Mental Illness and Food: Feeding the Beast
I recently had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the TerraVita Food & Drink Festival in Chapel Hill, NC. Each member of the panel was asked to talk for a few minutes on how they use their culinary capital to benefit their community. Here’s roughly what I had to say.
I am delighted and I am lucky to have a chance to speak with you today about two subjects that are increasingly intersecting in my work, namely:
1. My crazy intense love of food.
2. And, well, being crazy.
I’ve been a writer for the past big chunk of my life and mentally ill with depression, anxiety and a panic disorder for all of it — but it took getting a platform as a food journalist for people to listen to me.
At first, I was just caught up in the deliciousness of it all. The fabulousness and the sensual pleasures — Yay, bacon! Oooohhh…pimento cheese. Calloo callay for cake (and pie).
And what I found out pretty quickly was that if you can find this common ground of pleasure with people, you can also start to talk a little bit about the pain. Because we all use a certain amount of sugar to balance the sour . You have to to be able to get up and be a human being in the world on any given day.
So I started slipping little tastes of my real life into my food writing. My mother is ill — Oh, I remember this goulash used to make when she wasn’t well. She’s been hospitalized again — Hey, look at this great chicken soup recipe I made for my Dad. 9/11 happened — Here are the nachos I ate to numb myself.
And because of the nature of what I do and with whom I spend my time, so many of these people are in the food world.
They are farmers, they are servers, they are cooks and chefs and bartenders, and writers and photographers. They are in the business of hospitality and nurturing and we owe them such a debt of pleasure.
For a profession that’s so much about sensual joy and physical satisfaction for the end consumer, it’s hard as hell on the psyche — and there is something about it that drives to may of us to it in the first place.
You’re not allowed to hurt. Toughen up. What are you, a pussy? Can’t take the heat? Chug, chug, chug! Sleep? Who needs to sleep? What, you can’t hang? Just one more shot.
But your customers, your diners, your readers — they can never know. It would ruin the illusion. Seeking help for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, addiction, not only is it a financial impossibility for people who often don’t even have access to basic healthcare — let alone mental healthcare — it’s stigmatized. We’re stopping each other from seeking help, and that’s got to change.
And that’s why I speak. Because the cat’s already out of the bag and I already have the luxury of people who have supported me, and access to good care. If someone needs to think of me as crazy or damaged or anything other than a person who happens to have these challenges — that’s their business. I’m not here for them. I’m here for the people are are hungry to hear that they’re not alone. I’m here to feed their beast.