked the conversation with my husband, “Should we go to Israel?”
Thanks, Tony. We’re going.