SOUL SURVIVOR

When Anthony Bourdain Went Home to Face His Demons

In a 2014 episode of ‘Parts Unknown,’ Bourdain opened up about his brush with death as a young heroin addict.

David Scott Holloway via CNN

Over the course of his 16 years as a travel host, Anthony Bourdain produced nearly 300 episodes of television for three different networks. Each one contained some bit of wisdom from the former chef and author—or at the very least a knock-out restaurant recommendation. But none gave quite as much insight into the darker corners of his mind as the episode where he returned to his old stomping grounds in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Bourdain’s death, apparently by suicide at age 61, came as a major shock to friends and fans alike. Just a few days ago, he published an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter in which he discussed how happy it made him to unite his girlfriend, filmmaker Asia Argento, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle for the most recent episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown from Hong Kong.

Of course, we will never know what was happening in Bourdain’s head when he decided to take his own life this week. But looking back at his trip to the tip of Cape Cod in 2014 and the demons he faced when he returned there after decades away can help provide context to his personal struggles.

Bourdain began his restaurant career as a teenage dishwasher at The Flagship in P-town, as it is affectionately called by locals. “Happier, stupider times,” he said, referring to this part of his history. “It was paradise.”

At just 17 years old, he moved from his childhood home in New Jersey to this little seaside tourist destination, where he lived on the beach with friends and fell in love with two things: food and drugs. Thankfully, it was the former that ended up defining his life.

As the episode begins, Bourdain talks about buying his first bag of heroin on the corner of Rivington and Bowery in New York City in 1980 when he was just 24 years old. He uses his own experience with the drug to talk about the opioid epidemic that has hit smalls towns in Western Massachusetts and the rest of New England particularly hard.

But the bulk of this Parts Unknown episode takes place in Provincetown, where Bourdain recounts “the joy that can only come with an absolute certainty that you’re invincible, that none of the choices that you make will have any repercussions, or any effect on your later life.”

“Many of our friends from those days didn’t make it,” Bourdain says over Portuguese kale soup with an old friend from back then. He pauses for a moment, seeming to reflect on the fact that he could have been one of those people. “It came as a rude surprise to me when I turned 30, because I always sort of thought I’d be dead by then,” he adds later.

In a 2017 New Yorker profile that chronicled, among other things, Bourdain’s time spent in Hanoi, Vietnam with President Barack Obama, the host talked more about his heroin habit. “When I started getting symptoms of withdrawal, I was proud of myself,” he told reporter Patrick Radden Keefe. He switched to methadone before quitting cold turkey seven years after he bought that first bag. “I’m a vain person,” he said. “I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror.”

Following that Vietnam trip, Keefe writes that Bourdain went to France “in a fit of self-exile” and tried to write, but couldn’t. Suffering from a bad skin infection, he nearly overdosed on painkillers and anti-inflammatories and ended up passing out in the street outside of a café. “Bourdain’s father had died suddenly, at fifty-seven, from a stroke,” Keefe adds, “and Bourdain often thinks about dying; more than once, he told me that, if he got ‘a bad chest X-ray,’ he would happily renew his acquaintance with heroin.”

Despite his early decision to kick heroin, and later crack cocaine, Bourdain was a lifelong drinker, as evidenced by his show, during which he almost always had a beer or some other alcoholic beverage in his hand. Asked five years ago on Reddit how he is able to still drink without slipping back into drug use, Bourdain wrote, “I am a VERY unusual case. You are correct. Most people who kick heroin and cocaine have to give up on everything. Maybe cause my experiences were so awful in the end, I've never been tempted to relapse.”

At a support group for addicts in that same Provincetown episode, Bourdain says, “There was some dark genie inside me that I very much hesitate to call a disease, that led me to dope.” He says he never would have thought at that time that he would grow up to have a daughter. “I looked in the mirror at that time and I saw someone worth saving, or that I wanted to at least try real hard to save.”

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“I’m alive and living in hope,” he adds.

Four years later, he’s gone. Bourdain may have successfully quit drugs but addiction had been something he carried with him for his entire professional career.

In his first memoir, Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain wrote, “Only one in four has a chance at making it.... And right there, I knew that if one of us was getting off dope, and staying off dope, it was going to be me. I was going to live. I was the guy.”

The world was lucky that Bourdain made it out of his 20s alive and was able to bring so much joy to so many people around the world. But in the end, we still lost him far too soon.

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).