Ever since I was a teenager I’ve suffered with mental health issues. I remember being dragged to the Doctor’s by my Dad at the age of 15 and being put on Prozac for the first time. Throughout my life since I’ve been dogged by, well, “The Black Dog.”
Before I was cooking professionally I used to be a carer, for many different client groups; learning difficulties, aged care, terminal end of life care and more. After a particularly bad bout and breakdown, I decided I’d burnt out and wanted to look for a new career. Since I loved to cook (and definitely still do), becoming a chef seemed like the natural choice. Training in a high end nursing home taught me to cook en masse for people with a decent budget – I rapidly progressed within the organisation, becoming an in-demand regional chef with a reputation for walking into a kitchen and just smashing it. From there I was headhunted into a permanent Chef Manager role which I was more than happy to take. Eventually I became bored: what was next? Don’t get me wrong, I still suffered with my mental ill health and that voice that told me I was worthless and a fake; but I had learnt at that time to hide it; sometimes with medication and when that didn’t work, without.
Eventually I was again headhunted for a new role – Sous chef at a newly reopened busy fresh food pub near where I lived. “What the hell, it’s a new challenge” I thought, and took the plunge. Throughout my time until this point I’d managed to get by when things got bad. and apart from the earlier breakdown I had just managed to get on with it.
But in this environment? A whole new ball game.
About ten months in I was overworked in a job that was demanding all of us put in more than we could – of ourselves, our time, our passion, our stress levels, and the actual physical space available. We were constantly operating at capacity and beyond. In short, it was crazy. Completely victims of our own success. This was the point where I had breakdown number two. I went in one morning, the owner grabbed me, we spoke, I left that day. I was getting maybe two hours of sleep a night and working 14-16 hour days, missing my time with my daughter and any other meaningful relationships I had. It just wasn’t sustainable. I ended up leaving and going back to work a nursing home, and yes, quickly became bored out of my mind.
As we all know, this industry is a lot of the time about who we know as well as what we know. Cue a new job in another busy pub on the recommendation of a friend who was cooking there part time. I absolutely loved it. Working for a guy who was supremely talented, somewhat old school, but equally was willing to give me my childcare time and could see that despite my confidence being shot to hell that I had talent. He helped me to see that the old model for kitchens was totally unhealthy, and needed to change. I ended up as Head Chef there eventually, answering to him but again I burnt out – my mental health and staffing levels conspired against me.
I then took a job at a local restaurant. I should have been able to do it easily, but I couldn’t. My mental ill health just wouldn’t let me. Since I was at a place mentally where I couldn’t or wouldn’t medicate (the worst part about my depression is the part where I just feel nothing, and the drugs replicated that by turning me into a robot so I was damned if I was going to do that intentionally!) and I was barely even existing let alone living I decided enough was enough.
I’m hard wired not to commit suicide, (my Mum died when I was 14, I tried when I was 16 and stopped myself, knife above my vein. I realised it’s the single most selfish thing an individual can do) and since the drugs didn’t work I needed something else – talking therapy.
I’ve never been shy about sharing and expressing myself and the state of my mental health, so I decided to write a Facebook status to that effect. The response from my friends was overwhelming – but there was one message from a guy called Jamie I’d met on a chef group which caught my eye. It simply said, “I can help. Message me.”
So I did, and he did help me. Massively. He helped me on a journey of self awareness and further reflection (I’ve always been somewhat self reflective and introverted anyway) to help me better understand where my mental ill health – or at least the black fuzz of a voice I mentioned before – came from.
Since that time I’ve found a job where I get my childcare time, don’t work insane hours and can be creative as I need. We’ve appeared on the BBC One Show together with another person called Mia regarding this when Andrew Clarke and Pilot Light were also featured on this subject. We’ve kept in touch, and have become firm friends. I met Sarah and have spoken with her on this topic – my own journey, and how kitchens can exacerbate mental ill health and what we can do as managers and people to help prevent or deal with this – at a well known food and drink festival.
So on that note: why DO kitchens make this worse? I’m obviously more than aware that chefs aren’t unique in suffering with this. My partner who is in no way connected to hospitality (aside from being with me) suffers too.
For me it’s the fact that we work in a high pressure, fast paced environment. You prep in a build up towards a service that can be a stupidly busy blitzkrieg, stressful and potentially dangerous. You get judged sometimes hundreds of times a day by people you’ve likely never met on your ability; everything HAS to be perfect or as close as can be; in a senior role in a kitchen you can make or break a business; it’s hot; it’s noisy; and each and every time a plate leaves the pass there’s a piece of you, your passion and your soul on each one. I think if we can foster an environment despite these factors where people WANT to be, rather than HAVE to be then we’re on the right track. Starting to normalise conversations on mental health, and recognising the importance of a life/work balance are massive steps in this regard.
OK, so it’s NOT life or death (I know, I’ve dealt with that in my previous life), but sometimes it can feel that way in the heat of the moment. I understand why chefs can be shouty, but I prefer not to be that way myself.
Ultimately in this pressure cooker of an environment we somehow nearly all love, something always has to give: it’s just that these days I’m not prepared for it to be the mental health of myself, or that of my colleagues wherever possible.