This blog is a dump of my thoughts on the subject of mental health and wellbeing. I have had a good life but I have dealt with some challenges as well. I am no expert and who knows if this will help anyone else with their own mental health but in the spirit of talking about stuff I have opened up about some deeply personal moments in my life. I don’t regret anything that has led me to be here now and I am happy to share my thoughts in the hope it will bring some positivity to someone.
This isn’t a blog about running a business and the stresses that come with that. I could write a book about that but less people can relate to it. I could also just tell you that having a loving fiancé is the answer to happiness, well it does help of course but there is more to it than that. So this is about normal stuff, pre Eat Street and pre Laurel. Hopefully someone can relate and take something from this.
The hospitality industry and it's relationship with my mental health
I started working in a kitchen when I was 14, washing pots for £2.50 an hour. I loved the adrenaline rush from a busy day and all I wanted was to work and learn as much as I could. Even in a small pub it was full on work and you just showed up at the start of the day and worked until everything was done. There was no home time or breaks and that was fine. I was part of a small team and I loved it, I didn’t want to let them down so I would always be there, ready to work as hard as I could and I would never call in sick. That has always stayed with me and to this day I have never called in sick. Isn’t it strange that we would actually disregard our own wellbeing so much that we would work while ill?
I had had some trouble with school in that my only group of friends decided to ditch me one day. I was known as the kid with no friends and I would either hide at break times to avoid bullying or I would try my hardest to latch onto another friendship group. Work was something I was enjoying and I was making friends that were older than me and were interested in me. It was a break from the loneliness I was feeling at school. It set the scene for my career, I was devoted to work.
We are conditioned as chefs to always just carry on…….you are tired – just keep going anyway……. you are sick – pull yourself together and get on with it……..feeling down? – don’t be such a wuss, cheer up and stop bringing everyone down. You become almost machine like and suppress your feelings, emotions, imperfections and ‘weaknesses’ so that you feel validated and a worthy member of the team. If you don’t follow this script you feel you are not good enough and unfortunately in many kitchens across the UK you are also told that as though they are confirming it for you.
Luckily I seemed to thrive on this pressure and was driven to become better so you could argue that it was a valid management technique. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it is a really tough industry. You are working under a lot of pressure, things have to be done quickly. Often you work long hours and are sleep deprived. There isn’t much time to eat and a lot of places don’t provide nutritous food and water for their staff. I can’t say that any of my mental health challenges have been as a result of the hospitality industry however it has shaped me to not speak up, not value myself. I once worked in a very toxic job, often doing 21 hour shifts with only 4 hours in between to get home and sleep.
I once crashed my car on the way to work as I fell asleep at the wheel, a full day still ahead of me.
18 years old
I had been influenced by Gordon Ramsay on TV. He was all over it when I was a teen and he was always shouting at people and making them feel small, swearing, throwing thing. I can’t say at this age I had really experienced a lot of that but some yes. Enough to not be shocked by it. My dad said he couldn’t believe people put up with being treated like that but I just said ‘that’s just how it is. It might not be great but it will never change. You just get on with it’ – a sort of mantra that I heard from many chefs over the years, almost like we had been brainwashed with this idea that it’s OK to be treated badly. All I wanted to do when I was young was move to London and work in one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. I wrote letters and arranged interviews. I had a few over a day and I got a job as a commis chef at 18 years old for Gordon Ramsay holdings – Angela Hartnett at The Connaught. I was buzzing but super nervous, it was everything I had ever wanted.
Backing up just slightly to the age of 16 I had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammation in my large bowel. For those of you that don’t know what that it is or what the symptoms are it is a bit like Crohn’s disease – stomach pains, blood in stool, urgency to go to the toilet. It was a lonely condition, not telling anyone what I was dealing with as I was embarrassed, at times ashamed. My face had swollen from the steroids I was taking and I had got acne. With little emotional intelligence I would be controlled by fear of not making it to the toilet on time.
I arrived in London ready to start my adventure but I was staying in a horrible hostel across the city. I would need to take a bus and tube to work and I would arrive in the dark and go home in the dark. The kitchen was underground and I didn’t see daylight. I barely ate as I was so nervous and my stomach was lashing out at me. I would feel overwhelming anxiety and would always feel as if I needed the toilet. Many times I would go and be unable to do anything but it was never worth the risk to leave it. Worry would make it worse and I found myself going to the bathroom about 12 times before I left for work, driven purely by anxiety in a sort of hamster wheel of dread. My route to the hotel would be guided by public toilets, having to pay to use most of them. It would take me longer to travel there because of it so my day was even longer, working around 18 hours a day and drained of any energy. I lasted about two weeks which is unsurprising looking back but utterly devastating at the time. I was completely unable to control my bowels and had 30 seconds from needing the toilet to ‘going to the toilet’. In that two weeks I had not made a single friend. Not one person was nice to me at work so it was an incredibly lonely experience. Angela wasn’t around much and was in an executive role so I didn’t see her a lot but it was her I told that I couldn’t do it anymore. I probably seemed like another crap commis to her, who couldn’t hack it but really who would want to be in that kind of environment even without external stuff going on? I wasn’t allowed to talk. No one made sure I ate or drank water or just checked I was OK. I was taunted with “why are you so shit?” or “my sister can chop faster than you”. Why would anyone want that? Well I did for some reason and that’s why it was so tough to admit that at that time in my life I just wasn’t ready. It wasn’t an ability thing it was emotional immaturity.
I look back on my career as a chef and I forget that I have dealt with things like that. They all blur into distant memories because you just bury them……..and carry on. Can you imagine the shame of walking in a street knowing that you have just had an accident, feeling like everyone knows. You feel worthless and disgusting. I wonder if I had made a friend there or I had felt supported as a new employee, or if I had had the self worth to know I shouldn’t be spoken to like that, would things have been different?
It is only through unpicking and reflecting now that I can attribute a lot of my anxiety to those early days. It must have come from somewhere right? Having to clock where a toilet was everywhere I went and living in fear constantly was, I think, the start of my anxiety. That feeling in your stomach, like nerves before a big interview. That tightness in your chest, the irrational thoughts, the over thinking. I still suffer with anxiety although my colitis has been under my control for at least 11 years now. 11 years since I had an ‘accident’. Now it comes from worrying about things – money, pressures from running a business, big events that mean a lot to people weighing on my shoulders. I am still trying to figure out how to deal with those things and I am learning all the time, some methods I will share with you later in this blog.
I feel like the start of my career really set me up in a certain way that was not helpful to me personally or to my mental health. Don’t speak up and don’t be weak – I have picked up so many bad habits in my life from this mindset and the following are actual thoughts that I used to have –
You are worried about money – don’t look at your bank account. Bury your head in the sand and just spend blindly but only on stuff you need. If you are not being frivolous with money then it’s not your fault if you are overdrawn. You only buy stuff you need.
You are suffering with pain – try half heartedly to do something about it but if that doesn’t work just keep working through the pain. What other choice do you have? At least if anyone says anything you can say you have tried and you can just blame a rubbish doctor or something.
The car is making a funny noise. – Just ignore it, it’s probably just a stone or some rubbish stuck in the wheel making noises. It will get picked up in the next MOT. You don’t want to spend money on diagnosing something that’s probably nothing.
You are lonely – you don’t have any free time anyway. You are ugly and worth nothing. You give your life to your work and it’s a great excuse for why you are alone.
I would say that it is only through my fiancé Laurel and what I have learnt from her that I am finally starting to value myself and take care of myself. Maybe that’s just age and wisdom, experience telling me that it doesn’t matter what people think anymore. Perhaps it’s about being comfortable with who you are? Maybe it comes from being part of a real team.
Depression and anxiety live in the past and future. You can only be at peace when you are in the present.
I will spend most days feeling anxiety on some level and often I don’t know why. I can sit and watch tv but be twitching with my hands and face. Laurel will say “what’s up? why are you twitching so much, are you worrying about something?”. Mostly I am completely unaware of it. I cannot pinpoint anything specific but I am always thinking about things, planning future events, fretting over something a family member has said, overthinking their intentions. If I manage to actually switch off and suppress my thoughts I usually fall asleep.
I have only really ever been depressed once in my life. I have felt lonely, sad, low self esteem but only truly depressed once. It wasn’t that long ago, 3 years actually. I had been engaged to my ex after 8 years together. The wedding was booked. I won’t go into the details but it ended and everything in my life changed in 3 days. I didn’t feel in control of any of it. My world was shaken and it was a huge shock, one which took me a long time to get over. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t feel I was worth anything, I was rejected and cast aside. It hurt a lot. I didn’t look after myself and I didn’t care that I wasn’t looking after myself.
My solution was therapy and buying a house. I had wanted to buy for years and I finally could so it was a fresh start and I had a project to obsess over. That’s what I need in my life, I am obsessive and I need to be looking ahead all the time to the next project. Distraction and time was to be the biggest healer for me. I bought the house and worked hard, then I bought a kitten and then lockdown happened. The detachment from my life as it was saved me and so did Laurel as we (friends at the time) were locked down together. We were both made redundant and obviously that brought it’s own stresses and worries but generally I can honestly say I loved lockdown. We had a great time as friends and with the cat and it was a much simpler life. The only time in my life I really stopped and didn’t ‘carry on’ because we couldn’t. We didn’t have work pressures or certain friendship groups making us feel like we had to ‘catch up’. There wasn’t much to discuss, no one was doing anything and we couldn’t see anyone physically. Social media was full of Covid-19, zoom, family quizzes so we didn’t look at it. Stripping out a lot of those influences in your life really focusses you on what you truly want (or so it did for me). I had been on dating apps trying to fill a gap in my life and it was not doing my mental health any good. I was feeling constantly rejected or judged. But then it came to the point where it was a waste of time – you couldn’t meet up with anyone anyway. It was the best remedy for me. I deleted my dating apps and just started to relax for the first time. Then came Eat Street…..and Laurel.
Tough times really can be character building but the fog really needs to clear in order to grow. In the moment it can be lonely, frightening, dark and feel never ending. I have gone through some really tough breakups, money struggles, redundancies, jobs I hated, conflicts and uncertainty. I don’t think I have had a particularly bad life at all and I am really grateful for everything I have now but in those times of struggle I have found that it really does help to talk. I have had a couple of courses of therapy with a councillor and I even have some CBT booked in for this year. If you don’t have people in your network you can talk to there are some great options for this. This list is obviously not exhaustive but these are services I have used or been personally recommended by people who have used them.
You can self refer for CBT and some anxiety and depression services via the NHS. For the IOW – https://www.iow.nhs.uk/our-services/mental-health-services/isle-talk.htm
If you are looking for a more urgent support line or some other resources then you can visit the IOW mental health website – https://www.iwmentalhealth.co.uk/
The Burnt Chef Project
The Burnt Chef Project is s scheme set up to give support and resources to those suffering from mental health issues working in the hospitality industry.
You can download their app and access resources here – https://www.theburntchefproject.com/
Text BURNTCHEF to 85258 for free text support 24/7 if you work in hospitality.
So what have I learnt (in a nutshell)?
I’m obviously not an expert and still very much on a journey but my reflections have taught me a lot and I am beginning to see things a little clearer.
Our lives are so complicated and busy now. We are always working on some level and always have multiple conversations on the go at any time. The blue ticks on WhatsApp don’t help you feel any better by the way! Luckily I am not a scroller on social media but a lot of people are and will spend a lot of time looking at people’s ‘highlight reels’. This is what people want you to see, it’s a glimmer of their life not the complete picture. Constantly comparing to these perceived perfect lives can be soul destroying. Looking at our phones late at night can affect our sleep, partly from the lights on our screens and partly because we are telling our brains to wake up and be alert, concentrate. That’s not what we need for sleep. Then if you are an overthinker you will worry and stop yourself sleeping because of the ‘tone’ of a text or email you shouldn’t even be looking at. At night we are not rational and so it is illogical to try to process our days at this time and it can lead to distress and worry. I need to try really hard to be present as I generally always think about the future, events coming up, my to-do list etc. I used to think meditation was for hippies but really it just means being present – going for a walk, looking at a bird and watching it for a while, having a bath and truly switching off, losing yourself in music. It doesn’t need to be done cross legged with your palms face down.
I list a few things I have started doing or plan to start below –
The best thing you can do is talk – to a therapist or a friend, family member, even your dog! Just say it out loud or write it down. Getting it out of your head is the key.
Turn your phone onto airplane mode a little before bed. Don’t let work or any texts creep into your unwinding time. Waking up to notifications can be just as bad so take your time to get up and only turn airplane mode off when you are ready to start your day. You control when you get notifications. I plan to start leaving my phone in the kitchen when I write my list and using another form of alarm.
Have a morning routine and don’t just start work as soon as you wake up just because you might be working from home. Pre lockdown I would have a routine at home before I left the house and then a long commute, regularly followed by a couple of miles walking before I even got to work. This is important time to prepare for the day ahead. I used to go straight into the kitchen with my coffee and work whilst I drank it. I now sit outside on the steps and listen to a grounding meditation with my eyes closed to prepare before I even think about work.
Listen to podcasts and books whilst I work. I used to listen to music all the time. I still do regularly if I feel like it but it was becoming monotonous for me and, as they say, variety is the spice of life. Why not learn or reflect whilst I work, I don’t have much other time to read and to grow so it seemed perfect.
Remove negative people from your life. This sounds harsh but a lot of our friendships, especially those that have come from schooldays are maintained out of loyalty rather than having things in common. People change and that’s OK. I am pleased to be changing as I learn and grow and sometimes that path no longer matches others. I have had relationships including with family members that are toxic. Ever had that feeling where you feel anxious spending time with someone in case they upset you or you feel like you are walking on eggshells to not upset them? You naturally adopt the characteristics of the 5 people closest to you, do you want to surround yourself with negative people that have different values to you? You are in control. You don’t necessarily have to cut people out of your life, that can bring it’s own challenges but limit your time with those people and invest time in those that make you happy. Those people who take interest in you and your life, that leave you feeling happy when you have spent time with them. This can also apply to social media. If people are on my news feed and are just bring junk values or negativity to my reading I will unfollow them or even remove them from my friends list. If you are reading junk all day it’s almost like fake news, you can see what is genuine and positive and that is what you need to be reading/looking at. Spend your time feeling inspired.
Get a pet – I cannot express enough the joy that our cat Aslan brings me. I could not have imagined having so much love for a pet and he has really brightened my life.
Try to get outside and do some exercise. Not everyone is going to go running or cycling but even just a gentle walk in some fresh air can have a huge impact on your state of mind. We now try to walk for 7am most days and get back for work at 8ish. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time outdoors just a little connection to nature can really make a difference.
Stay connected to positive people. For thousands of years human beings have been part of tribes. We would hunt together, gather wood and supplies, eat and sleep together all for the cause of the tribe. We have not evolved to the point that we no longer need a tribe, we just don’t have that kind of society anymore. We now are very solitary in our thinking, we often work in jobs with little meaning to us for other people. Since the first settlers and the concept of ownership through agriculture we have become focussed on tangible possessions. We can get depressed and anxious through loneliness and a lack of connection to other people and meaningful work or a sense of purpose. Find your tribe and focus on the things that really matter to you.
Find your intrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivations come from within and are meaningful – “I want to look after my body so that I feel good and live a longer and richer life”. Extrinsic motivations are formed on ‘junk values’ – “I want to look after my body so that I look better and can attract more women”. This applies to many things in life and if you can focus on those intrinsic values, you will be more fulfilled and your goals will be more long term and sustainable. If you just want the new iPhone because it looks cool and has a better camera you will ultimately be underwhelmed once you have it, waiting for the next one after that. It becomes endless.
Look after your body and mind. This is different for everyone but I personally struggle to eat well when I am feeling low and of course putting weight on and feeling unfit ultimately lead to me feeling low. Easier said than done but try to eat a nutritionally balanced diet. We are currently eating as (mainly) vegans Mon-Friday mainly to limit our intake of cheese rather than meat! This naturally forces us to eat more fruit and veg throughout the week and gives us a treat to look forward to at the weekend. We take ‘brainfood’ supplements to help us stay alert and sleep better and we make our own goat’s milk kefir which improves our gut health. Personally I find that having a routine and schedule really helps me focus and it allows for treats occasionally. Thinking that you will be able to diet or be better without any slip ups is an unrealistic expectation and can often lead to binging with a ‘write off’ mentality – “well I’ve slipped up so may as well just write today off and eat loads of bad stuff”. Whilst one day won’t change anything and it’s better to not beat yourself up over it I just find it easier mentally to allow these ‘weaknesses’ in smaller doses.
Practise gratitude – Actively think about the things that are good in your life and focus on those things. Sometimes writing down 5 things you are grateful for helps get perspective on tough situations.