Hey Peeps, and welcome to my blog. The following is an edited version of the essay I submitted as part of my application to the New England Culinary Institute.
A little over two years ago, I had my first panic attack. It was awful. I was shaking, crying, and felt waves of anxiety flowing through my body. I hardly slept all night. My thoughts raced around in circles, and I couldn’t stop thinking of tragic things that might happen to me or people I was close to.
That night was the start of a period in my life that is best described as a life crisis. I was working as an office manager, in the process of applying to graduate schools, and in the first relationship of my life that seemed like it could last forever. On the outside, things seemed fine. Except in the inside, I was terrified. I had horrible thoughts I couldn’t stop, and was in a constant state of anxiety.
I started thinking I was going crazy. My therapist and I worked very hard together, but couldn’t seem to figure out what was really going on. There wasn’t a concrete source of all this fear. I tried some self-help programs, meditation, and retreats from a program called ‘Heartwork’, but nothing seemed to make me feel better. Quite the opposite, in fact. I kept getting worse despite my best efforts to get help and do inner work. Because I wasn’t getting better, I started falling into depression, sometimes feeling like I would never get better, that nothing would work.
In the meantime, I was also realizing that graduate school might not be the best option for me. The more I thought about it, the less excited I became about becoming an academic, doing a lot of solitary work, and teaching. I enjoyed philosophy, but because of the anxiety, the racing, obsessive thoughts, I feared I would become even more involved in my head, and too detached from my body. After receiving an offer from only one of the eight schools I had applied to, I turned it down, feeling relieved.
However, I soon realized that there wasn’t a back-up plan. Thinking I was going to graduate school had kept me motivated in my regular, 9-5 office job. But now I felt increasingly stuck, like Sisyphus, doing the same boring office work day in and day out, not knowing when it was going to end. A nightmarish future stretched out before me, and I ended up quitting my job because I was miserable. I needed to take some time out from work and find out what I really wanted to do with my life.
“You’re so young, you have plenty of time to figure out what you want to do.” “It’ll come to you, don’t worry.” These are pieces of “advice” given to me by teachers, parents, friends, acquaintances, and other mentors and people I asked (or didn’t ask) about figuring out my life’s purpose, and finding a meaningful career. These are sentences I had been hearing since middle school. And since middle school, at every important stage of my life, I still had no idea what it was I wanted to do. I had vague ideas of “doing good” or “helping people”, but that didn’t really give me any concrete leads. I started hating to tell people at all that I was doing a job search and taking time off to figure out my life.
The one great thing that came out of not going to grad school was that suddenly, everything was on the table. I could become a dog trainer and work with dogs. I could become a social worker and help people learn life skills, do counseling. I could go to culinary school and become a chef. Or perhaps a singer. So I started investigating these options. I took voice lessons. I volunteered at the local animal shelter. I went to an open house at a school of social work. I went to an open house and spoke with an admissions representative at a culinary school. But after a few months, I still didn’t feel drawn to any of these options in particular. I was still struggling with anxiety and depression, and was disappointed that the answer to my life crisis wasn’t “coming to me”.
Finally, in the fall of 2010, I started a therapy specifically for Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder (OCD). I hadn’t wanted to admit to myself that it was really that bad, but had to face the truth of my daily symptoms. The therapy, called CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), has helped me change my mental and physical behavior for the better. I learned to engage my rational brain again, recognizing and evaluating/stopping irrational thinking that led me into crazy states of anxiety. I can say now that I have improved about 80-90% compared to the state I was in before. The most important result of this therapy is that I have my future back. I really feel like I can move on in my life, which is such a relief.
So why did I decide on culinary school? Aside from all the inner work, all the truths I found out about myself, one other thing I’ve learned about myself is that nobody needs to motivate me to cook. I love thinking about food and being creative with leftovers. I love baking special treats for people having them gush over how good it tastes. I love preparing and eating food, and would be thrilled to “have to” do it every day as a professional. People keep telling me it’s stressful to be a professional chef, but to that I can only say: so is social work. So is being a professional musician. So is working at a 9-5 job you hate. So is anxiety and depression.
The advantage I have is knowing it’s going to be hard. Life is hard. But I’ve learned that the only thing I can control in this world is my attitude and perspective on things. Even though I still struggle with periods of anxiety and depression, I now have tools and techniques I can use to help me get through hard, stressful times. So I know that whatever challenges I might face in a culinary program, it’s probably not going to be as hard as the past two years of my life. I’m motivated to work through my fears instead of running away from them. As one of my spiritual teachers likes to say, “Nothing is in the way; everything is on the way.”