Op-Ed

Can we talk about alcoholism and Anthony Bourdain?

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dead at 61

Bourdain achieved celebrity status after the publication in 2000 of his best-selling book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Bourdain went on to achieve widespread fame thanks to his CNN series "Parts Unknown."
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Bourdain achieved celebrity status after the publication in 2000 of his best-selling book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Bourdain went on to achieve widespread fame thanks to his CNN series "Parts Unknown."

I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain, but felt like I did in one small important way. In him, I saw a drinking alcoholic with a front-stage vigorous attempt to do it successfully. His was a fantastic life-embracing show, with drinking taking a prominent role in the joie de vivre, and sometimes that made it hard for me to watch.

When he threw back shots, indeed got wasted, I saw a fellow alcoholic living dangerously whereas most viewers I imagine saw “a man who knew how to drink, knew how to live.” His state of mind will be called depression, and who can argue that in the face of suicide. But can we please, people, start connecting the dots to alcoholism (also a disease of the mind), at least when it is screamingly evident?

Perhaps I should not presume to think I know, but I can at least invite the conversation where it is uncomfortably and amazingly absent. Did alcoholism (which brings depression or ineffectively “treats” depression), ultimately take down Anthony Bourdain?

Alcohol is a drug. “Drugs” and “alcohol” remain separate in conversations about addiction like a “bad sister” doing outrageous unthinkable things while the “good sister” quietly nurses a prom hangover and shame from a blackout.

Can Bourdain’s death please generate a conversation about alcoholism and not just befuddlement about his fantastic life countless people wish they had. Because you don’t. The travel, the breadth of his life, sure, maybe. What an experience-rich life. But this man on the move had to stop sometimes. No cameras, no action. Just himself. I do not presume to know him, but I do know addiction and it can be a fiercely critical companion that may take a back seat but lies in wait. It can tear us down and sometimes just won’t shut up — goading shame, self-loathing, and inviting emotional isolation.

When you’re an addict, as he proclaimed he was, it’s highly risky to keep one drug on board. He had respect and fear of the “hard drugs,” reportedly grateful and humble for having escaped death by addiction decades ago.

We’ll be talking about depression and suicide for days now, with Kate Spade’s and Bourdain’s suicides, until another famous person with a seemingly magnificent life shocks us. Bourdain was a famous, beloved “bad boy” as one friend described him. He demonstrated a generosity of self. He cared deeply, it would seem, about injustice, and about the opiate addicted with whom he empathized. I’ve found, working with the addicted, both using and in recovery, that addicts/alcoholics are generally extremely sensitive souls.

A short clip of No Reservations host and star Anthony Bourdain when he came to South Carolina to get a taste of Gullah culture on St. Helena Island, SC.

Alcohol “works” for the alcoholic until it doesn’t. It promises and delivers what we seek from it for years, until it stops working. Yet still we want to drink like everybody else. Drinking is fun, right? It goes with culinary delights, correct? It enhances life, isn’t that so? Well, yes, and no. Certainly ultimately “no” if you have the malady, which quietly marches on and in time takes our joy, even our will to live and carry on and pretend we’re OK. We’re not OK. We are just good actors. He perhaps was one of the best. With alcoholism, we make rules by the way, to prove we have control. We also break those rules. We take life by the tail, but, dare I say, some weary of the show and let go.

This is a progressive, chronic, fatal disease with predictable stages. The brain science is in, and has been for years, yet it is ignored or given short shrift because drinking is such a huge part of our cultural fabric. We don’t stop and think about it until we’re forced to; until it’s obvious, undeniable, that someone we care about is suffering.

Alcoholics minimize, deny, believe their drinking is under control, and refuse to connect the dots — that drinking for escape, relief or to solve problems is creating more problems, and is taking a toll on self-worth and perhaps cognition. The substance they are drinking for “a lift” is a depressant. The guilt, shame, powerlessness and depression can take us down.

Blessedly it can also wake us up to the true nature of our disease. We stop separating “drugs” from “alcohol.” We find freedom from the tyranny that is addiction, that is alcoholism. Can we at least talk about it?

Jo Ann Towle of Lexington is a certified intervention professional with a national practice helping people find treatment for addiction.

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