Depression and Grief: What We Can Learn From Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade
The news cycle during the first week of June 2018 began like most weeks had over the last year: “Trump Did This.” “Trump Said That.” America watched on, transfixed as the world’s most morbid reality show kept playing itself out.
But a more haunting turn came midweek when it was reported that Kate Brosnahan Spade, the iconic creator of a stellar handbag line, hanged herself in an apparent suicide Tuesday at her Manhattan apartment. She was 55. The ripple effects of Spade’s death had far reach. Questions poured in: “How could such a successful business woman and mother, somebody who had made a difference in fashion, and in the lives of her close friends, take her own life? Was it that bad?”
By the end of the week, another public figure was at the forefront of a new news cycle: Anthony Bourdain. The former chef and host of CNN’s award-winning series, “Parts Unknown,” hanged himself in the bathroom of a French hotel room. He was 61.
A tremendously gifted storyteller, Bourdain used publishing and his shows to illuminate parts of culture, cuisine, and humanity in ways that soothed the heart and eased the mind. This was a man who connected people—through the human experience.
CNN reported: “In death, as in life, Anthony Bourdain brought us closer together.”
How true that is.
Over the past few days, discussions about Spade, Bourdain, and depression circulated within my inner circles. Perhaps within yours, too? Through all of it, I realized something. June is the month dedicated to the LGBTQ community and the celebration of being “out.” After last week, I see now it’s time for depression to come out of the closet. Reports that suicide rates in America increased to nearly 25 percent—a 30 percent leap in 17 years, according US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—is alarming. That means around 16 out of every 100,000 Americans will take their own life. Nearly 45,000 Americans took their own life in 2016 alone.
I have not been to immune depression. Most people I know have gone through bouts of depression. Others experience occasional mood swings. Others far worse. During certain eras in my life, my “mood swings” seemed to last months on end. Once, a friend of mine—a psychologist—told me: “You just have labial mood disorder.”
I took a step back and shot him a look. “How can I have labia mood disorder? I’m a guy.”
He laughed at my joke.
Later that night, I sobbed. I wondered why I was wired in such a way where my apparent “labial mood disorder” had become such a beast to manage. Was it because I was creative—a writer, an author, a journalist? Was this the reason? Was my drive to create and express myself so intense that I felt I did not have enough time to do it? Was my desire to be understood by others a severe character defect? Why were my moods so intense, my Wednesday’s Child of Woe so frequent?
Years later, I delved deeply into exploring my Polish family ancestry. If there’s one thing that really can fuel anxiety and depression, it is diving—soul first—into unearthing the mindbending odyssey of how your Polish family managed to barely escape Stalin’s wrath after being deported to Siberia along with nearly 1 million other Polish citizens. Illuminating, yes. But clearly not a Sunday walk in the park.
I had thought that writing a memoir about my family’s ordeal—and their saving graces, and all the miracles that occurred along the way—would somehow create levity in my life.
In the process, I opened a cosmic pandora’s box. Less than a year after the book was published, something peculiar happened to me: I did not want to get out of bed. How was this possible? I went to Bikram yoga five to six times a week. I was fit. I enjoyed taking care of myself. I ate well. I could not wait to begin the day; to create a story; to interview an agent of change, or a celebrity, for a magazine I was working for. Sure, there were self-esteem challenged along the way—and a ton of astrological influences I am sure—but I loved my life.
At least … I had.
Something turned within me. The flame I always carried was extingusihed. I had no idea how to get it back let alone keep it burning if, by chance, I could get it back. My experience felt more than just the passing of the labial mood disorder my psychologist pal suggested I had so many years ago. This “new” mood was dark, foreboding, and devastatingly raw. Deeply existential to the core, I could not grasp who I really was any more, or what my purpose was.
I quickly turned to comfort foods—cheese, pizza, half gallons of ice cream.Quick fixes. A friend of mine suggested milligrams, but I refused to get on the 25 Milligram Gravy Train for fear it would alter my creative drive—what was left of it. Somehow, thanks to a handful of friends who were loyal to the core and willing to listen to me share my experience, I got through 2016 and came out the other side relatively intact if not bruised.
Four months later, the darkness returned. At that point, it was insistent on taking a long residency at Unversity Me. For the first time in my adult life, I found it difficult to string paragraphs together when writing stories. An ominous emotional trauma had overtaken me. Did it have something to do with epigenetics and inherited family trauma, I wondered? After all, I had deeply uprooted my family ancestry. Perhaps I had drilled too deep into the emotional family well. Had I inadvertantly excavated ancestral pain, believing it to be my own? Was I too empathic? Perhaps I was absorbing some of the emotional brouhaha taking place in the collective unconconscious.
(As a brief aside: I recall many a spiritual master noting how if we want to thrive and be happy, just be happy … and then thrive—it seemed simple enough. They also noted that it’s best to tune into the appropriate frequency—like a radio or broadcast frequency. For instance … imagine the “frequency” of an Oprah podcast or spiritual NPR show. Now think of the “frequency” of Fox News or radio broadcast. You get the picture. In any case … had I somehow spiritually slipped and fallen down, without a way back up again?)
Did it matter? I was depressed. And I did not want to be.
On it went. Up, down, all around 2017. There seemed to be no way out of it. I reminded myself that “they always say that the only way out is through.” But then I wondered who they were and suddenly I wanted to bitchslap them.
Several months ago, while I was in the Los Angeles area co-producing a play, I had a thought that was so unlike any other thought I ever had in my entire life. One evening, I lie there in bed, tears streaming down my face, my emotional body fading somewhere into nothingness.
“Maybe I’ve done all I came here to do,” I thought. “Maybe my time is up. Maybe I should … just leave.”
I may have mood swung with reckless abandon in the past—often making a show of it; of all the drama, some of it self-imposed—but this …. this was something different. Despair and grief had crawled into bed with me and the most unforgettable threesome ensued. It was as if I was swallowed whole by the dark beasts and no mantra, no Deepak bon mots, not even an Oprah YouTube clip seemed to shake loose whatever it was that had me.
But something else did: People. Connection. Talking.
Talking to people about it. Writing about it. Doing something creative with it.If I could go there—toward other people; to the page; to the canvas; to the gym or the yoga studio, I was taking an action in the opposite direction of where I was. I was doing something other than what the dark beast of depression wanted me to do: Fade away. Perhaps die.
Somehow, in our darkest hours, I believe we have it within us to know there is light on the other side of where we are. In the thick of our seemingly worst emotional moments, we are, after all, soulful, fabulous creatures. Magical stardust encased in human flesh. If we are not walking miracles, I don’t who or what is.
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are no longer with us, but there are lessons and wisdom to be gained from what occurred. I wanted to share parts of my story because keeping it inside of me served no purpose. Clearly, the subject of depression no longer needs to remain hidden. If you are experiencing something unlike the You you know yourself to be—or have been—reach out to somebody. If you know of somebody who is prone to depression and you have not heard from them for a while, contact them. Isolating/isolation is one of the most significant preludes to depression.
Come together. Talk. Share. Laugh. Cry. Feel it all.
We are not in this alone.