Last night, I put CNN’s Parts Unknown on and watched for three hours. It’s one of my favorites, a go-to because I love Anthony Bourdain and have loved him for a decade now, ever since discovering No Reservations and falling under the spell of his self-deprecating, sarcastic brilliance. I recognized him. He was “my people”. I read every book he published voraciously. I watched his many television shows and even enjoyed Ratatouille, a cartoon he had a hand in writing. At least two of my children – one a chef, the other an artist – joined me on the quest for all things Bourdain. I felt that I knew him, from the moment I saw his craggy, handsome face and heard the world-weary tone in his voice. I also heard the wonder.
You see, we recognize our own. We see it, deep inside them. Maybe it’s the shadow that passes over their face in a quiet moment, or the smile they put on that doesn’t quite reach their eyes. It is their love of solitude, and the ease with which they put on their brave face and greet the day when there are so many responsibilities, so many people in cue, wanting their time and attention. Those who suffer with depression are brilliant actors. Never doubt that.
We love, fiercely, that which we seek to understand; we revel at times in the joy of our lives, just as we wallow in the sadness that teems just underneath the surface, waiting for its moment to bubble up and gulp in great lungfuls of oxygen. It always does, you see. Like fire, it needs that oxygen to spread and live – and live, it does. When it does; when it spreads, like thick molasses, and traps us down with it, we simply lay there, captured, like a fly in sticky tape. We let it lie to us for a while, and then we fight it, because we either have people who are strong enough to love us through it, or chemicals we take to summon the strength to fight. Always, always in the back of our minds is the gnawing thought: is this going to be the time that the dark, sticky, enveloping quagmire of desolation finally overcomes me and I succumb to it? We fear it almost as much as we fear the days when we are forced to appear happy to the world when we are sunken into the empty well of darkness that we fall into.
You, who don’t understand this, don’t catch the hints. We, who live with it, see it immediately. It’s not a question of addressing it with our weary, fellow travelers who accompany us on this seemingly endless road of survival; I never once had the opportunity to meet this man. I would have loved to have a drink and a plate of whatever he wished with him and to pick his brain; he was so attractive to me with his rangy, sinewy body and salt and pepper hair. When he was happy – and believe me when I tell you that I recognized those moments even from a remote, impersonal image on a television screen – he was irresistible. And when he was not happy; a state of mind I could recognize in an instant and that haunted his face much more frequently than the happiness visited him, I wished only to be able to grip his hand and say, softly, that it was okay. The husband recognized my fascination and admiration of this man as lust; I did lust because he is in my wheelhouse of men I find attractive; but I really lusted after the ability to look him in the eyes and say, “I know.”
I never got that chance, and was awakened this morning by a missed phone call and a text from the husband, asking me to find a calm place before getting on the internet. If he had discovered this news before leaving for work, he would have called off. Yes, this is that big of a deal. It is not a close friend or family member in the literal sense, but actually, it is. We, who recognize each other in this life; we, who battle demons of the same legion and who try to simply grip each other’s shoulders and to urge each other to FIGHT: we belong to the same tribe.
And when one of us falls, we need a minute. We need a moment to catch our breath, need the time to digest it, to send for reinforcements, and to plan for an attack. When one of our biggest, and brightest, and most secretive succumbs, we know that it is only a matter of time before we will be beseiged with an attack from the same, evil empire. It’s inevitable. It lies in wait, ready to jump us while we’re feeling vulnerable. I can’t help but feel angry at Tony right now, despite my my eternal love and admiration for his genius, and for his companionship. He didn’t know that, of course, but he was a member of my tribe. And now he has fallen in this endless battle we are engaged in. In succumbing, he has opened me to an attack. I’m wearily donning my armor and waiting.
Depression, when treated, is like a cavity in a tooth. We know it is there, and we numb it with medications, or booze, or other things that don’t exactly help it, but make it bearable. Because we hate…hate…and fear the dentist. Having to go means having to listen to admonishments about how shitty we are at taking care of our teeth. We regard our mental health like our dental health. There is still shame. We probe it from time to time with the tip of our tongue and the pain returns, fresh, until we go to the dentist and either fill it or remove it. Fillings help us to forget about it, but removal leaves an empty space for our tongues to return to, to remind us that it’s gone, and that the living tissue succumbed because we didn’t attend to it with the same fervency that we would if, say, our child complained about a toothache. We are great at caring for others. Others provide great camoflauge; necessary diversions for us. But we suck at caring for ourselves.
We must try to do better. We must let those around us, who recognize our struggles, help us to fight. Those of you lucky humans who belong to that other faction that doesn’t experience the darkness, who aren’t educated in how to recognize us: you need to educate yourselves because our tribe is under attack; it is experiencing a plague. We can’t do it alone. Please, if you are reading this and you are alone in this battle; if you belong to my tribe: just reach out to me. I know you’re there. I think about you. I can help you fight. And you, in turn, can help me.
Tony, you were my people. I ache for your family, for your daughter. I ache for myself, because you were beautiful, and you were sad, and now you’re free, and that is dangerously attractive. I don’t want to follow you. Right now, I need to mourn your loss and to be angry at you for a little while, because losing you is like losing one of our best warriors in this battle, and you have made our line vulnerable. But we are not weak. You were not weak. You just believed the lies. And sometimes, the lies overwhelm and engulf and all we want is peace. I hope, for you, there is peace.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Please, call it if you are in my tribe and you feel alone. Or message me. I promise you, I am here.