On Anthony Bourdain and Illusions of a “Perfect Life”

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 which became evident when he published the best-seller “Kitchen Confidential”. 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.

Obama and Bourdain in Vietnam
Obama and Bourdain in Vietnam

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.

View of a muddy river in Cambodia
Mekong River View

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



(Banner Photo credit: zarabeatriz on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND)

(Obama/Bourdain Photo credit: manhhai on Visual Hunt / CC BY)


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27 Replies to “On Anthony Bourdain and Illusions of a “Perfect Life””

  1. Deana Collins says: Reply

    Love this post Andrea! Social media is just everyone’s “highlight reel”. I couldn’t agree with you more….there is no perfect life. Keep on keepin’ on my friend! 🙂

    1. Hey thanks, Deana! There’s no “perfect life” but mine is pretty damn good right now! Getting here was a struggle but I appreciate it so much more. Thanks for reading!

      1. Deana Collins says: Reply

        There’s no rainbow without the rain. Glad to hear that your life is pretty damn good!! Well deserved!

        1. Very true! I appreciate my current rainbow situation much more after all those storms! 🙂

  2. A Close Friend:) says: Reply

    A beautiful article…as I revisit all of my Bourdain episodes and books this week…still stunned. So many important points you’ve made in this post. Two of the most, and equally, inspiring people of my current incarnation….and no hyperbole here…Anthony & Andrea…THANK YOU !!

    1. Wow…great to hear from you. You were my inspiration! 🙂 🙂

  3. Janelle OBrien says: Reply

    Wow, so glad you shared your journey my friend! Depression is a real struggle for so many. I agree that it can strike anyone, and has no regard to their social status in life. No one has the luxury of a perfect, but I sure hope most of those effected can seek help and work through the issues. So happy you are in a ‘Good place. Please continue to share your travels my friend. Hugs ❤

    1. Thanks, Janelle. Nice is nice and life is good! 🙂

  4. Andi, thank you so much for sharing and being so open. It’s always awful to hear when someone has hit those lows but I’m so pleased you have settled and found your happiness in Nice. Each time one of us shares a story hopefully it helps someone else to open up. Take care my friend and enjoy your new home xzx

    1. Thanks, Dan! Your story inspired me! Glad to see you’re doing well. Congratulations on the Lonely Planet gig! Keep on sharing your stories – you rock!

  5. You are one resilient woman!!! Sooooooo happy that cloud has passed and life in Nice rocks!! Looking forward to catching up with you, SOON!!❤️

    1. Oh yeah, Nice is full of rainbows and butterflies! And lots of white wine! We’ll share a bottle soon!

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience! This “perfect travel life”, especially on instagram is so deceiving isn’t it. Anthony Bourdain’s death was unexpected and sad.. That guy is so many people’s travel inspiration ncluding my own and he really will be missed.

    1. Thanks, Kristen. Yes, Instagram and Facebook posts can be deceiving. With the loss of Anthony Bourdain, it seemed the right time to cut through the illusions and share a bit of the reality of life on the road.

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience. To those of us who know the feeling, it’s akin to living in limbo – not pretty at all. Thanks again for the honesty — enjoy Nice!

    1. Thanks, Cris. I know I’m not alone and everyone experiences it differently. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Have no fear – I will totally enjoy Nice!

  8. I identify with your story. I have been hesitate to even comment on Bourdain’s death, even on Facebook, because I simply don’t see it the way others do.
    I have depression and like many who suffer with the affliction, I self-medicated with alcohol for many years. I stopped self- medicating, not because I was aware that this was what I was doing but because it was having some real negative consequence. It took several years before “it” had a name.
    In my opinion, and by his own admission, Bourdain clearly self-medicated. He too had experienced the negative consequence of it. However, rather that allowing himself to feel the feelings and subsequently get help for the underlying cause he continued to consume alcohol. In other words, self medicate with a more socially acceptable substance. Apparently, alcohol became not enough and suicide looked like the only option. This is how untreated depression works.
    And here is where the parallels with your story come in. 10-years ago my mother was was diagnosed with cancer at 65-years old. I became her primary care-giver. I didn’t handle it perfectly but I did a pretty darn good job. She lost that battle and died 9-years ago.
    This was a massive blow! Both her parents were still alive and in their 90s. My mother didn’t drink or smoke and never abused her body. Not like I did in my youth. She was not the person you would expect to die of cancer.
    6-months after her death, I moved. Not to another country, just another state because of my husbands job. I was without a support system and didn’t like where I was living. My medication just wasn’t cutting it. I allowed myself to be depressed. For God’s sake my mother died unexpectedly.
    However, 3 years later I was still crying myself to sleep at night and balling over corny commercials.
    I was already travelling. It was a way to honor my mother. She loved to travel. I had started my travel blog, too. But I was a mess.
    I had options: add alcohol, commit suicide or get my medication straightened out and see a therapist. I went with the psychiatrist. No amount of alcohol was going to make it better. I wasn’t just going to magically get over “it.” Travel would only take away the pain temporarily and eventually, that wasn’t going to work either.
    I think there are many travelers who aren’t so much traveling but running. The problem is you can’t out run yourself. You cant trick depression. If you are depressed, it always finds a way back in.
    Even medication is not a once and done thing. Over the years I have had a number of changes to my medication because the concoction I was taking stopped being effective.
    Bourdain, had the double whammy of addiction and depression. No wonder he took his life. Sadly, it was the logical conclusion.
    I wish people would stop talking about him like he was a hero. He was more of a martyr than a hero. He suffered in silence. He had demons that his “perfect life”, drugs, alcohol and travel couldn’t mask.

    1. Susan, thanks so much for sharing your story. You’ve been through a lot and have great insight. I think you’re right about some travelers running, but rather than running away from something I always thought of it as running toward something better. I’ve found something much better and life is good. I wish you peace – you deserve it!

  9. It’s very sad that Antony Bourdain is gone. He lived an interesting life and was an accomplished journalist, especially when he started “Parts Unknown.” I just want to mention his courage because of the places he visited when he traveled. He was close to the Syrian border and went to Russia to interview Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader, who was murdered later. I liked this interview and their deep, frank conversation. I think that social media also can cause depression and the best cure is love, warmth and laughs with your loved one or someone who cares. Wish you all happiness in the world.

    1. Thanks, Natalia. He was an interesting man and such a gifted storyteller. All the best to you too!

  10. Thank you. Of Bourdain’s many gifts even his death has provided and honesty across the world. I so hope that you are finding balance. It can take time and it sounds like you’re on the way to putting that shadow behind you. Be well, Andi.

    1. Thanks, Elaine. Yes, the shadows have faded and life is good! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate it! 🙂

  11. Thank you for sharing your story. It makes me wonder how many travel bloggers and especially travel instagrammers are pasting a happy image over depression. And how many people who follow them are misled by those images into thinking their own lives are somehow worse.

    1. Thanks for reading, Rachel. I would imagine there are a lot of people masking demons with bright and shiny Instagram photos. It’s usually just an illusion! 🙂

  12. Thanks for being so open and sharing. I don’t think that anyone probably lives the perfect life. I almost wonder if there is a depression that also comes when you feel like you have been everywhere and done everything and there is nothing new to do?

    1. Interesting question – I wonder if he felt that way? I guess we’ll never know. Thanks for reading. 🙂

  13. Very humbling and sober post especially in light of Kate and Anthony. I’ve never considered IG posts to be an indicator of a “perfect life”, if there’s ever such a thing as humans love to show the fairy-tale and glittery parts of our lives and not the parts where we cam close to breaking. We’ve all experienced those dark days and clouds, some more than others. I just hope and pray that we may never be in such a position that we take actions that would destroy our loved ones forever. May his soul rest in peace.

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