Watching Anthony Bourdain douse every episode of his hit show, Parts Unknown, in alcohol was always painful to witness. He spoke frequently and eloquently of his addiction, but always in the past tense, as if it was an historical event that happened to a person he used to be. But an addict’s addiction is never in the past. I have no idea what the toxicology results of his autopsy will eventually reveal; but I do know that Mr. Bourdain was an addict until the moment he died. Addiction is a terminal disease. Sober or not, you die with addiction as much as you die with the color of your own eyes.
Anthony Bourdain’s drug-of-choice was heroin. But moving from heroin (often called “dry goods”) to alcohol will, at best, delay the dire and inevitable consequences of addiction. I know that from personal as well as professional experience. Moving from “dry goods” to wet ones, Bourdain made addiction and self-destruction look like so much fun. He made nine straight hours of drinking and eating in a French restaurant with other men in their sixties look so jolly and innocent. His artistry and denial was so well-crafted that it almost made it seem to the addict writing this piece that I too could slosh and slip my way from one adventure to another without consequences. And that, sadly made his dangerous to people in recovery. He was a walking billboard for relapse or, if you were lucky, for relapse prevention.
Anthony Bourdain was a great artist; a seemingly sweet soul; and a fine journalist with a deep and insatiable curiosity about people. But he did not seem particularly interested in himself as an addict. In that regard, Anthony Bourdain’s life was, to its very end, itself a tale of Parts Unknown.
Take heart: Addiction is a treatable disease: it is for you, for me, for Anthony, for everybody. But once your drug-of-choice or even a “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need” substitute is imbibed… all bets are off. The relapse rate for addicts is astronomical. The deadly game of “Russian Roulette” using drugs to get off alcohol and alcohol to get off drugs is futile. This is true whether you are a graduate of Yale or jail; or you reside on Park Avenue or park bench. But there is hope ~ not for Anthony ~ but for those still living with addiction who can use his sad and beautiful soul as a cautionary tale for anyone who forgets the hell they came from, even for a minute.
A toxicology report will attempt to define the “how” of Anthony Bourdain’s death; but we may never know “why” a brilliant, handsome, famous, wealthy and beloved man died alone in a hotel bathroom with his neck in a noose. Denial, depression, addiction and loneliness will not be on the toxicology report; but they will be written in his book of life. For an addict in recovery, trying to explain addiction to those who are not in recovery ~ no explanation is possible. For an addict in recovery trying to explain addiction to others who are in recovery ~ no explanation is necessary.
And so, another addict bites the dust. Many of us in recovery fellowships have seen so much death with so much regularity ~ the shouting and shrieking and the shock have long-ago worn off. But the sadness and the love have not. Another brilliant writer ~ not Bourdain, but Shakespeare ~ once said, “The world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.” And then we silently and solemnly bury our own.
You have left us wounded and whimpering, Tony. That said, thanks for the life lesson that your death provides. We die alone but we recover together. Your show, as countless people have already said, was about far more than food. It seems to me, as a fellow addict in recovery ~ that your show was always about trying to find just one more reason to stay alive. Thanks for celebrating us. And now let us celebrate you. Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God almighty! Anthony Bourdain is free at last! Rest in Peace.
Dwight Lee Wolter is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York, and the author of several books on addiction, parenting in recovery, codependence and forgiveness.