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Anthony Bourdain: The Myth of “Mental Toughness”

Suicide is not about people not being “tough” or “strong.” We need to change the way we talk about this and other issues weighing on our families and communities.

In his passing chef Bourdain gives us much to reflect upon.

News of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide has rocked the nation both on and off social media. While some scoff at celebrity deaths, Bourdain’s passing struck a chord. Like the news earlier this week of fashion icon Kate Spade, Bourdain’s passing has generated the usual posts and messages about getting help and reaching out to friends and loved ones. However, to the casual onlooker, people like Bourdain are strong and daring. He seemed fearless from the foods he ate to the conversations he effortlessly facilitated.

Bourdain challenged many of the stereotypes that people incorrectly think of in the world around us. He used his platform to speak out on various issues than many in his capacity would ignore.

In his passing, he challenges stereotypes of what people think of those who die from suicide. He was successful, intelligent, dynamic, and engaging. He seemed happy. Common misconceptions would dictate that someone like Bourdain would not be at risk. But what these misconceptions miss about suicide and depression is that they completely ignore the way in which individuals navigate the world around us and interact with others and even ourselves.

Bourdain’s suicide hit me hard this morning, not because I’m so star-struck and couldn’t believe that someone like him could take their own life. But I was at a loss for what to say. Over the past year, this is a topic that became something we grappled with in my immediate family. Within a two-day period, two members of my immediate family attempted suicide. Around the same time, we learned of my father’s cancer. I sat in emergency rooms with two people I love more than life itself. Neither was aware of what was happening with the other. Distraught, I felt as if somehow I had failed them both.

As a mother and as the oldest in my family I carry much of the burden of the matriarch archetype. While rationally yes, I know this wasn’t my “fault” per se, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have done more or checked in more frequently. Had my podcasting and activism taken too much time away from my loved ones? It’s a complicated feeling of managing my emotional response while trying to handle both situations, and maintain my family as well, while providing support to two people who are my world. Neither loved one suffered any serious physical repercussions and they are still with us one year later, still working through those moments. I had to visit my darkness and feelings of hopelessness to be able to cope with not only how I felt but the task of supporting my loved ones.

I write this not because I’m some expert or I even have any answers. Two of my colleagues here at Progressive Army have tackled the topic of mental health on several occasions including most recently a piece aimed at misconceptions by politicians. I know the exhaustion, the exasperation and the overwhelming sense of despair that can grab hold. I am still learning to navigate the right language around these issues. I am still determining the value of therapy. The stories from last year are not mine to share, but I do share that for those of us who struggle with our depression, guilt, anxiety while helping to care for others I see you. I am with you. And none of this is easy for any of us.

I have struggled with depression since I was a teenager. I used to have bad panic attacks when my kids were little. The last nasty one was during a move in law school. A colleague told me I needed to have mental toughness. At that moment, his questioning my strength and “mental toughness” was the last thing I needed. I’m not a robot. My challenge in coping with the stress at the time did not make me less “strong” or less worthy of support. There was no way I could push past what was weighing on me. There were times when I felt like the world was closing in on me, that I had wasted my time and ruined my kids’ lives by dragging them along with me through school. Sometimes I still worry, having moments of fear and anxiety about whether I did enough for my children as they come of age.

There were moments when I contemplated suicide. When I just never wanted to wake up. Not committing suicide doesn’t make us better or stronger. We are just looking through a different lens on a given day. Neither person in my life planned on it, they just became so overwhelmed with circumstances that at that moment, suicide seemed like the path to take. Managing life, particularly for those of us engaged in activism and anti-establishment politics can lead to severe bouts of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, etc. I used to roll my eyes at the idea of self-care. But a piece shared earlier by a Twitter friend forced me to step back. We need to do what we can, however we can, to make sure we are caring for ourselves as much as, if not more than, we are caring for the world.

Bourdain lifted up the voice of my sister-friend, Affrilachian Poet Crystal Good. Her poem “Boom Boom” was featured in the intro to his episode on West Virginia. I appreciated his work and message, but I enjoyed his genuine interaction with people of my adoptive home.

See her perform it in full here:

The unwritten rule that we have to run ourselves into the ground and take vows of suffering and poverty is wrong, and we should side-eye anyone who is passing that off as fact. I need you all, we need each other. I can’t be right if you are hurting. But we can’t limit these conversations to agonizing over the headlines. Many people, no less valuable than Bourdain or Spade, die from suicide and deserve our consideration. We need to do more than the obligatory suicide hotline posts when learning of a high profile suicide. Have you checked on your people today? Or were you just posting for the sake of social media?

Over the years I have met many people who have helped me find my voice and come to terms with balancing my triumphs and struggles. Standing in community and sharing space is not just a cute euphemism to throw around. We cannot wait until the next time social media lights up to take a step back and check in on the people around us and ourselves.

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Written by Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa

Mom 1st, Lawyer 2nd. Anoa Changa is Director of Political Advocacy and a Managing Editor of Progressive Army, as well as a member of its Editorial Board. She hosts The Way with Anoa, Wednesdays at 9pm ET on YouTube . Follow her on Twitter @TheWayWithAnoa. "Never tell me the odds." - Han Solo

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In his passing chef Bourdain gives us much to reflect upon.

Anthony Bourdain: The Myth of “Mental Toughness”