Anthony Bourdain and the Poisonous Lie of the Perfect Life
Like a lot of people, my visceral, gut response to discovering that Anthony Bourdain had apparently committed suicide at 61 was “What? No! But he had a perfect life! Why would someone who had everything do that?”
I am a Bourdain fan. I read and enjoyed his best-selling, career-and-name-making chef memoir Kitchen Confidential and used to drink white wine and watch his show with an ex-girlfriend. I remember marveling at how seemingly perfect Bourdain’s life was. He was strikingly handsome in a rugged, manly, timeless fashion. He was cool in a way that was inviting instead of intimidating.
He was a natural writer, quick, breezy and effortlessly funny, and an equally natural television presence, a dashing world traveler with a pirate’s rakish charm and an insatiable curiosity about the ways and wonders and sights and smells and tastes of the world that informed everything that he did.
From the perspective of my ex-girlfriend’s couch, it sure seemed like Bourdain had it all figured out. He was living every writer’s dreams. He was traveling around the world, meeting fascinating people, getting drunk on expensive liquor, eating copious amounts of delicious food and getting paid handsomely to be on television and be famous. He was an industry upon himself, but not in a Wolfgang Puck frozen macaroni dinners at the Pig N’ Whistle kind of way. No, he achieved extraordinary success on his own terms. He was a bad boy, an international figure of glamour, the kind of guy who gets asked to model watches in moody black and white photo shoots.
I was jealous of Bourdain. I wanted even a fraction of his extraordinary success and fame. I wanted to travel around the world having adventures and eating great food and being super-famous.
I think that’s there’s an innate cognitive dissonance to how we process suicides or overdoses of celebrities because there’s some weird animal, perpetually non-understanding part of our brain that is convinced that being famous and/or rich is so wonderful and important that no super-successful person should ever want to kill themselves, let alone do so.
We understand intellectually why people who’ve risen to the top of their fields and become world-famous, like Bourdain, kill themselves but on some child-like level we’ll never understand it because we want what they had and can’t understand why it didn’t bring them the happiness and contentment that we imagine it would bring us.
I had the same knee-jerk, “What? But they’re famous and rich and talented and doing cool stuff that I wish I could do!” response to news of the overdoses of other giants like Harris Wittels and Prince and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who I literally could not have more respect for or consider more special and important and irreplaceable.
I know from personal experience just how possible it is to be successful on the outside and writhing with despair and confusion on the inside. The period of my career when I was objectively most successful was 2011, when I was head writer of The A.V Club, writing multiple books for major publishers like Scribner and Abrams Image and following Phish and Insane Clown Posse for the book that would become You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
I made more money that year than any year before or since. I was playing in the majors.
I was never more miserable personally, or more depressed, than when I was most successful professionally and financially. I was overcome with fear and dread, terrified that my all-important career was on the verge of shattering under the pressure of too many projects and obligations and responsibilities and not enough time or sanity or security or friends.
I hated myself and was mired in apocalyptic thinking, convinced my doom was perpetually around the corner.
From the outside it looked like I had it made. But I was crumbling internally from the pressure. I remember thinking vividly back then how if I were a big Phish or ICP fan I would think it was ridiculous and unfair that a non-fan got paid to go to ICP and Phish shows. Heck, from the perspective of 2018, I think it’s astonishing that I got paid to do what I did for those books.
But when I was struggling with writing that book I couldn’t see past my own despair and trembling self-doubt.
I wasn’t overcome with anxiety and self-consciousness despite being more conventionally successful than ever before. No, I was overcome with anxiety and self-consciousness in large parts because I was more conventionally successful than ever before.
I think that’s true of a lot of people. So it’s important to remember how overwhelming the incredible pressures that come with fame and success can be, how they they can eat away at people’s sense of self.
Bourdain seemed from the outside to be living a perfect life with an ideal career, amazing girlfriend and overflowing circle of friends and admirers but his passing is yet another bracing reminder that there’s no such thing as a perfect life, because life itself is so inherently messy and filled with pain that, like so much else, can be impossible to understand unless you’re experiencing it firsthand. Even then, it can be confusing and overwhelming, the kind of thing you're not really able to process until it's comfortably in your past.
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