Like so many others last week, I woke up to news that shook me to my core. Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life while filming Parts Unknown in France. I got up, turned on the TV, and stayed glued to the coverage all morning.
Growing up, I related to nearly everything about the image Bourdain projected — his desire to travel, his interest in everything new and foreign, his propensity to swear, his love of food. He was the ultimate success story: From his rock bottom came a book, a new career, and most importantly, a chance to really live life on his terms. It wasn’t necessarily a life path anyone wanted to replicate, but you had to admire the man for it.
I hit my own rock bottom last year. External factors triggered what was eventually diagnosed as situational depression, and years of stubbornly refusing to engage in any sort of self-care meant I lacked the solid ground on which I could put myself back together. On good mornings, I’d wake up and try to grab a Xanax before my anxiety took hold. On bad mornings, I’d spend ages in the shower, letting the water rain down on my head until the Xanax had numbed me enough that I could begin my day.
It was Bourdain’s openness about his mental health challenges that gave me the courage to speak about my own. Last year, I opened up about my experiences, and in the weeks that followed, I was overwhelmed by the responses — from college classmates, childhood friends, colleagues, you name it — and spent weeks responding to them all.
But it wasn’t enough to talk about what I was going through — I had to make real changes. Big ones.
There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always loved. It’s spoken by the president’s communication’s director to a journalist: “I’ve seen pictures of people out there in the world, and they all look like they’re glad they are.”
I needed to be out in the world. The life I had built for myself had begun to suffocate me. No matter where I went, I felt trapped.
So I did the only thing that made sense at the time: I quit my job, moved out of my apartment, and, inspired by Bourdain’s adventures, bought a one way ticket to Bali.
I took every opportunity to try new things. I worked at a film festival. I volunteered for a political campaign. I joined the board of an organization that uses art to heal victims of terrorism. I burned through my credit card points and airline miles and visited 14 countries on five continents. I reconnected with family. I began consulting for several Jewish non-profit organizations.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. There were many days — in a tropical paradise, of all places — that I struggled to get out of bed. I was on an island where people took rose-petal baths and laid on the beach all day, and instead of being grateful, I was resentful. I wanted my old life back, the life I had before the depression took hold. It took months for me to accept the path I was on, and longer still to embrace it.
I decided to spend the holidays by myself. On a whim, I booked a flight to Argentina, rented an apartment, and threw myself into Buenos Aires living for a month.
On New Year’s Eve, I sat on my deck watching families in the neighborhood shoot off fireworks from their balconies. I was ready to say goodbye to the most challenging year of my life. Inspired by the apples and honey that are eaten on Rosh Hashanah, at midnight I ate dulce de leche pudding, hoping to start off 2018 on the sweetest note possible. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, but after years of neither loving nor caring for myself, I committed myself to do both.
Thousands of miles from the life I had walked away from, I was ready to feel again. The next morning, I started to wean myself off the medication that had kept me from feeling anything — the bad, certainly, but also the good — for the last six months.
For many people, working together with a doctor and finding the right medication and dosage can be life-changing, and many don’t suffer the same side effects that I did. I received my prescription from a clinic doctor who had never met me before and who wrote out the prescription as I sobbed in her office.
I came back to the U.S. feeling more like myself than I had in ages. Over the course of my travels, I gathered up the pieces of myself that I had lost along the way. The next step was putting them back together. I took on more consulting work and started to think about the future I wanted to create for myself.
After a while, the stress of living out of a suitcase began to wear on me. I missed my own apartment. I missed having colleagues. I missed stability and routine.
Sometimes we get really lucky. I accepted a job offer in New York and am moving there later this month. For the first time in nearly a year, my clothes will be hung in closets, not folded in a suitcase. My days will regain the structure they once had.
When I was a college student, I wanted to grow up to be Bourdain. And for the last year, I wanted to live every day like he did — with passion and curiosity and compassion.
When I first saw the news about Bourdain’s suicide, I broke down in tears, something completely unthinkable a year ago, when my body was numbed by the drugs that I needed just to keep it together and get through the day. I had beaten my demons, but Bourdain could not. I no longer fall asleep terrified of waking up the next morning. Now, I know that I will wake up, not even think about the Xanax in my bag, and get in the shower, ready to start a new day. That’s all I can ask for.
Header image via Trey Ratcliff on Flickr.