Growing up in the 1980s, depression was a dirty word. It was all that was unsaid in our society. The silence that surrounded my father’s mental illness still remains within me, even though it is more than thirty years ago. Back then, a breakdown meant failure. It was a dark time for all. It signified something severely wrong with the individual, as opposed to the society that he or she had found themselves in.
To some degree, I inherited this system, this fractured way of framing one’s life. I built it into myself, often unconsciously, goading myself to be better and better, to never accept defeat. The anxiety, the depression, the panic attacks predated my entry into the professional kitchen. I loved cooking. It took me out of my head. But the professional kitchen offered me a place to both reveal and hide myself simultaneously. I hid not only from society (always working weekends and holidays) and from myself (working 14 hours so as not to think).
But through this hiding, I was able to reveal myself, often under the influence of alcohol, the outsider that I was, or rather saw myself to be. Of course, we didn’t talk of mental health or illness as it was manifest, we were all a bit touched, a bit broken. The kitchen was our safe space where we could conceal ourselves, hide our wounds by openings them up to grueling long days and long nights, of after parties and early mornings. I rarely talked to anyone about how I felt, about the anxiety attacks that plagued, that stopped me from doing so much. I felt ashamed. I felt somehow less of a person. I didn’t want to go to where my father had gone, even if it was only for a while. I didn’t want to relinquish control of my life. So I held tight, suffering in silence as he and many others had suffered.
Of course, it is different now. Now we can almost articulate those demons that reside within us. It doesn’t mean that we stop suffering but rather that we can openly acknowledge our pain; that we can be seen as people as opposed to broken beings. Now we have Mental Health Week and Mindfulness, we have friends and colleagues who have also suffered and are not ashamed. The kitchen today is in much better shape that it was over twenty years ago when I first stepped into it. In some way, my own efforts in our restaurants and through our symposium Food on the Edge have tried to gradually change the narrative, to stir the ship away from the iceberg of mental illness and towards a positive work space. I cannot say I am cured and that I’ve seen the light. That would be too simplistic, too much of a Hollywood ending for something that is only ever ongoing. But I do know now that it is easier and better, at least in my own kitchens and in the kitchens of chefs I call friends. There is still much to do to change our industry, but we are in no worse a position that any other industry. We all have our issues, as we should. Because it is these issues that force us to embrace failure as a positive force and mental illness as a normative state.
No matter how bad one is or how awful the situation you find yourself in, there is always someone to turn to. Even if it is only the chef standing next to you in the kitchen. I will not deny that this year has been the most difficult in decades. Lockdown brought back bad memories of being alone, without people to turn to for help. Social isolation is perhaps the greatest threat to our community, our industry. However, we need to remember that we have many more means at our disposable now. This is not an ancient age. We have moved far beyond that’s unspeakably place of 1950s Ireland. We now how dialogue at our fingertips. We need to use it.
The past is never past. We carry it within us. But that is not to say we cannot change our attitude to it.
We are in a new better space. Thanks to each other._______________________________________________________________________________________________________Mind Your Mind January is in partnership with BWG Foodservice