Speaking Out

“I mean, how many chefs you think are depressed, anyway? Like 95%?”

I was standing in a bar, talking with a chef friend. It was late. We were drinking. And talking about depression.

I’ve always had my ups and downs. Some days were harder than others. Some years were harder than others. I thought it was a more or less normal outgrowth of a flawed character, something I should accept, endure, survive. I never considered medication, though. I wasn’t one of those people.

Then something changed. Instead of bouncing back I fell lower and lower until I began to actually worry. It felt like the blood had been drained from my body and replaced with lead. I was barely functional, and even the simplest conversations required vast amounts of energy.  Then one day I discovered that my creativity was dead, inaccessible to me, and that’s when I became scared enough to do something about it. I could live without many things but not that, so I called a doctor and made an appointment.

The doctor’s visit was slightly surreal. I told them I was depressed and needed medication. They set me up with a nurse practitioner, who asked me if I wanted to kill myself. I told him no, that would require way too much effort. He looked at me funny and offered me Prozac (side effects: sluggish, inhibited sex drive) or Wellbutrin (side effects: slightly speedy and focused), as if that were a real choice for a chef. He gave me a prescription, told me to drink less coffee and that was that.

This had all gone down two days earlier. I was still gripped by the initial waves of anxiety and panic that were the point of entry for the drug, before it begins to do its thing. I needed to confide in someone, so I told my friend. I was surprised by his response.

“I started taking meds fifteen years ago,” he told me. “I go to therapy once a week, same guy for years. And I tell you what – you can’t just take the drugs. Find someone to talk to.  You have to start therapy or the drugs don’t matter.”

In thirty years of cooking this was the first conversation I’d ever had about mental illness. Not, “Man, that’s some crazy shit,” (when something tastes good) or, “Are you insane?” (when someone makes a stupid decision), but an honest, direct conversation about what it means to be clinically depressed.

Imagine the worst thing anyone can say to another person. Now imagine that one hundred times worse. Imagine having that voice in your head every second of your life. Imagine that voice is someone you trust. Imagine that it’s you.

That is what I heard, day in and out, for most of my life. Cooking – obsessively, to the exclusion of everything else – was a way to hide. When I started cooking, kitchens were environments that accepted, and to some degree encouraged, aberrant behavior. The temper tantrums and compulsive work habits were seen as a positive sign of professional dedication. My efforts were rewarded, night after night, with happy guests. I tied my happiness firmly to my professional success, so I did not have to take responsibility for that gaping void where my sense of self-worth should have been. And I found that cooking was a non-verbal language that I spoke fluently, where I could communicate in an open, loving and vulnerable way from the safe remove of a distant kitchen, without having to deal with actual people.

My experience is hardly unique. The fact is, you will find very few well-adjusted cooks. The culinary profession has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the country, and its workers are particularly prone to depression. Depression is closely linked to stress, low incomes, exhaustion and hostile work environments, all of which restaurants have in ample supply. People may come to us damaged, but the working conditions often exacerbate the problem, as does putting workers in close proximity to alcohol and often drugs. We are an industry built on feeding and caring for people, but too often we can’t take care of ourselves.

The fact that we can’t talk about depression without personal judgment amplifies its effects. We have sympathy for someone with cancer, but mental illness prompts feelings of revulsion and derision. Some of the heartbreaking videos of police abuse linked to both race and mental illness that are currently floating around on the Internet show how deeply this bias runs in the United States. Mental illness is connected to morality and character in a way that other illnesses are not.

This is especially true in restaurants. For chefs – the people who work through burns and cuts and sickness – talking about mental illness is taboo, a sign of weakness. We don’t seek help when we should, which causes decades and sometimes a lifetime of unnecessary misery. This I know.

But that’s not what happened to me. The longer I was on the medication, the more the depression fell away. The demon that I’ve lived with all my life was still there, but it was as if it was behind a glass wall and couldn’t reach me. I could see its mouth moving but I couldn’t hear the words.

The drugs haven’t “fixed” me. I still have good and bad days. I’m still broken in ways that I don’t understand. But they have allowed me the space to start to explore internal terrain I had long avoided. It’s made me more patient, less emotional, and far more focused and efficient. I’m a better father, husband, employer and friend. I’m still just as passionate about what I do, just as flawed, just as human. But facing my condition and doing something about it has given me the confidence to make better choices in my life and in my work.

And I did not, as I always feared, lose my edge. For my entire life I believed the mythology of creativity being linked to madness, and I thought that if I became more “normal” in my moods I would lose the part of me that I needed the most. Creativity is not fully controllable, its source obscure. It is in you but not of you, and the idea that it would cease to flow through me was so terrifying that it kept me in a docile, miserable state for many years.

My friend and I talked that night for hours. I mostly listened, fascinated, to someone who was so successful, who seemed so together and confident, talking about this secret that we shared, which I had kept hidden for so many years.

“But,” he said, turning to flag a server for another round, “don’t tell anyone. Your staff doesn’t need to know that shit. Keep it to yourself.”

My friend is one of the smartest people I know, but on that point disagree. I think that the best thing I can do is to not be quiet. To say to my brothers and sisters who work in front of a stove or in the front of the house what I wish someone had told me a long time ago, that it’s time to stop pretending that we’re all just fine. Some of us are, and they’re the lucky ones. But for those of us who suffer, day in and day out, I would say this: If you break your ankle, you’re not going to keep running around on it as if nothing were wrong. You’re going to go to the doctor and get a cast. Mental illness, whether you can see it or not, is just as real, just as debilitating, and just as common. Don’t just shrug it off. Do something about it.

And what’s really going to happen if I say publicly that I had some screwy brain chemistry and I took care of it? Are people going to stop coming to my restaurants? Are my friends going to stop talking to me? Are my employees going to quit? I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. I guess we’ll see, because I didn’t tell anyone I was writing this. Not family, not friends, not staff, because I know exactly what they would say.

Are you crazy?

A great online resource for people in the industry is CHEFS WITH ISSUES: For the care and feeding of the people who feed us, created by the esteemed writer, editor and MAD speaker, Kat Kinsman.

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