A Lust for Life and Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain
Peabody Awards [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It is so terribly tragic that Anthony Bourdain has taken his own life. This gritty, sometimes dark, edgy, East Coast punk rocker, movie lover, chef, author, and master storyteller with a lust for life was an attraction for me. I love all those things too! We both grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York City. We were both heroin addicts.

Both of us found success, too. Mine came in music as an '80s pop star and in surviving (what was then) an HIV "death sentence." His fame came as a master chef, author, and television star, most recently on the popular CNN series Parts Unknown. We both lived in Massachusetts, where Bourdain began his career as a cook and heroin addict, as seen on the "Massachusetts" episode of Parts Unknown, in which he revisits his early days in Provincetown in the 1970s and shares his introduction to drugs. In 1987, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of the Kushi Institute, where I found my salvation from heroin and into recovery, and a healing diet called macrobiotics.

It's no surprise that I was attracted to Anthony Bourdain -- the handsome, mature, rugged face with salt and pepper hair. Wearing his distressed blue jeans and black t-shirt, he reminded me of my ex-husband, though much more adventurous. But what the hell was he eating? Brains, stomach, lungs, or aorta, as he so graphically described on a recent CNN special tribute by Anderson Cooper about Bourdain in the wake of his suicide.

Anthony to Anderson: "The word on the street is you hate food."

"I'm not a big foodie! Yes, that's true." Anderson replies.

Pondering the blood sausage in front of him, Anderson asks, "Why is it called "blood" sausage?"

"Cause it's made from blood," says Anthony. "If it's really good, it's kind of squirty!"

With that, Anderson stops short of biting into the sausage and smells it instead. "How can he eat that?" I wondered. Anthony's explanation of eating things that many people wouldn't was indicative of his endless curiosity about people and their cultures. Even when reticent about some foods, he understood that it would be an insult to his hosts if he refused.

When asked whether he was ever afraid of eating something that might make him ill, he brushed it off. "Sometimes you have to take one for the team," he replied.

He preferred the intimacy of interesting food and conversation with his hosts, strangers who would become friends, making him very human and easy to love.

I was never what you would call a "good eater." When I was a kid, sitting at the dinner table felt like a waste of time. I'd rather practice my cartwheels on the front lawn of my suburban childhood home. I preferred sweets, including fruit, which was my saving grace. I needed that sugar! That was probably the addict in me in its earliest bloom.

Something is familiar in the horror of Anthony Bourdain's suicide -- the violent act itself and the dark desperate depression that drove him there -- that makes me want to know why. But I guess none of us will really know.

Like Anthony in his 20s in Provincetown, I recall my own desperate time in my 20s while living my adventure in New York City and slowly killing myself with drugs and alcohol. As my career progressed, so did my anxiety. Did I really deserve success? Was I good enough? There were other pressures, and soon the ghosts of my past blocked any good feelings I had about my life and future. But I kept going, smiling, and using drugs and drinking. I had no control over my life, and drugs and alcohol drove me into the abyss. I knew no way out, and death seemed the only solution. Like many addicts, I romanticized death. If I hadn't run out of money for drugs, I likely would have died from an overdose or suicide. When the drugs stopped working, and the money and prestige became meaningless, I found myself at the end of my road and the beginning of a new one: a road I might not have chosen if I hadn't been so desperate.

But the drugs only hid the real issue: my depression. Depression is a killer. Though not exclusive to alcoholics and addicts or people living with HIV, the lifetime prevalence of alcohol use disorder is higher among people living with HIV than among the general population.

If you're already predisposed to depression and alcohol disorder or addiction, a stressful lifestyle can trigger depression. Managing depression with alcohol -- trying to fix the problem with another problem -- will only exacerbate the depression, resulting in an escalation in alcohol or substance use, creating a vicious cycle that often leads to death. The National Institutes of Mental Health estimate that over 16 million adults in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in 2016.

Sherri Lewis
Sherri Lewis

My Adventure Living in Recovery With HIV and Depression

As a child, I was hyperactive, probably due in part to all the sugar I was ingesting, and I naturally rejected meat, chicken, dairy, and fish. My family referred to me as a "picky eater." Years later, my own kitchen was dedicated to healing foods. My diet was non-dairy and plant-based, comprising a variety of whole grains, greens, certain nuts, and occasional fish. I love daikon, the big white radish that helps to burn fat and cut mucus, and remedy drinks when needed. Much of my diet I learned from my macrobiotic teacher when I was newly diagnosed with HIV while living in Massachusetts.

Like Bourdain, food became one of my salvations, though our food choices were radically different. Eating "macro" helped me to physically deal with toxins from the earlier HIV medications. A macrobiotic diet also helped me to balance my emotional highs and lows. When I had hepatitis C, I believe my diet preserved my liver until I was cured (with the new drugs) in 2015. My downfall (like many people) is chocolate. And I let that be OK.

Like Bourdain, success and food didn't altogether save me from depression. Over the years, the stress and depth of my losses while living with HIV through the darkest years left me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I plummeted into depression, many times refusing anti-depressants. Depression for me feels like an elevator drop into unrelenting darkness, drowning and dog paddling, gasping for air, struggling to get to the other side. Gratefully, in those first years I wasn't alone. I was married to a blues guitarist who was a single parent and loved animals to the point that he couldn't bring himself to eat them.

When I would fall into despair, he would put me in the car and drive to a petting zoo in the Massachusetts countryside. We'd get out of the car and wander over to the peacefully grazing sheep. My husband directed me to touch the lamb. Hesitating, not wanting to disturb her eating, I reached out to touch her thick soft coat. My hand became deeply immersed up to my wrist. The density of her coat melted my heart. I could feel the warm flush on my face and the wetness of my tears quietly touching my cheeks. I felt relief as my heart lifted out of its despair.

We would slowly meander back to the car, stopping on the roadside at an organic farm to pick out produce. Sifting through the wooden bins; peeling back cornhusks in search of the sweet ears; and filling our bags with fresh collard greens, kale, corn, watercress, a variety of onions, and gorgeous radishes, my hands became good and dirty from the search. Standing in the open barn, I looked onto the vast landscape to take in the view: the farmer in the distance near the tractor in the field, the cashier in front of me with her sturdy dirty hands ringing up our purchases -- which I assure you cost half as much as at Whole Foods! This is how I got through my depression. At the end of my trip, I was safe another day, knowing I was blessed and filled with gratitude.

But it wasn't just the soft fur and flesh of farm animals and shopping for fresh produce that helped me. For 12 years, I saw Dr. Eisler, a brilliant therapist who was the head of psychiatry at Harvard. I went to her once a week and sometimes more when needed -- such as after the death of my father and during my divorce. One of her specialties was helping terminally ill patients cope with dying. During our last session, she told me her mission had been to help me come to terms with dying, but all I ever wanted to talk about was living. After surviving all these things, I decided to make a big move to California in 1999. She was delighted to see me spread my wings and take off for places unknown. I stood up, and she hugged me for the first and last time. I hadn't anticipated feeling emotional as we parted ways. I sat in my car and sobbed until I was able to pull out of her driveway.

I discovered that my problems were not about dying, but about how to live. I never considered dying, even though in those days of the epidemic there was evidence all around of impending doom. This was a radical shift for a teenager who had been a cutter for whom dying had seemed an exotic, romantic way out. When I was approached about making my will, I got angry. I'm not going to die! I'm going to live! I was defiant. When you're fighting for your life, it's best to have a rebel heart.

Looking back at my long history of depression from a difficult and violent childhood, Dr. Eisler informed me that my depression was situational. My depression was actually a sign of mental health since I was living through difficult circumstances. She pointed out that, after all, I was newly sober; handed an HIV diagnosis that was considered a death sentence; just married to someone I had only known three months; was newly relocated to a new state; had new friends; and was grieving the loss of my career, my health, and not having a baby -- the very reason I asked for an AIDS test (that's what it was called in 1987). It was actually appropriate and healthy to feel depressed given those circumstances.

For me, using drugs, including alcohol, to mask my feelings means only putting them off to a later date. Eventually, I would be faced with dealing with them. Going to my meetings, so I remember I'm an alcoholic/addict, and staying productive and being of service (whatever that means) on any given day work for me.

Situational depression and clinical depression are different. Situational depression triggers can be divorce, loss of a job or health, or death of a loved one. I've had them all, and I've gotten through them sober. But clinical depression, though similar, is a more serious condition. It's not just a bad day. Situational depression often goes away in time, as it did with me using talk therapy and staying sober. Clinical depression or major depressive disorder is severe, often a chemical imbalance that needs to be treated, and if it isn't, it can cripple one's ability to live life and possibly lead to suicide. However, the physical imbalance may be improved with certain foods, and the highs and lows can be lessoned. I've found The Self-Healing Cookbook: A Macrobiotic Primer for Healing Body, Mind and Moods With Whole, Natural Foods by Kristina Turner to be useful. It has simple and fun recipes to help balance moods and prevent illness.

We may never know what the final trigger was for Anthony to finally take his own life. After 33 years of being clean and sober and living with HIV, I am grateful I am still here. One thing I know for certain, I no longer crave or desire that altered state, even in difficult times. And I know better than to try drugs and alcohol thinking I can be in control of them. Once you're a pickle, you can't become a cucumber again! I think Anthony might have liked that.

If you are suffering in silence, please let someone know. Your life is too valuable to lose. If you're in need of help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.