Heroin, depression, and getting sober: Anthony Bourdain was always open about battling demons

Anthony Bourdain at Build Studio in New York City last fall. (Photo: Getty Images)
Anthony Bourdain at Build Studio in New York City last fall. (Photo: Getty Images)

The news of Anthony Bourdain‘s apparent suicide has rocked the entertainment and culinary worlds. The chef-turned-TV host was found dead in his hotel room in France where he was filming his hit CNN show, Parts Unknown. He was 61 and leaves behind an 11-year-old daughter.

While circumstances around his passing are unclear, an untimely death is something the acclaimed author had discussed throughout the years, given his openness about substance abuse and his struggle to get clean nearly three decades ago.

“Drugs and addiction are two different things,” he reflected to Biography.com in 2016. “All I can tell you is this: I got off of heroin in the 1980s. Friends of mine from the ’70s and ’80s, they just got off five, six, maybe 10 years ago. And we’re the lucky ones. We made it out alive. There are a lot of guys that didn’t get that far. But you know, I also don’t have that many regrets either.”

He added, “Look, man, the only thing that matters is life or death. That’s the edge. Embarrassment, shame, humiliation, I can live with those. I’m used to it. Why hang onto it, though?”

Bourdain wasn’t quick to label his life “charmed.”

“I don’t know about ‘charmed.’ But I’m still here  — on my third life, or maybe fourth. Who knows? I should’ve died in my 20s,” he said. “I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet.”

Bourdain was working as the executive chef at Les Halles in 2000 when he published his memoir, Kitchen Confidential that changed everything. He was never shy about discussing his past drug use — something that was rampant in his world. He first dabbled with drugs in high school when he fell in love with an older girl, Nancy Putkoski. He followed her to Vassar College in 1973 — before dropping out after two years and enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America — and the two wed in 1985. (The marriage ended in 2005.)

“That kind of love and codependency and sense of adventure — we were criminals together,” he said in a New Yorker profile last year. “A lot of our life was built around that, and happily so.”

Bourdain told the publication that he bought his first bag of heroin on Rivington Street in 1980. “When I started getting symptoms of withdrawal, I was proud of myself,” he stated, saying he copped every day as it held a special allure. But that grew thin.

“Getting ripped off, running from the cops,” he recalled. “I’m a vain person. I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror.” Bourdain switched to methadone, but quit cold turkey around 1987 after getting over it. Then he spent several years addicted to cocaine. “I just bottomed out on crack,” he told the New Yorker. It was so bad that sometimes between fixes, he would dig paint chips out of the carpet in his apartment and attempt to smoke them on the off chance that they were pebbles of crack.

Bourdain recalled an instance when he was riding in a taxi with three friends after getting heroin on the Lower East Side. He was telling them about an article he read on the statistical likelihood of getting off drugs. “Only one in four has a chance at making it,” he told them. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain wrote that he made it and his friends had not. “I was the guy.” He got clean around 1990, but still drank alcohol, as evident on his shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

“Most people who kick heroin and cocaine have to give up on everything. Maybe because my experiences were so awful in the end, I’ve never been tempted to relapse,” he wrote in his first memoir. “You see me drink myself stupid on my show all the time. And I have a lot of fun doing that. But I’m not sitting at home having a cocktail. Never, ever. I don’t ever drink in my house. … When I indulge, I indulge. But I don’t let it bleed over into the rest of my life.”

The television host also discussed thoughts of depression. In a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain traveled to Argentina for psychotherapy — something widely popular in the country.

“Well, things have been happening,” he says on camera. “I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.”

“It’s like that with the good stuff too,“ he added. “I have a couple of happy minutes there where I’m thinking life is pretty good.”

Bourdain also spoke about feeling out of place. “I feel like Quasimodo the hunchback of Notre Dame — if he stayed in nice hotel suites with high-thread-count sheets, that would be me. I feel kind of like a freak, and I feel very isolated,” he admitted.

He also opened up about his trouble with communication. “I communicate for a living, but I’m terrible with communicating with people I care about. I’m good with my daughter,” he said. “An 8-year-old is about my level of communication skills, so that works out. But beyond that I’m really terrible.”

Bourdain also told the therapist about a recurring dream he’s had “for as long as I can remember.”

“I’m stuck in a vast old Victorian hotel with endless rooms and hallways trying to check out, but I can’t,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in hotels, but this one is menacing because I just can’t leave it. And then there’s another part to this dream, always, where I’m trying to go home but I can’t quite remember where that is.”

Regarding his depression, Bourdain brushed off the public’s response. “I’m not going to get a lot of sympathy from people, frankly,” he said on the episode. “I mean, I have the best job in the world, let’s face it. I go anywhere I want, I do what I want. That guy over there loading sausages onto the grill, that’s work. This is not so bad. It’s alright. I’ll make it.”

As much as Bourdain loved his job — which had him traveling about 250 days a year — he often described life on the road as lonely. “I’m living the dream,” Bourdain told People in 2016. “I have the best job in the world and I’m very grateful for that. And I don’t plan on walking away from that any time soon, I can assure you — but it comes at a cost.”

His marriage to Ottavia Busia ended earlier that year with his schedule being partly to blame. “I now wake up alone in lot of faraway places looking at beautiful vistas and doing interesting things,” he said. “But the truth is I’m alone for most of that time.”

Busia and Bourdain are parents to Ariane, now 11. In an interview with the magazine a few months ago, he said he felt “some responsibility” to “at least try to live” for her.

“I also do feel I have things to live for,” Bourdain explained. “There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, ‘I’ve had a good run — why not just do this stupid thing, this selfish thing … jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth,’” he said, referring to a stunt he did on his Travel Channel show.

Bourdain also scoffed at the idea of retiring.

“I’ve tried. I just think I’m just too nervous, neurotic, driven,” he told People. “I would have had a different answer a few years ago. I might have deluded myself into thinking that I’d be happy in a hammock or gardening. But no, I’m quite sure I can’t.”

He added, “I’m going to pretty much die in the saddle.” In the interview, Bourdain described himself as “happy.”

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-74. You can also go online here

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