I have been medicated. I have been in therapy. I have hoped, and I have prayed. Yet, I continued to find myself shuffling through life, going through the motions to put on the happy face- completely indifferent at the thought of a future. I had (have) a loving family, understanding friends, and an overall tremendous support system that I will always be grateful for. There was something missing. There always was. Then as life does, something happened during my darkest of moments, when I couldn’t see a light – much less one at the end of any tunnel- I found refuge. Something that helped hold things together. Something that made me feel human. Something that made me feel alive.
I found a life in the kitchen. Tracing a true origin point of this may never happen, but this new trajectory provided numerous points and milestones in my life that have saved me.
For the sake of starting somewhere, I recognize my time at a bar that served as a service industry hotspot for the genesis of my story. When working nights, I would arrive in the area of 8:45…at night, putting my average arrival home at 7:00 in the morning. It could be brutal, but I loved it. I loved the bar owners, my co-workers, and so many regulars that became dear friends.
However, as it continued on I found that lifestyle was simply not for me. I had struggled with mental illness for as long as I could remember, and the empty nights of others I witnessed on a nightly basis began to turn my mind into a dark, empty, and alone space. By my late 20’s, I had known multiple dozens of friends, acquaintances, and peers take their own life. I became increasingly detached with life, often assuming I wouldn’t make it to 30. On many occasions, I would wake up and shrug my shoulders at the thought of being hit by a car, a plane crashing on my house, and all kinds of grim endings. It didn’t make me sad. In all honesty at that point, I felt nothing for the vast majority of the time. I was an empty vessel with two legs.
When I thought I couldn’t get any lower, I didn’t. I found a refuge in a warm…well hot…little area known as the kitchen. It wasn’t anything fancy. If you wanted frozen chicken tenders and fries at 3:00 am, I had you covered. What it did do, was introduce me to so many members of other kitchens that came in after their shift for no nonsense, comforting bar food. We began to talk about food – from different cultural cuisine to technique. It was a wave of information that took a hold of me. I became swaddled in conversations about food. It was all I thought about. I had no idea what the hell I was doing, but I was starving to learn how to do it. All of it.
With an incredible support system from both my boss, and multiple coworkers that were seriously gifted in the kitchen, I began to “tinker” in the kitchen. I would fail a lot. But more often than not, I would surprise myself. It felt good. It felt great. It made me want to smile again. It made me want to do things the right way. Even things that are so minute now, like properly seasoning frozen fries, became sources of pride.
This translated to my home life. I began going out less at night and spending more time at home, playing with recipes I had seen on Food Network or the Cooking Channel. I would invite groups over for dinners. I wanted to share this with everyone. With my friends, family, and strangers alike. The wheel started turning. The light started to break the darkness. The cold was replaced with warmth.
This journey led to a catering company. To doing pop-up dinners across the East Coast. Taking over a kitchen in Brooklyn for a few nights, a far cry from a farm boy from a no stoplight town that has never had one true cooking lesson in his life. To designing and producing retail food products.
It wasn’t always sunshine and roses. The darkness would often creep back and relegate me to my bed for days at a time. It would come back and cost me relationships, cost me friends, and cost me business opportunities. But the kitchen was always there. It would welcome me back and serve as the spring board to coming back to life.
It would take years to realize some of the lessons learned. It would take years to find the voice to properly say what was going on in my life. It wasn’t easy finding the courage, but it slowly came. The stigma was hard to break, with numerous occasions of people I had known for years treat me quite differently- I had the sense they were uncomfortable around me. I had people I trusted tell others I was paranoid, crazy, and so many other things. But I traveled on. I saw the push to break the stigma attached to mental illness and I felt more and more safe.
But now with a new journey in my personal and professional life starting, I have been reflecting on these lessons from my life in darkness. I keep coming back to a few things in particular.
One is how human I felt, and still do, cooking for others. We are the only animals that cook and prepare food the way we do. Depression made me feel as far from a human as I could imagine. I didn’t feel alive; how could I be human?
The love I felt serving food to others…and still do. Preparing food for others is how I show my love and appreciation. Perhaps it is also me showing appreciation to how cooking saved me. It has made me reflect on my parents having friends, family and strangers over for dinner and sensing the joy, happiness, and love around a table. Serving food made me feel again. I no longer felt nothing. I felt emotions. Sometimes love (believe it or not, I don’t cook with love. If I can help it, I cook with milk fat and then emotion), but sometimes anger, frustration, sadness, or joy. But always emotions.
The pride I took in my craft and feeling the effects of what I put into each dish both emotionally and physically. If I used bad ingredients, I felt bad physically – feeling sick – and emotionally – spikes in depressive behavior. It was quite simple. I got what I put in. Experiencing this myself, I couldn’t imagine serving others something that made me feel bad. This wouldn’t be how I lift others up. It wouldn’t be true to my respect for the craft. It wouldn’t be true to my appreciation for the opportunity to nourish others.
I became a firm believer in outlets. Mine was cooking and I am incredibly fortunate in finding the kitchen. For others it could be writing, painting, music, or whatever makes that individual feel human. There are so many outlets out there. So many beautiful ways to ground us. So many beautiful things that can make us feel, if given the opportunity.
Ending this blog entry is difficult. Not because I am not familiar with writing technique, but because the story is ongoing. I know I will seek refuge in the kitchen again. I know it will make me feel human. I know what I put into each dish will impact how I feel. I know I will be engulfed in emotion. I know I will continue to cook for my life, because it is my life. It is my voice.