Success Doesn't Destroy Our Anxiety

Depression "wins" by emotionally isolating its victims—some of whom we might not notice until it's too late.

A little less than five years ago, I semi-jokingly mentioned to someone on Twitter that I wanted to be Anthony Bourdain when I grew up.

At the time, Bourdain had only recently made his switch from the Travel Channel to CNN, and was still fine-tuning the ways in which Parts Unknown would distinguish itself from No Reservations. But, at least for me, as a viewer, the basic principles of Bourdain’s project had been locked into place—in each episode, he was using local food as a starting point to tell us stories about other people, about their lives, their traditions, and the challenges they faced.

The reason I wanted to be Bourdain when I grew up is that he seemed to have achieved an ideal vocation: Somehow, he had found a way to get other people to pay for him to travel the world and spend time learning about the things that fascinated him the most, then share what he had learned with his audience. At an abstract level, that’s something of an ideal setup for a writer. Maybe we don’t all dream of becoming world travelers, but I think most of us would welcome the possibility of being able to devote ourselves to the stories that compel us, as opposed to carving out what time we can for those stories around all the other responsibilities that we carry in our lives.

Just as importantly, as far as those of us watching at home could tell, this success hadn’t warped his character. It would be foolish to pretend that a large influx of money, especially one that turns into a steady stream of money, isn’t going to change a person’s life. But while Bourdain’s success and fame opened up a rich matrix of possibilities for him, it didn’t seem to cut him off from who had been before that success—he felt as authentic on TV in 2018 as he had in the pages of Kitchen Confidential in 2000.

(That’s not to say his character remained static over those years; if anything, it’s clear from various interviews that the opportunities success presented him also provided clarity on a number of issues, whether we want to call them “political,” or “cultural,” or “ethical,” and, in turn, that newfound clarity affected the way he carried himself through the world.)

I thought Anthony Bourdain was living the dream—but we know now that, no matter how much he may have been able to take pleasure in the life he’d created for himself, there was another current running through his life, one that he pushed against for years, and, for whatever reason, last week in France his resistance gave out at a moment when he was particularly vulnerable. (Of course, many of us were still reeling from Kate Spade’s suicide earlier in the week.)

“You never know with some people” feels like an inadequate response. It occurred to me this morning that we all know somebody who’s dealing with depression or anxiety—and that if we don’t, it might be because we aren’t looking closely enough. There’s one thing, then, blatantly obvious though it may be: Pay more attention. There’s another thing, a related observation a number of people shared on social media in the hours after Bourdain’s death, that feels just as important: There’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution; what helps one person might be counterproductive for another. So: Don’t charge into someone’s life thinking that you’re going to “make things right.” Be present, be responsive, but don’t act like you have all the answers.

(On that note, since we don’t know what led Bourdain to his decision, what follows should be read very broadly, and not pertaining directly to his life or his depression.)

I haven’t figured out how to transition from talking about other people to talking about ourselves, so I’m just going to do it: If you’re a writer, a creative person of any kind really, you’re probably familiar, to some degree, with feelings of inadequacy and failure, even if you’ve never been diagnosed with depression or anxiety. I’ll be the first to tell you that as much as I’ve accomplished as a writer and an editor, I’ve never fully shaken off all the things I haven’t accomplished—failed attempts, outright rejections, and unstarted ideas alike. I’ve talked in this newsletter before about my years in therapy; one of the most useful tools therapy gave me is the ability to recognize these and other doubts and insecurities that still come up as doubts and insecurities, not as external judgments. But they still come up, and I still face them.

So, if you’re going through something similar, please know that what you’re experiencing is normal. One metaphor I find helpful is that when you decide to be a writer, you set out on a path. You may not make it as far down that path as you would like, as quickly as you would like, but that doesn’t make you a failure. But when you start to feel that way, it might be helpful to remember why you set out on this path in the first place: What’s the thing that you found so compelling you needed to share it with the rest of the world? If you’ve lost touch with it, what can you do to renew the connection? Or, if you can’t figure out how to get it out in front of the world, what can you do differently?

So many other writers are facing the same crises and can share their coping strategies or even just offer an empathetic ear. So many other people in your life are willing to be there for you—and, if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your family or friends, about exposing those raw nerves to somebody so close, there are professionals who can help you as well. Whatever option you choose, don’t be afraid to seek out assistance when you need it, as soon as you need it. Don’t put off asking for help because you think you’re not suffering enough for your pain to really matter, or because you think you should be able to tackle it on your own.

I realized, as I was writing the opening paragraph of this newsletter, that when I said I wanted to be Anthony Bourdain when I grew up, I was roughly the same age that he was when Kitchen Confidential came out, forty-three years old. He’d done a lot before then, certainly; in fact, he’d already published two novels in the years immediately preceding that book’s publication—and that’s in addition to his culinary career. But he was forty-three when his life kicked into a higher gear, and one of the things I’m choosing to take away from that is that we don’t know when success might come for us, so don’t ever tell yourself that it’s too late. And, if it does come, treat it not as an opportunity to reward yourself gratuitously—instead, indulge yourself by pouring even more energy and attention into what made you a success, so that you can share even more great stories with us.

Don’t be surprised, though, if your success is accompanied by doubt and insecurity. Try to be prepared, try to have a support system in place, try to face them down as best you can—and remember that you don’t have to face them alone.

(Note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.)