Why Restaurants Are a Refuge for The Restless
And why trauma isn’t a prerequisite for therapy.
May 2, 2018 ● 9 min read
By Lauren Friel | Photo illustration by ChefsFeed
Meghan Burrow has been a server all over the country, from Denver to San Francisco, Portland to Boston.
The Kansas native is currently en route from the West Coast to Gloucester, MA, where she’s joining the team at The Market Restaurant, the award-winning seaside bungalow from a team of Chez Panisse alums. We chatted about family dynamics, the fall-outs of perfectionism, and how we navigate social drinking in the industry. Burrow is among dozens of brave chefs, bartenders, servers, and general managers who volunteered to discuss their mental health journeys with ChefsFeed in an effort to normalize discussion and foster self-care in our industry.
Meghan Burrow: I’m a little bit nervous because this is really vulnerable, but it’s also really important. It’s stigmatized, and nobody talks about it, and it’s so prevalent in our industry. We’re not going to make change unless we talk about it.
Lauren Friel: Well, where do you want to start?
MB: The beginning seems logical.
I definitely have had mental health—leaning toward depression—issues most of my life. I’m highly analytical. Like, I remember being in middle school and being stressed about recess, because I wanted to make sure I was doing it right.
I grew up in a really loving household that also has really high standards. There was incredible stress at all times. There was an element of perfectionism that I still have a hard time letting go of. Sometimes that’s really helpful, professionally, because I have great attention to detail, and I’m hospitable, and that ended up being the career that I chose and have loved. But, it also means that I’ve kept things from my parents until they can’t be undone. That’s not healthy.
It’s a little bit better now that I’m 31, but my parents would email my teachers in high school and ask if I was doing OK in school. I had over a 5.0 GPA and was in seven activities in any given moment, and I didn’t drink, and I never dated. Like, what?
LF: What do you think that was about? What do you think they were looking for?
MB: I had this moment with my mom when I was living in San Francisco. She came out to visit me, and we were driving to the coast, and—I don’t want kids, I never have. And she was saying that I’d be such a great mom, which is something that people always tell me. I told her I don’t want to be a mom. And she said, “But it would be so great, because you know how to have fun, and you also know how to have structure. I didn’t realize that when I was raising you. You didn’t have time to have fun.”
We lived next to a park and we never went to the park after school. We had to go home and work on math problems and practice piano. I went to bed at eight o’clock in the summer when all my friends were playing outside. It’s like, you know you have parents who love you, and want to protect you, and just want the best for you. But, hearing that she didn’t know it was ok if we weren’t constantly striving to reach the next goal…that broke my heart and mended my relationship with my mom simultaneously. That sucks for everyone.
LF: You never talked about that stuff?
MB: My parents went to therapy, and they took me to therapy as a kid, but I remember sitting in therapy and thinking, “You’re telling me everything I already know. I know I’m here because I’m frustrated with how my relationship with my parents is, and it’s because they love me and they want the best for me, but it’s not working.”
Like I said, I’ve always been super logical, but I’m also super emotive. It’s a blessing and a curse, I would say.
Then I got to college, and college was fine for a while. And then one of my friends was raped. I went to the trial, and the guy walked. He was a creep, and it pretty much destroyed me. All faith in the justice system gone, trust is out the window.
So, after that, I was drinking, and it spiraled into self-medication and not really knowing how to handle or process any of it. After about a month or so in (which I realize is pretty mellow compared to a lot of people), I realize I’m not ok. So, I went to get therapy on-campus, and I felt better—like I could manage everything with more clarity.
I left Kansas, and I moved to Denver. That felt like a beautiful relief.
LF: Why was it such a relief to leave?
MB: I got to reinvent myself. I got to be the version of me that I wanted to be, instead of what I was supposed to be. I was attracted to Denver because it’s such an active community. Everyone has a dog, and everyone’s hiking and running, and it’s beautiful. It was perfect.
I got a job at Beatrice and Woodsley, the first high-end restaurant I’d work at, and I also worked as a dog-walker. It was the happiest I’d ever been.
LF: Why was that the happiest you’ve ever been?
MB: As a dog-walker, I probably walked 10 miles a day, and I don’t know how you could be bummed when you’re walking that many dogs in the sun, looking around at the mountains. I wasn’t making a ton of money doing that, but it was just really fun.
Then, at the restaurant, the kitchen’s in the basement. This is an important detail, because I became incredibly fit. I lost a ton of weight, and I had way more energy.
It’s also a small staff that pretty much operates like a family. For the first time, I was with all of these intelligent people who shared my passions, because everybody at the restaurant liked to be outside, and eat really good food, and drink really good drinks, and there’s this sense of community. I was the only single one for most of my tenure there, and all of the couples would take me out for dinner. I never felt like a third wheel or that it was a bummer that I was single. I was just, like, “Hooray, friends!”
As much as I didn’t do the partying thing in college, I definitely did the partying thing for a solid chunk of time with them. Every night, we would go out to the bar two storefronts down. It was this Irish pub, and we would drink until it closed. And that’s what we did every day. It was really fun, because I was 22, and you can do that when you’re 22. But after awhile, it stopped feeling good. I don’t actually like getting drunk every night. It’s not constructive or fulfilling. We’d still do cool things on our days off, but it was always book-ended by drinking. Sometimes that’s fun, but sometimes it’s a really bad idea.
I enjoy drinking, because I enjoy things that taste good, and there’s usually a cool story behind it, and that’s fascinating to me. It’s also part of cultivating community, and it’s part of most societies. Then there’s the piece, where, if you really love your job and want to do it right, you have to really experience what you’re selling, but, the lines become kind of blurred. What’s educational, and what’s becoming reckless with your body and your life?
That’s been a common thread throughout my entire adulthood as a server.
LF: You said you see this outside our industry, too, but what makes you feel as though it’s particularly worth talking about within our industry?
MB: I think it’s multi-fold, in that mental health is a topic that we’re starting to see as almost a buzzword. It’s something we definitely need to address, but I feel like it’s addressed in two hugely different realms. There are all these extremes. There’s the one that’s like, self-care. Take a bath, take a day for yourself. All of that’s good and fine.
Then there are more intense mental health issues. Let’s talk about medication, let’s talk about therapy. There’s often a political element to it. I think that within that dialogue, you’re losing the essence of what the person is. Like, the feeling of being ashamed for talking to a therapist. Or, if you haven’t been through an “intense” trauma that you shouldn’t need therapy. Everybody has a story, and we’re all processing. Just because you haven’t experienced a trauma that is something that might involve a courtroom doesn’t mean that your trauma isn’t real.
Then there’s the social aspect of drinking, and those extremes. You’re either the person who always says, “I’ll have another,” or you’re the vegan juice-cleanse person. You go to yoga so you can “earn” your brunch.
That’s tricky, because I’m someone who’s definitely interested in the health and fitness world, but I’m gonna have a glass of rosé, and maybe a second. So I think this dialogue needs to be more fluid. What does “health” look like? What is balance? What is our conversation with alcohol, and how does that relate to identifying yourself as a social person?
I think a lot of people get lost in the cycle of happy hours or drinking after work, and don’t have the opportunities to do the self-work that makes other things seem more enjoyable. It’s always easier to just go to happy hour. But that can be a bummer after a while.
LF: So what are some of the things that you’ve done that have helped you to see outside that cycle?
MB: Therapy is something that I actively do. I think everyone should go. I think one of the obstacles is that it’s like dating—the first person you see might not be a good fit. That doesn’t mean therapy isn’t for you, it means that this person isn’t a good fit. And that’s really hard, especially when you’re in a dark place. To leave a session and think, “I just paid this person money, and I don’t feel any better.” You might even feel worse. Then you think, “I’m so broken, I can’t even go to therapy.”
When I moved to Portland, I was in a super dark spot. My boyfriend suddenly dumped me. I didn’t want to live here. I felt like the rug got pulled out from under me. So, I drank a lot. I cried a lot. Then, I got to the place again, where I realized, “I’m not ok.”
I saw two therapists simultaneously for about two months, and now I have one. She’s flexible and accommodating, and she has a sliding scale. Her philosophy is that everyone should have access to mental health, so if someone can’t pay, it doesn’t mean she won’t see them.
LF: What do you do to maintain your mental health beyond therapy?
MB: I’ve found that having a dog is really helpful, because it means I have to go outside and exercise, even when I don’t want to.
Also, building relationships with people who are either like-minded in the restaurant industry and/or are in the yoga community, where I spend a lot of time, has been a game-changer. It’s really hard finding your people, but even if you can find one person who’s the reason you go home at 1 a.m. instead of going out, because the next day you’re meeting for a yoga class at 9 a.m., that’s a really great resource. You mirror the people you spend time with.
LF: Are there some challenges to maintaining your mental health that are unique to the restaurant industry?
MB: Yeah, and they’re definitely drinking and hours-related. When you get off at midnight or later, you’re not going to go have tea. If you want to unwind and hang out with your friends, you’re going to a bar.
There’s the part where you’re constantly serving others. You have to check absolutely everything at the door and be totally perky and stoked on life. And even if someone is incredibly rude to you, you smile. It doesn’t feel good. Especially when it continuously happens, it takes a toll.
Then there’s the potentially toxic work environment. I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t experienced a lot of this, but there are those places where everyone is bitching about service, which is normal, but then they’re also bitching about everything else, and nothing is working, and that’s not healthy.
LF: How do you recognize that? Venting about service is such a part of restaurant culture—where’s the line for you? How do you know when it’s time to move on?
MB: I have a pretty low threshold for nonsense. If I’m dreading work the moment I leave work, then I know it’s time for me to be done.
I feel very fortunate to have the practice of yoga, because you can’t hide from things when you do yoga. Stuff comes up. Having the balance of being with people who are generally positive and healthy outside of that environment makes you realize pretty quickly when things are wrong.
LF: Is there anything about being in the industry that’s been beneficial to your mental health?
MB: Totally. I’ve moved a ton, and I’ve been able to do that because I work in this industry. Because I’ve worked at some cool places, I can get work at other cool places. I have an adventurous spirit, so if I’m not happy, I need change. Many times, that’s looked like moving to a new city and working at a new restaurant.
Another thing that I love is, if you’re working at a higher-end place, you’re constantly learning. It’s really stimulating. From a mental health perspective, if I’m not mentally challenged, I’m not thriving.
You’re also guaranteed at least moderately social friends from the get-go. That’s great, because moving to a new city is really hard, and even though they might not be lifelong friends, you at least have people. It’s easy as an adult to feel really isolated, and being in this industry helps with that. It’s at least a little Band-Aid while you find your tribe.