I flew through the night and arrived the same day, winging my way from my new life in Nice to the familiarity of my previous life in Minnesota. I opened up Facebook to kill time while waiting for my ride from the airport, and it slaps me in the face: “Anthony Bourdain – RIP”.
This one hits close to home. One of my idols is gone. A man who viewed the world in a similar way. Someone who inspired others to explore. A man with a “perfect life” others viewed with envy, admired for his dry wit and storytelling ability. With his tall rugged good looks, he’s the kind of guy you just want to chat with over a cold beer on a plastic stool in a noodle shop in Hanoi.
But obviously, behind the scenes, there were demons wicked enough for him to seek an end to this “perfect life”.
The next day, I read a blog post from another of my idols, Dan of Dan Flying Solo. Another amazing storyteller and gifted photographer who seems to have it all. Working with various tourism boards and Lonely Planet, he’s making the blogging thing work. Just a few weeks before the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, Dan wrote a piece asking “Can Travel Cure Depression?” In it, he finally opens up about something that needs to be talked about openly – his battle with depression and the reality behind the Instagram images of a “perfect life”.
Dan inspired me to share my own “Behind the Scenes” story, similar to his in some ways. The raw truth behind the illusion needs to be revealed because sometimes the filtered images shown on social media portray my journey as a series of colorful photos of exotic places and mugs of ice cold beer. Not true.
There were some dark times, black and white photos with dark clouds, that didn’t get posted on Instagram or Facebook. The imperfections remain hidden.
So, when did it all begin? Who knows, but the awareness of it began in Thailand. Once I became aware, I could easily look back and connect the dots and it all made sense. I finally realized I wasn’t losing my mind. It was depression.
The Beginning – A Perfect Storm
Before I left the US in 2013, a close friend was diagnosed with cancer and much of my emotional energy went into propping him up, encouraging him to fight while listening to his threats of suicide. Eventually, his fight becomes my fight and I lose myself in his pain. At the same time, I face the loss of my job so it seems the perfect time to make a plan to leave the US.
His cancer proves to me that life is short and now is the time to seize the day. So, I quit my job, store my stuff, and fly off to Hanoi.
Hanoi proves to be stressful – overcoming my public speaking fears while learning to teach, living in a large, dumpy house with total strangers and large rats. I eat too much, get out of my exercise routine, eat my feelings along with generous portions of deep-fried spring rolls, and the spiral begins.
But I still don’t recognize it. There is no name for “it” yet.
“Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.” – Anthony Bourdain
Seeing the Symptoms
My three months in Hanoi fly by and, beyond that, I have no idea what lies ahead for me. So, I wander up the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh and then head up to Siem Reap. My 6-week volunteer gig in Cambodia proves to be a giant flop, so I move on. To where? I honestly don’t know what’s next. Can I live in Cambodia? Expat Tales – Chapter 4 answers that question (no way), so I move on.
I move on to Thailand, still not quite sure where I’m going. I spend my time in cafes, on teaching websites looking for my next job. Korea? Thailand? Japan? I toss darts at the map of Asia but I just don’t know. Then one day in the small Thai village of Pai, “it” rears its ugly head and the symptoms become obvious. Stressed about the job hunt and my unknown future, one day I just can’t get out of bed – I’m crying uncontrollably. So I spend the day wallowing. The next day is slightly better but I still don’t give “it” a name.
It was just a bad day. Those happen. Even while living a “perfect life” of non-stop travel in exotic locations.
A week later I’m in Hua Hin, about an hour south of Bangkok. One morning I sit alone at breakfast and I CANNOT decide where to go next. North to Bangkok? Ferry to Koh Samui? Train to Surat Thani or bus to Phuket? I am traveling alone and have totally lost my ability to make the most basic decision: where to go next.
Inability to make decisions. Another symptom, but I still don’t see it.
I finally choose Phuket and arrive at my hotel with high expectations of a few days relaxing in luxury. At check-in, there is a mix-up with my room and I explode in anger.
Irrational anger. But I still don’t see it.
The next week I meet a friend for dinner in Bangkok. As we say goodnight (goodbye), I start crying uncontrollably. He is confused and so am I. Later, I’m back in my hotel room alone and I start googling “it” – depression. I need to name it so I can explain it to him.
Right then, in a hotel room on Koh San Road in the seedy area of Bangkok, the dots finally connect. ALL of my symptoms fit the diagnosis and I finally give “it” a name. Recovery can begin now that I know what demon I am fighting.
But the Facebook and Instagram posts still show the illusion of perfection – cold beer in interesting places. A photoshopped version of my reality…my “perfect life”.
“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” – Anthony Bourdain
Recovering my Balance
Recovery begins back in my familiar hometown of Zumbrota. I needed to return briefly to say goodbye to my Grandma and am able to spend a few relaxing weeks going for long walks in the park, meditating, doing yoga, feeling my feelings of fear rather than eating them. I also accept a teaching job in Taiwan during a Skype interview from Minnesota so the future isn’t quite as murky. Some of that fear-of-the-unknown-future stress is gone.
Beginning a new life and new career in a new country while battling depression is not an easy thing to do. I would not recommend it to anyone. But the Instagram images and Facebook posts don’t show any of this. My blog posts (Expat Tales Chapters 1-5) gloss over the reality, leaving the impression that starting over is easy.
It’s not an easy thing. Especially when throwing depression into the mix.
Why talk about it now?
Because Anthony Bourdain’s death has people talking about “it”. Because Dan Flying Solo has the courage to talk about it. Five years later it’s much easier for me to talk about it. I sincerely hope that people who may be IN it right now understand that there’s a way through it to the other side. It will get better.
Also, with age come wisdom and the very freeing “I don’t give a s**t what people think about me” attitude. That’s the beauty of getting older.
Looking back half a decade later, I now have a clearer perspective and a whole new appreciation of the mountains I climbed to get to an incredible, peaceful life in Nice. Looking back from the top, the struggle was so worth it. It all happened the way it was supposed to.
In the end, there is no “perfect life”. It’s nothing more than an Instagram illusion. Anthony Bourdain’s untimely death shows that hidden demons can attack anyone no matter how handsome, witty, or talented. His wisdom and humor will be deeply missed by all the lives he touched.
Will his lasting legacy be the beginning of open conversations on depression, suicide, and mental illness? I hope so. The illusion of perfection – the reality of depression.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” – Anthony Bourdain