What I pray for after the loss of Anthony Bourdain

I did not know Anthony Bourdain.I do not know the anguished family, close friends and colleagues who are griev...

Posted: Jun. 12, 2018 11:03 AM
Updated: Jun. 12, 2018 11:03 AM

I did not know Anthony Bourdain.

I do not know the anguished family, close friends and colleagues who are grieving his suicide.

I do not know, but I suspect that on top of contending with shock, they are parsing and reliving every recent encounter, each believing if only I -- anyone -- had stayed with him, if only I -- someone -- had done this or that, Anthony would still be alive.

The brave and dedicated advocates and volunteers who do the important work of educating us about suicide tell us it is a public health crisis and it is preventable. They tell us to be mindful of spikes in copycat attempts. News outlets, in reporting Bourdain's suicide, as they did six days earlier with Kate Spade's, have rightly published hotline numbers and listed ways to help prevent these tragedies.

And yet, they happen. Worse yet, the incidence of suicides is up 25% since 1999, according to a new report last Thursday from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- news that was literally sandwiched between coverage of these two celebrity deaths. While mental illness isn't the sole contributor, about half of these suicides are among individuals not diagnosed with any mental disorder. This could be because they lacked access to medical care, or because they did not have a diagnosable disorder, but were confronting a major stressor in their lives that others could not see.

I do not know how to be more vigilant for the suicide of someone I don't know. I'm not even sure how to do it for someone I do.

When a beloved relative (who had previously struggled with mental illness) was suicidal in January, I didn't know it. She did. She sought and received life-saving help from a therapist. Thank God. But only then was I informed.

She was a master of disguise. For anyone who missed the signs that "must have been" there and lost a loved one to suicide, I do not know what you are going through.

But I know what it's like to live with having twice missed those impending warnings from that loved one and to contend with the confusion and guilt that ensue. Knowing how close the danger of suicide had been rocked me to the core.

I too asked myself: How did I miss this?

A winter flu-like bug explained away the unusually long stays in bed and the lethargy. That, coupled with not wanting to infect others, was a plausible excuse for absences from holiday social gatherings. The subsiding of the bug, and an unusually high instinct to please others, enabled her to summon the strength to be engaging during a holiday party my husband and I hosted between Christmas and New Year's Day.

About Bourdain, I can't speculate. But his death introduces this topic worthy of dinnertime discussion: How do we arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the layered, complex and oftentimes inscrutable manifestations of mental illness for the diagnosed and undiagnosed, and their loved ones? What about when, despite loving, well-informed interventions, a life is lost?

Tamia Barnes Tomasek, a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Maryland, told me that many individuals who actively contemplate suicide "can be very high functioning -- at the top of their careers, managing healthy relations and are extremely intelligent. They have the capacity to hide their suffering."

Was Bourdain, like my relative, similarly masterful?

"His is the best job in journalism." That's what my husband would often say about his CNN colleague, when, on occasion together, we'd watch an episode of Bourdain's show. That's debatable, of course. And it's a perfectly Bourdain-worthy dinnertime topic, best contested with raucous laughter, copious amounts of food and intense drink.

To arrive at the "best job in journalism" -- and feel free to replace that with any of our culture's most coveted professional and social stations -- what innermost parts of our struggles, or worse, do we become masters at disguising? Those parts unknown, to borrow from Bourdain's celebrated program, which actually require care, treatment and self-love?

From my all-too-recent and frightening experience, I do know that, even when you have prior knowledge that someone is mentally ill -- as I did -- you don't always know what you're looking at. You ask yourself: "Am I witnessing the normal imperfections of being human, or something more worrisome?" For me, discerning someone's everyday challenges from severe life-threatening ones isn't always simple.

If the same attributes, skills and gifts that make certain individuals incredibly successful and exceptional are the ones also used in the remarkably effective service of hiding the truth of their anguish, how do you know when to activate the smart, sane list of suicide-preventive measures?

Barnes says to "ask them directly, and you'll likely get the truth." But, she adds, we don't think that way. "It's counter (to our) culture and that's part of the problem. Everybody has struggles," says Barnes. "Can you name the struggles of those you are doing life with? If not," she counsels, "dig deeper."

With time and counseling, my feelings of guilt have lessened. My loved one's struggle made me acknowledge my own mastery of disguise at suppressing emotions I thought made me appear weak. Dealing with that reality has been a most uncomfortable experience, but allowing myself to be vulnerable is a necessary part of recovery.

I strive every day to limit expecting the worst and increase practicing hope. Every day, I offer gratitude and work on forgiving myself. My healing comes from my faith, and ironically, from my cooking for family and friends, especially during times of illness and suffering.

Over these meals with family and friends, I will continue to try to talk more about my struggles and listen and learn more about the travails of my loved ones. I will ask questions and dig deeper.

My prayer is we can talk more openly about the layers of mental disorders with increasing candor, support, hope and faith for healing, so that fewer of us feel the need to master a disguise, and fewer of us leave those disturbed parts unknown.

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