My life was ruining my life. The things I once loved had begun to consume all my time, all my relationships and all of me.
From an outsider’s perspective, I looked as though I was at the peak of my profession. I’d traveled, met some amazing culinarians both here and abroad, been in magazines and on TV, worked in some fantastic kitchens, and now I was a chef in a well-respected restaurant at the heart of a city.
Inside, though, I was a mess. I was riddled with anxiety and depression. I felt unlovable and alone, even in a crowded room of misfits just like myself. I worked harder and drank more to cope, never recognizing that I was headed toward bottom.
I made attempts at being in romantic relationships. After a few months, though, each of my partners would grow impatient waiting up for me until midnight or 1am, only to have me collapse into bed so I could wake up at 5am to go work another 18-hour shift. On “Sunday Fundays” they grew even wearier of me spending all day getting intoxicated with my co-workers, most of whom were half our age and interested in one thing – drinking enough to black out.
Eventually boyfriends would ask me to choose between our relationship and my lifestyle; and I always chose the job and my peers, since they never asked me to change even one thing about myself… never encouraged me to grow up.
There never seemed to be enough hours in the day; enough space to work; enough cooks to cover every station in the kitchen; enough customers to keep the restaurant busy. Eventually, I internalized that message, never really feeling like I was “enough” of anything – a chef, a girlfriend, a sister.
So, I worked harder. I worked every holiday, during every concert that came through town, through seasons of beautiful weather, just so that others could enjoy the time that they surely deserved. But finally, I knew something had to change. I told my boss I needed help, but he was also stretched thin between his growing business and his growing family. He understood, but he had no suggestions. “I know your type,” he’d say, “You’re one of those chefs who will work until your head falls off. You’re tough.”
On Father’s Day of 2015, I walked into the rooms of recovery for the first time. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed some kind of help, and I knew that therapists didn’t work on Sundays. There weren’t many people there, but they were sharing in a way I didn’t yet understand how to do.
Don’t get me wrong… I would regularly confess to complete strangers all the terrible things I’d done or ever thought about doing to myself or others; usually with the emotional detachment of someone licking a postage stamp. I’d been described as glib, numb, robotic, and downright harsh; but never vulnerable, open, sincere, or warm.
So, I mumbled my way through the God stuff and heard people speaking their hard-earned wisdom into my own experiences. Sunday meetings got in the way of my continuing to drink, however, so I found weeknight meetings to attend. Funny thing, that. Saying to folks, “I can’t work past 7pm, I have to go to my recovery meeting” kept them from begging me to cover extra shifts. Surprisingly, holding that time as sacred and valuable taught me how to maintain other boundaries, too.
Soon, it also kept me from drinking excessively in the company of coworkers. “Progress, not perfection!” I’d say, as I took down two rather than six or seven shots of tequila. Still, recovery wasn’t clear, easy or comfortable for me. It took me six months to recognize the people, places, and things that were no longer supporting the “real me” including my job and partners who were attracted to my struggle just long enough to distract them from their own.
I think no truer words have ever been spoken than, “The only thing that needs to change is everything.” Despite my inner demons screaming, “Cooking is all you’ve ever done! You’re not smart enough to do anything else! You’ll miss this!” I moved to Minneapolis. At 42, I returned to college, worked part time and took out student loans to cover the rest of my bills.
I worked the 12 Steps through Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), meditated at Refuge Recovery meetings, attended Codependents Anonymous and AA. I volunteered with Minnesota Recovery Connection and was trained to be a recovery coach. I even started going to a church. One Sunday in Saint Paul, I took my last sip of alcohol.
Today, I recognize that support is all around me. I no longer feel imprisoned by anxiety or depression. I’m able to ask for and accept help when it’s offered because I know I’m worth it. Now, I do my best to support others, especially chefs, who want to achieve emotional or chemical sobriety while overcoming the challenges of working in an industry which has the highest rate of substance use in the country.
Leaving the kitchen was part of my story, but I don’t believe think it has to be part of everyone’s. If we can apply the principles of recovery to the culinary world, then as the ACoA Solution reads: “We will see beautiful changes.”
Do you have a testimony of hope and encouragement from your journey of recovery? We’d love to hear from you. Please send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll connect with you if we choose to publish your piece in a future issue. Thank you.