By Kelsey Allagood
When you identify strongly with a person--so strongly that when they speak, it’s like they’re narrating your inner monologue, or so strongly that you reconsider every choice you’ve made in life just because you want to be more like them--it’s pretty unsettling when that person ends up killing themselves.
In my case, that person was Anthony Bourdain.
My sophomore year of college, my boyfriend and I watched reruns of his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, in my dorm room. The television, provided and hooked up to the campus cable thanks to my younger roommate, sat on a stack of plastic tubs that had carried our books and clothes and pithy expressions of our young selves (fairy lights shaped like leaves in my case, a gallon tub of Jelly Bellys in hers). I would sit in my hard wooden desk chair, my boyfriend in crammed in a pink butterfly fold-out chair, also courtesy of my roommate. We would eat microwave popcorn or thin peanut butter sandwiches made with the heels of bread while watching Bourdain slurp noodles in Vietnam or hang with Bedouins in the Egyptian desert.
Sitting there in a sickly-lit dorm in a boring end of Florida, holy shit did I want to be him.
A student of international studies, I would fantasize about getting my own Travel Channel show like No Reservations in between courses on third world politics and international literature. My show, however, would be for vegetarians: Bourdain’s almost affected air of carnivorous gluttony grated on me, a lapsed vegetarian who gave up the lifestyle for good when I studied abroad in Belgium--not for any palate change, but for the simple fact that I couldn’t eat for shit in northern Europe as a vegetarian, and I got tired of my host family feeding me pineapple pizza and fake “chick’n” fillets.
I saw a lot of myself in Anthony Bourdain: a pervasive fascination with the minutiae of other cultures, a love of Iggy Pop, an almost fanatical compulsion to travel, sarcasm, dedication to women’s liberation, a love of curse words used liberally and bitingly.
I also disagree with plenty of his strongest opinions: namely, his disdain for vegetarianism and adoration of all animal parts. Fuck you, Tony, pork belly isn’t even that good.
When I found out that Bourdain had died of suicide, I kept thinking that it was a mistake--that he had faked it, or the news was wrong, or it was a stunt, as unrealistic as that seemed. It was like the dreams I had in the first two years after my dad died. In those dreams, my dad would be alive even though I knew, I knew he was dead. I had picked up his ashes from the funeral parlor, held them in my lap, surprisingly heavy. In those dreams, his death and all the earth-shattering changes to my life in its wake were waved away with the dream-language equivalent of “lol jk.”
My dad died in 2014 (motorcycle, tractor-trailer). He was 64.
Ah, yes, troubled older men--the root of all my neuroses. My dad was on antidepressants, mentally unstable thanks to a traumatic brain injury picked up in the line of duty as a Miami cop in the ‘80s. We didn’t get along. He loved me; his overprotectiveness stifled me. I’ve never allowed another man to scream into my face the way he did. I still listen to the Eagles and to Jackson Browne when I miss him.
Our relationship was complicated, to say the least.
My relationship with Tony was complicated as well, though without the pesky reality of knowing him in person.
Years later, same boyfriend. We binge-watch (that’s a term now) on Netflix (that’s not just DVDs now) Bourdain’s CNN show, Parts Unknown. The theme alone sang to me: I took a walk through this beautiful world/Felt the cool rain on my shoulder/Found something good in this beautiful world/I felt the rain getting colder…
That mix of awe at this world and the cold reality of everyday life--man, that was good shit.
My relationship with Tony had evolved, too. I no longer wanted to start a vegetarian alternative to his show. I appreciated his show; his opinions on vegetarians remained strong yet he seemed less obnoxious about it.
On the day I found out he died, I went to work as usual, but found I couldn’t concentrate. I work in Washington, DC now, writing funding proposals for international democratic development. On that Friday, I began tearing up at my desk just before lunch and decided to take the rest of the afternoon off. I went home, took a nap, then went outside and sat at the picnic tables near my apartment complex in the early June sun.
I thought about why Tony’s death had affected me so much. His shows were about compassion and understanding of other cultures, about appreciating them in all their flaws and beauty. Not romanticizing or separating them from their political histories. And I think Bourdain means a lot to people like me--people who work in fields that require a deep understanding of other peoples’ histories, because of that sharp cultural awareness.
I studied international politics, and I appreciate that Bourdain never tried to sweep over the ugly or the political--I liked him because he was unafraid of tackling these sensitive issues on what was ostensibly a cooking and travel show. I saw a post on Twitter about how Bourdain’s shows were some of the only shows on TV today that actively pushed us to feel empathy for other cultures.
And it can feel, today especially, that empathy is losing. Compassion is losing.
But it’s not. I think Trump’s election has helped many of us realize that we need to demonstrate our compassion, that we need to reach out to others, not just sit on it, feeling things but not acting. But we must practice self-compassion, too. I am very, very bad at this. I am crueler to myself than I would ever consider being to another person. I think a lot of us compassionate people are like that--we focus our compassion well outward instead of inward first because, for some reason, we feel undeserving of it. But we know others do. That’s the difference today. There are those who cannot feel compassion for themselves and thus believe that no one else deserves it--and those who know intuitively that all people deserve compassion, but when they can’t give it to themselves they turn it outward, and give all to others. Often, they give too much.
Goddamnit, Tony: depression lied to you. I know it lied because it’s lied to me, too. In high school, before I’d ever heard of Anthony Bourdain, I suffered from depression. I toyed with the idea of suicide, though never enough to actually attempt it. But I cannot forget that feeling: the one that told me that everyone would be better off without me. That my parents--who loved me fiercely, unconditionally, unendingly--would be better off without me. My suicide would have destroyed them. But that’s depression: it is cruel, relentless, and illogical. It tells you that you are a burden, and that your absence would benefit the world more than your presence.
It fucking lies.
I was able to get on antidepressants. I moved away from home and from my overbearing father. Both of these things contributed to a drastic improvement in my mental health. I’m still on antidepressants and I see a therapist weekly. Both of these things contribute to the continued balance of my mental health.
I see myself in Anthony Bourdain. Even in his death, I see myself and the lies that depression hissed in my ear. I see my dad, and everyone who has lost a man they barely knew but wished they had known better.
I also see survivors. I see lovers, dreamers, the lotus that blooms in mud.
I see the Parts Unknown episode in Miami, land of my forebears. And “The Passenger” plays over the end credits while Tony walks down the beach:
Get into the car
We’ll be the passenger
We’ll ride through the city tonight
See the city’s ripped back sides
We’ll see the bright and hollow sky
We’ll see the stars that shine so bright
The sky was made for us tonight
Kelsey Allagood is a writer by night and a policy wonk by day (and vice versa). Her work has appeared in Menacing Hedge and in several school publications. She lives in Washington, DC.