The Art of Challenging Negative Thoughts: A Pastry Chef’s Recovery Story
When people see a fire burning, they run away as fast as they can, screaming “fire”, so that someone else can extinguish it. What’s the point of running into a burning house without the proper equipment to put it out? For most of my life, the kitchen was my fire—it scared the living sh*t out of me. At the same time, I had been brought up to love it. I was born to Ecuadorian and Jewish pastry students in New York City, the culinary capital of the states, so food is sort of a big deal for my family.
On my Ecuadorian side, I was taught that I had to eat everything on my plate as a sign of respect. My tia would encourage us to finish our food, always reminding us that “children are starving”. I remember my dad telling me that the toast I ate in the morning had butter on it, when it didn’t. As a child, we didn’t have much money, but my mother always made sure that are meals were balanced. There was no way we could eat our $0.99 Celeste Pizza or Boxed Mac and Cheese without a healthy amount of “Green Giant” Spinach, and for that I am always thankful. It’s not ideal to throw out perfectly good food, while other people who could use it are deprived. It’s when these messages get mixed with the messages of our mercilessly image-focused society that we run into some dangerous issues.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I went through the typical “awkward” phase. I gained weight, but did not yet grow taller. I was also blessed with a haircut accident, braces, and a questionable fashion sense. Of course, everyone else around me noticed this change. I have always been someone who is wired to be self-aware and anxious, so I began to feel as though something was wrong with me. Soon enough, I grew taller and thinner, which resulted in positive feedback from people. As an insecure fourteen-year-old girl, I started to crave that validation. While these compliments came from a benevolent place, an immense level of anxiety built up in me with each one. Most of the time at school I was very quiet, hyper aware of what people thought of me, with all of the pressure surrounding my appearance. I became fearful of sharing who I was with people around me, so I attributed all that was lacking in my life to my perceived physical flaws. Disillusioned by my irrational thought processes, I was convinced that everyone was lying to me.
Throughout high school, I kept my eating disorder a secret because I carried so much shame. I entered school everyday with my makeup and hair perfectly done, took AP classes, participated in clubs, and ran cross country. I needed to be perceived as perfect, yet that is the very thing that inhibited my happiness. The kitchen is where I found a source of calm when my OCD and my eating disorder dominated my thoughts. My appearance, my mistakes, my shortcomings, and ruminations disappeared entirely when I entered the kitchen. Even though I was desperately scared of consuming what I made, I confided in baking. Sugar, flour, butter, and eggs were constants in my life. There are endless ways to use them, and the results are predictable, so my perfectionism, creativity, and drive all thrived. I was a quiet girl, but I always wanted a way to put smiles on other peoples’ faces. Bringing a tupperware to school, filled to the brim with my baking escapades, was my way of doing that.
In 2018, a family member of mine noticed my interest in pastry, and asked if I wanted to do a stage, meaning “internship” in French. Soon enough, I received an email saying that I was to stage at Eleven Madison Park. Unbeknownst to me, this was the best restaurant in the world at the time. I was a sixteen year old girl who had never been in a restaurant kitchen, let alone cooked in one. The experience was intimidating, intricate, and challenging. After spending all hours of the day putting together all of the small elements that go into a dish, then being given the opportunity to taste that hard work, calories, sugar, fat do not exist. What takes their place is the story of the dish and the all-consuming experience of tasting it. The challenge that Eleven Madison Park posed, lured me back in for two and a half more months, the following summer.
It was around the time that my second stage ended that I decided that I wanted to turn my side gig into an official business. One November night, when I was in the midst of preparing for a promotional event for my business the next day, there was Petit Four glaze all over the kitchen floor, my clothing, and hands. I sank to the ground feeling defeated, so crushed that I was not able to work through the pain of a migraine. This was the moment, I realized that I needed to stop numbing my feelings with work. I had to search harder for a therapy that would work. Barely hanging on day-to-day, stuck in an inexplicable hopelessness, an answer finally came, upon someone’s suggestion of a specific therapeutic behavioral approach to treatment.
The first assignment that I was given in therapy was to pay attention to what my thoughts were telling me. The next step was the learning not to attach myself to the thoughts that I had surrounding myself and my life—day to day. For most people, those thoughts turn into long lasting beliefs. I now make the decision everyday, to challenge the thoughts that do not serve me. This simple technique was what allowed me to run straight into fire, as I mentioned earlier, and it is what gave me the tools to put it out. Food is now no longer something I am fearful of—rather something that I respect and appreciate. I no longer restrict myself, and I enjoy cooking meals that sustain me. I now love moving my body for the purpose of nurturing my body and easing anxiety. I now can bring my inventions to life in the kitchen, while being able to enjoy the end result. My dietitian once told me it was no coincidence that our greatest challenges became our greatest strength. Today, I fully understand what she meant.
I hope that by embodying a sense of irony in my work as both a pastry chef and as someone who has overcome bulimia nervosa, that I can make room for that middle ground that our society so desperately needs. Yes, you can enjoy baked goods, while being healthy both mentally and physically! In our world we are taught to base our self worth on how we look—through our interactions, the media, advertisements, social media, etc. It’s not that your appearance isn’t important, however, we run into trouble when we begin to believe that our self worth as human beings has anything to do with what our bodies look like. These thoughts and notions surrounding our relationships to food were drilled into the generation before us, and the one before them. It is now my mission to help others challenge the beliefs that were passed down to them, so that we can end this pattern.
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