I started sobbing when I saw the news reports on Anthony Bourdain dying at 61 by suicide. I’ve never cried at the passing of a celebrity, not even Robin Williams, who was a symbol of my childhood. Bourdain was a favorite writer of mine and his travel shows focused on unseen and feared cultures and culinary dishes. He was a hero to me with his brash, honest, and beautiful prose on why it was important to get out of your bubble and experience the way other people lived. The images of him and Barack Obama drinking beer and eating traditional Vietnamese food in a hole-in-the-wall shop in Hanoi was a proud American moment for me. Bourdain did not believe in America above all. He believed in the world. For a traveler and expat, there was no other person who epitomized the ideals that I believed in so perfectly. And even better, he was a badass who knew how to cook. But, these were not the reasons I cried so hard when I saw the tributes to this adventure lover.
I cried because, to me, Bourdain was strong, independent, and open-hearted to the world and all it threw at him. If the darkness could get him, it could get me too.
I traveled and lived abroad all through my 20s and it was the most amazing experience of my life. It changed me in countless ways, but at the end of the day, when I jumped on a plane, I took my literal and figurative baggage right along with me. Many people think if you travel, you are running from something, but I never felt like I was trying to run from the sadness that would overtake me or the insecurities that made up lies in my head. I was just happier abroad; felt that I was more among people who understood me and were ready to experience new things without hesitation. But it is a common idea that travel is a cure-all. Elizabeth Gilbert got over the heartache of a divorce in Bali, right?! Books and movies like Eat, Pray, Love teach us that travel not only changes you, but solves all your problems. I’ve met many travelers who are on that trajectory; telling me about pain back home that they no longer wanted to endure. The thing is that travel can inspire and mend you (it has for me multiple times), but it will not cure you. In fact, it can cause even more pain.
I can’t pretend to understand or know Bourdain’s life, but I know what it is like to go from hotel room to hotel room, country to country, and feel a gaping emptiness. What solo travelers don’t show you in their pretty, color-popping Instagrams, is the moments when they are crying alone or writing in their journals ruminating over their mistakes. I traveled by myself to countries throughout Asia and it afforded me a chance to meet kind locals, eat delicious food, and challenge myself to face my fears. I recommend this kind of travel to everyone and I’m actually planning my next solo trip to Mexico. When I recommend solo travel to my friends I tell them, it will be the most fantastic time of your life, but it will also be the hardest. There is no one else around, but your mind. You can distract yourself with books and music, but your thoughts are loud and a harsh loneliness can come cutting through. Facing that loneliness makes your stronger, but it’s rough. I’m sure there were times when Bourdain felt that loneliness or that self-doubt in his work or cursed himself for not being home for people that needed him. All travelers have had these moments.
Over the years, traveler friends have opened up to me about times that the darkness has overtaken them. I’ve been told stories of attempted suicide, alcoholism, cutting, anxiety that turned into a breakdown, and being put on meds for depression. The bottom line is that no matter if you stay at home or live an exciting, perfect looking travel lifestyle, you experience pain. No matter if you are a nobody or Anthony Bourdain, you can feel like your life is worthless. Our society needs to accept this and keep an open conversation going about it because there are ways to get help. The sad fact is that many people are too ashamed or afraid to take them.
Even though I write, I am quite private about anything negative in my life. I like to be happy and funny and I often think, someone else has it worse. Don’t complain. But, I think it’s important to share my own experiences with what I am calling, “the darkness.”
When I came home from living abroad, it was extremely rough for me. No one understood it because it was not their experiences and they were so happy for me to be back in America. But, I was hurting all the time and felt like a foreigner in my own home country. I didn’t know what direction my life needed to go and I missed everything about my life abroad. There was one day that I remember very clearly. I was sitting outside and it was a beautiful day, but all I could hear were lies in my head about how none of my friends liked me and how my family and everyone would be better off without me. I felt like time wasn’t moving and I could just sit there forever. Luckily, even though the lies hurt, I could see them as lies and I knew I needed to get out of that pit of despair. I told some close friends that they needed to hold me accountable for seeing a therapist asap. I told them I was feeling depressed with moving back, but I didn’t tell them the full scope of it because I didn’t want to seem dramatic or have them not believe me. Many times, you might tell someone how sad you are and they say “cheer up!” and don’t quite understand that it is more than that. I went to therapy and it helped me so much. Being able to talk out how I was feeling to someone who gave my thoughts respect and could give positive ideas on how to deal with the dark thoughts was extremely healing. I don’t go to therapy anymore because it gave me what I needed and put me in a good place, but if I ever return to that dark place, I would certainly get help again.
I share this story because I think so many of us are ashamed to get help if we need it. We think, maybe it’s not that bad, or people will judge me or think something is wrong with me if I go to a therapist or talk about the way I’m feeling. They are wrong. I’m so lucky to have people in my life who listen to me and accept me for who I am. There are no judgements on the fact that I’ve had to go to a therapist or there are days when I may hate myself. They listen and they love.
I’m sure Anthony Bourdain had the same love in his life, but his darkness got to be too much. Maybe he was afraid to admit it was there or to find help. Being in the public spotlight makes those choices even scarier. But, he needed help and travel, sadly, was not the cure.
If you need help or to talk to someone, please call or chat online and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.