On my 18th birthday, I travelled to London from my home town, Colchester. I worked for free in a French bistro in Soho until I was given a paid position. I wanted to learn to cook and to gain experience of classic French dishes, and over time I am pleased to say that I achieved that goal.
What I didn’t bank on was simultaneously falling into a deep, dark depression.
The restaurant kitchen was the perfect place for mental illness to manifest itself – a hot, dark basement, as small as a garden shed. It was totally unforgiving. There was absolutely no room for any emotion – apart from aggression – because that would be a sign of weakness.
The thing about kitchens is that they are usually the sort of environment where chefs, like me, are taught to “man up” and “get on with it”, with the belief that if you do, you will become a stronger person mentally. In fact, it seemed to cause the exact opposite for me, making me anxious. I found that the more I suppressed my emotions, the worse I got and after practising this for such a long time, it became a way of life which eventually became destructive, physically and emotionally.
I was in the depths of my darkest depression (that I was a master at hiding) before I realised what was happening. I had a few months off but, after much nagging from my aunt I decided to go on a personal development course, which made me realise what I needed to do to get help.
I was still very confused at this point, so I also decided to visit my GP, who advised me to go to a therapist. I did exactly that, but once I was in the room, I found that I was just trying to kid myself that time and therapy would heal me. My doctor put me on anti-depressants – the highest recommended dose of anti-depressants – but they just numbed the pain. I was just 20 years old. I carried on with various medications, but all had pretty much the same dulling effect.
I went back to my GP and told him that I felt nothing was helping and that I was really desperate. He referred me to a psychiatrist. I met the psychiatric team, a few weeks passed, and I had heard nothing. I called my doctor, who explained that the specialists had decided that I didn’t need their support – but they hadn’t bothered to tell me.
While I tried hard to accept this decision, I felt worse – eventually, I found the courage to tell the doctor that I was ready to end my life. A week later I had an appointment with the local mental health hospital, where I was put on a strong dose of anti-psychotic drugs. The first dose left me physically and mentally incapacitated for 48 hours.
After building up a small resistance to the medication, I thought that it must be working because I didn’t feel anything. It was almost like my personality had been locked away in a dark room and I was completely withdrawn.
The dosage was reduced, and I started to realise that the medication had just covered up what I had been feeling, and that I couldn’t sustain a normal life while feeling like I did with or without the medication – I was in a vicious circle I was desperate to get out of.
I then decided that I had to try something else,I began having some coaching It takes the edge off things and gives me a chance to sit with my emotions in a safe and non-judgemental environment.
The problem is that not every chef can go and see a therapist or speak to a close friend when they spend 14 hours or more a day in the kitchen and their only time off is Sunday night – time better spent with loved ones.
This is a very big problem. How can we get support when we work in such an unsociable job? So after working with personal development charities, doing some therapist-based college work and tons of research, I gained my own understanding of mental health – one that I was ready to use to help others as a Life coach and of course as a chef.
I posted onto a Facebook group of over 60,000 chefs, many of whom have mental health issues. I offered my support as a coach with common interests, as I am also a full-time chef. I simply wrote a few sentences offering free support to those who couldn’t get out to see a therapist because of the nature of their job. I left my mobile number, thinking that I would get slammed with abusive comments because I was showing that I had a major weakness, and that I wasn’t nearly ‘alpha’ enough for a large group of chefs.
I stared at the post for a good 20 minutes, thinking: “Here goes, why not?” I had every excuse not to post it, but I pressed the ‘post’ button anyway, and carried on preparing for the evening shift at the restaurant I was working at.
After my shift I checked my phone and could not believe the response. I can honestly say I’ve never felt so human in my life. Over 700 chefs had reached out to me in some way, some asking for support, some just saying thanks. This to me proved the need for something I didn’t know what at the time but now it’s very very clear that this industry’s lack of understanding of what’s causing so many chefs to hang up their apron early into what could be a very successful and happy career.
These days I have been involved in several projects with the caterer magazine, BBC One (the one show) and my work as a coach. Whilst I’m still a Head Chef, I’m happy to support this campaign which will continue to open up the world of mental health at work. I am always looking for ways and opportunities to continue this campaign as already things are changing!