Taking Your Life In Your Hands

It is no secret that I grew up in rural Maine. The road we lived on was not paved until I graduated from high school, and even then only partially – it became dirt again before you would get to our driveway. Our road went from being called a “Rural Route” to an actual road around the time I made it to third grade. Our family vacations extended to visiting people that had houses in places that weren’t where we were from: grandparents, friends of my parents, and relatives. I spent a lot of my summers in other people’s houses, sometimes which ran exclusively on generators. I can flush a toilet with a bucket of water and have ridden a 4-wheeler for non-recreational purposes.

The first time I traveled outside of New England was when I was accepted into the Honor Band of America which was held in Indianapolis. That was also the first time I flew in a commercial airplane and the first time I saw African American people in real life. I was 16 years old.

I grew up in one of the whitest states in the nation and due to my rural location, attended one of the whitest high schools in the state. I then went to college at the University of Maine, located in Orono, which is a city just north of one of the largest cities in Maine (Bangor: pronounced Bang-gor not Banger), and it was not an internationally diverse student body. My exposure to other cultures or other people was severely limited through age 22.

Then I moved across the country to Arizona, and dove into an environment I was not prepared for but which opened my eyes to so many amazing things. I also learned about issues that did not exist in Maine outside of the small Somalian refugee settlements that everyone loved to complain and be racist about.

Because being dirt poor in a brand new very diverse place wasn’t enough of a challenge for me, I started my master’s degree that year and decided to visit a very close friend whose family had a house in Scotland. Yes, Scotland. Did you know that the majority of Americans don’t even own a passport? Well I had to get one and I have kept it current ever since. So I took myself to the airport and navigated flying, customs, and everything completely by myself for my first international trip in my entire life at age 23.

Granted we mostly hung out at their house, jet lag hit me pretty hard, and we did get out to see the sights, but my best memory was going with her family to a Scotsman’s house on the coast for New Year’s Eve. We sat around, ate appetizers, drank a bit, and then we all went out on the wharf to count down to midnight and there was singing and hugging and everyone was just having a good time.

This is the kind of travel experience that you can expect to see on shows run by Rick Steves or the late Anthony Bourdain. Sure now that I’m traveling more I can stay at hotels and see actual touristy sites, so I’m less likely to stay in people’s houses and share meals, but the message that these gentlemen bring to all of us through their shows is that travel increases knowledge, and the more you know and experience of other people’s cultures, the less likely you will fear them, and fear breeds racism and anger, leading to terrible decisions about how to relate to the rest of the world. I agree with this 100% and shudder to think about how I would be now if I had not ventured beyond the comfort zone of my upbringing.

While Rick Steves is my loveable nerd that lives in the attic of a quaint couple anywhere in Europe, Anthony Bourdain spoke to my angry heart. He was a bit more gritty than Steves, and his chef experience always meant that his episodes would be more about the food where he traveled. Food is the number one most exciting thing about traveling for me, so watching his shows was always fun and enjoyable because I could imagine what eating all those neat things might be like.

Connecting to the idea that travel is enlightening, Bourdain also tried to bring awareness to places that might seem so distant as to make us not care or not understand the seriousness of events that were happening in certain places. He was not here for anyone’s bullshit. One of his most famous traveling rants was his anger towards Henry Kissinger over the atrocities in Cambodia.

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”  – Anthony Bourdain, in the 2001 book A Cook’s Tour

God bless you, you fucking delicious angry angel. I love a good rant/take down, and it’s important to bring truth to the masses, especially when atrocities like this are happening half a world away and again, most Americans will never travel outside of the U.S.

Last week I was sitting down with breakfast and a cup of coffee when breaking news hurtled across my local 24 hour news station that Anthony Bourdain was found dead of apparent suicide. I said “Oh my God!” out of shock, and then messaged the husband, who was in Utah grading AP exams. This one hit us hard.


I thought of a lot of things to write about this, but every time I wrote something long and heartfelt, that involved my own personal experience with suicidal thoughts and depression, I deleted it because I know that my principal knows about this website, and the last thing I want to do is have my work life turn unbearable because the stigma attached to any mental illness is that I might be crazy or out of control. BTW I’m not.

And maybe the fact that I can’t write about my personal story is testament enough to the idea that mental illness is still so misunderstood and poorly treated that people have to hide it as best they can. If we don’t, we can’t get jobs, we can’t hold jobs, all because we have a treatable, manageable illness. Imagine not being able to get a job because you have asthma or irritable bowel syndrome. Mental illness is the same as physical illness – I am not crazy, I’m just depressed.

Adding to this stigma is the fact that the way people use the word “depressed” is to mean that they are very sad. Kind of like how people will say they are ADD or OCD without actually having those diagnoses – people think it’s funny if they like to organize their closets by color or can’t pay attention to their book long enough because they have to check Twitter, so they label themselves. This dilutes the understanding necessary for the actual diagnoses and only adds to the ignorance.

Depression is so much more than sadness. It’s hard for me to describe it because while some symptoms are the same, and of course the chemical imbalance is something you can google and read about on wikipedia or WebMD, the personal asshole that a depressed person has living in a small cottage in their mind is different for everyone, and the lies that they spout are dangerously, furiously individualized and specific to their victim. For me it’s not about being sad always, most of the time it’s about feeling nothing or what my therapist (who isn’t covered under my health plan anymore so I have to find a new one) called feeling numb.

Trust me, sometimes thinking about all the great things that are going on is a good way to manage the depression. If the symptoms aren’t very strong, thinking about happy puppies might be enough to get some feelings through the numb shell. But depression isn’t a thing that responds to “just cheer up!” or “Smile and you’ll convince your mind you’re happy!” Depression requires therapy, medication, or a combination of the two to make life manageable.

So when I started seeing statements about how Bourdain was doing what he loved and had everything, how could he take his own life? – these made me feel even worse. You can have everything and still suffer from depression. You can be a billionaire or a homeless person and suffer from depression. Anyone can get a broken bone or have heart disease and anyone can have depression. It is an illness, not a momentary sadness. It is treatable, it is possible to be okay and live with an illness. Imagine if someone died of cancer and we said “why did they die, they had so much going for them, they had it all!” Ridiculous, right? Replace the word “cancer” with “depression” and it means the same thing.

When I learned that not only did Bourdain give me insights into travel and food and how to love the experience, but that he also shared something more intimate with me than I could have ever guessed, I was heartbroken over his loss. When I see suicides in the news, it’s a terrible reminder that this illness I have could attack at any time, and that could be me on the tv, but no one would care because I’m not an Anthony Bourdain, I’m just me. That last part was written by my depression, and I let it write it because you need to see how quick and sneaky it can be.

I took some time to think about how Bourdain, Steves, and others show us that travel opens doors and prevents hate, and realized that the same could be said about depression. One of the clearest ways to get help is to communicate what you need, to not shut yourself up even when that’s your first inclination. Go out and tell someone you need help. If you see someone withdrawing, ask if they need to talk. Go out and be among other people, eat their food, listen to their music, and if we are talking to others about our shared experiences, that lying voice in our head won’t be as loud.

So while Bourdain’s suicide is a stark reminder that none of us who battle the illness are immune regardless of circumstances, it also reminds us that we cannot continue to retreat into our individual bubbles and force everyone else to fend for themselves. We must offer help when we can, and request help when we need it. Tell your story if you can, share your experiences with others. Be brave, and bit by bit the stigma surrounding mental illness will be chipped away. Travel into other places, even if that other place is simply your neighbor’s kitchen, and share a meal. This is how we will survive, by seeking to understand each other and to support each other while taking that understanding into consideration.

We have lost an angry angel, but his lessons are still with us. Read. Be Brave. Stay Angry.