Why Depression Doesn't Mean You Can't Be A World-Class Bartender
"I’m head-over-heels for this stuff. I’ve full-on drunk the Kool-Aid. That’s what makes this industry good for my mental health."
June 6, 2018 ● 14 min read
By Lauren Friel | iStock/ChefsFeed
Naomi Levy is currently preparing to compete in Diageo World Class, the elite international bartending competition that brings the world’s best behind-the-stick talent together for a fight to score the coveted title of Bartender of the Year.
The Boston-based cocktail whiz makes her living as Head Bartender for Kimpton Hotels, but she once graced the shakers as Bar Manager at Eastern Standard, and her awards and accolades include National Winner of both the Bacardi Legacy and Herradura Legends competitions, Star Chefs Rising Star Community Bartender, Zagat’s 30 Under 30, and many other things (because girlfriend is a force).
Levy 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. We chatted with her about major depressive disorder, the potential pitfalls of antidepressants, and what it looks like to take control.
Lauren Friel: Why did you volunteer to talk to me about your mental health?
Naomi Levy: What’s so wonderful about the restaurant industry is our community. Having that sense of community has definitely helped me through hard times. If we can continue to build on that sense of community—if we can create a safe space for these conversations, and a growing space—we’re just going to continue to make this industry one of the strongest communities, I think, of any industry. All of the people in my life who are nearest and dearest to my heart, other than family, are in my life because of the restaurant industry. I think that’s extremely powerful.
There’s such a stigma, and there has been for such a long time. I think a lot of people who read this are going to go, “Wait, Naomi?” And that’s not because I’ve necessarily been hiding something, but I think it’s important to say, “Yeah, Naomi.” All sorts of people deal with these issues, and that’s important to address and talk about. People don’t want to share because they’re worried others will think they’re weak, or crazy, or that people won’t listen to what they have to say anymore. If we can get rid of that, I just think that it would be so incredibly powerful.
I’m here to say, I’ve battled major depressive disorder my whole life. For me, unfortunately, it doesn’t go away. It’s with me. But, that doesn’t mean that I can’t live an overall really wonderful life. It doesn’t define me. As someone who is well-versed, I guess, in mental illness and mental issues, it’s something that I think is really important for people to talk about openly. I personally started going to therapy when I was seven years old.
That’s really young.
Yeah, so when I say I’m well-versed, I mean my whole life, essentially, has been about this in one facet.
I’m actually sort of jealous that you started going at such a young age. I’m thinking about how my life might have been different if I’d been in therapy when I was a small child.
Yeah, it helped me immensely. I’m very thankful for it, and I really think it helped me become the woman I am today, no doubt. So, I like to think I have something to offer to someone who hasn’t had the luxury of a lifetime of being given tools like I have. Everyone talks about yoga and juice cleanses and this and that, and all this physical stuff. But the mental stuff can be physical, and it’s just as important.
Because you are so successful, do you experience people assuming your life is perfect and you never get sad?
You know, I don’t necessarily go up to people like, “Hey! I’m Naomi! I have a mood disorder and I’ve been battling depression since I was seven years old.” But, one of the things that I do for my mental health is that I don’t really drink. I have a half a glass of wine with dinner here and there, but that’s basically it. People want to know why I don’t drink, and I’m very open and honest about it. So I say, “Well, drinking fuels my depression.” And not many people have much to say back to that.
That’s how my mental health has come up when I talk about it with people. It’s in that context, because everybody wants to know why the bartender isn’t drinking. So I’m pretty straight up. I get depressed when I drink, so I don’t do it. And alcohol is a depressant! It makes you feel good in the moment, but it is a depressant.
As I got older, I started to get depression hangovers. Anything more than a glass or so of wine or one or two drinks meant I would be really depressed the next day, and I started to notice a correlation. I realized, this is not worth it to me. My mental health is the most important thing to me—having a drink or two is not.
Depression looks like different things to different people—what does it look like to you? How has it affected your life?
I can go months feeling totally fine, or I can go two days feeling totally fine. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It can be anything from a dull melancholy to an overwhelming feeling that’s manifested not just emotionally, but physically. Where your whole body feels heavy, or like there’s something inside of it trying to burst out of your chest. Crying for no apparent reason. Oftentimes, when that happens, there’s no direct correlation. I’m not talking, like, my grandma died, so I was depressed. I’m talking about, like, it’s Tuesday, and today sucks.
Nothing has changed from Monday to Tuesday, and yet, all of a sudden, the world collapses.
My parents took me to a therapist when I was seven, because I was still throwing full-on temper tantrums. At seven years old, that’s too old. So, they knew something was going on then. When you’re seven, you don’t have the words to express what’s going on inside you. For me, that was manifesting in this very explosive way.
So, they took me to therapy. I saw the same therapist from age nine to nineteen.
Wow. That’s amazing.
I’m gonna get choked up. She saved my life. I don’t know where I would be, or who I would be, if it wasn’t for this incredible woman who was so patient. I spent, like, ten years with this woman. She was a huge part of one of the most formative parts of my life.
My dad is also a doctor, and I feel very lucky that he wasn’t one to say, “Just put my kid on drugs.” I did go on antidepressants, but not until I was 13 or 14 years old. I’m very thankful for that as well, because I feel like he made sure they did it right.
Maybe three or four years ago, when I was still at Eastern Standard, I hit a really low low in the winter, and I couldn’t get out of it. It took me until maybe July to get out of it. I’ve never been suicidal, but it was sort of like, “What if I just crashed my car?” I don’t know what you call those thoughts. They’re not meant to be self-harm, it’s more just like, “What if I just did something really extreme to, like, change everything?” I’ve never worried about acting on any of it, but that’s where the dark thoughts go. It was a really bad episode. Probably one of the worst since I was a teenager. That was scary, because I have all the best tools in my arsenal, I’ve been in therapy my whole life, and I am still having such a hard time getting myself out of this.
In a funny way, I have an advantage, because I’ve been dealing with this for so long. I know these feelings. They’re familiar. Sometimes even comforting, which is unfortunate. But because of that, I know I’ve felt these feelings before, and I know that there is, at some point, light at the end of the tunnel.
That’s the hard thing for someone experiencing depression for the first time, because when you’re going through that, it does feel like there’s no hope. It feels like you’re going to feel like this forever, life’s not worth living like this, etcetera etcetera. I feel so bad for people who are dealing with this and who have never dealt with anything remotely like it before. It’s so hard. And if what you’re experiencing is situational, you have to talk to someone. You have to deal with what’s at the root of what you’re feeling.
Situational and chronic depression are two sides of the same coin, and even though one directly correlates to something, it doesn’t make it any easier. It’s still a horrible feeling. I have the advantage of having gone through it enough times that even if every part of my body and my being is saying, “You’re never going to get over this,” I’m like, no: I have proof that I have gotten over this before. That helps me let go of a little control, even in the most hopeless times.
Sometimes you have to just ride the wave.
Exactly. Just ride the wave.
For me, taking care of myself physically helps me take care of myself mentally. It’s funny, all my life, my dad was like, “Exercise, exercise, exercise! It’s really going to be good for you!” And I only took it up maybe three years ago, and I’m like, “Ugh, Dad was right.”
Eating right and exercise are really important, especially when I’m feeling down. If you’re eating a bunch of crap, your body is going to feel crappy, and your body already feels crappy, because you’re depressed. And that’s all you want to do, is eat a pint of ice cream and a bag of potato chips. And I’ll allow myself to do that for a day. But then I’m like, “Listen lady, you’re gonna go eat a salad and go to the gym.” Then, you’ve done something that you’re proud of. You’ve done something you can feel good about. That’s a little tiny win.
That’s all you can ask for, is more little tiny wins. To defeat this thing that feels like a giant monster, you’ve just gotta chip away at it.
So, it sounds like diet, exercise, and therapy have been really important for you in maintaining your mental health. But it does sound like you didn’t have a great experience with antidepressants.
Antidepressants aren’t meant to be a long-term solution. They’re meant to aid therapy. People are using them in all sorts of ways now, and I’m not trying to be judgmental, but that’s what they were meant for.
So, first, you have to find the right one, which is a whole thing. This one makes you feel like a zombie, and that one amps you up. You know they always say there’s like a 0.001% chance this one is going to just totally mess you up? Hi, I went on one that I remember mostly as an out-of-body experience. I thought there were elves in the bushes trying to get me. I hate to use the word crazy, but it was crazy. And I was a teenager. It was awful.
Finally, we found one that was good. We paired an antidepressant with an ADD medication, because I’m not manic-depressive, but I did have a few little manic episodes and trouble concentrating. The thing that was—and continues to be—a very nagging symptom for me is motivation issues. Like, the very simple things that people do every day, like tie their shoes, are an ordeal for me at times. The antidepressants didn’t help that symptom, which can be really crippling, because if you’re not getting things done, that really just feeds your depression. It’s just this terrible cycle.
Things pile up, and then you feel stressed, and you’re overwhelmed, and your self-worth plummets.
Exactly. So, they found this great complement to the antidepressant with Adderall to help me with my motivation issues. It’s a stimulant, so it helped me with the get-up-and-go. Go to school, do your work.
Every year, they tried to wean me off. Which is what you should do with an adolescent who’s in therapy full-time. The first year, as we started to get to a lower dose, I started to not feel great again, so they raised it a little. The second year, I got all the way off and then started to gradually feel down again, so they put me back on. The last year, I went all the way off, I was feeling great. And then, it was like I got hit by a bus.
It was probably the lowest low I have ever experienced, ever. I stopped going to school, I was being threatened with being put in a day program. They not only had to put me on an even higher dose of the original drug, they had to give me a second, supplementary antidepressant. It was really, really bad. I was 16.
It’s hard enough being a 16-year-old.
Yeah. So, it was the lowest low I’ve ever hit. I believe—and I might be right or wrong, and this is very personal, and very much just me—that I never would have hit that low if I hadn’t been on the antidepressants in the first place.
That’s when I decided to take control of my life. I said, “I’m graduating early, and I’m getting off drugs.” For the first time in my life, it was my decision. And I never used them since. I feel very proud of that. Even when, a few years ago, maybe they would have been helpful. For me, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take anymore. It might help in the moment, but what if it screws me later?
I think it’s amazing that you’ve been able to manage without drugs for this amount of time. Do you think that any of your ability to function well without them had to do with the realization that, ultimately, you’re in control of a lot of aspects of your life?
Absolutely. To take my life in my own hands and make decisions about what I wanted to do with my life was huge. Maybe I don’t have control over the fact that I feel really down one day, but I do have control over what I do with my day. I have control over what I put into my body.
That being said, when I was on the antidepressants, I think they did help me be more receptive to therapy.
It’s just kind of a double-edged sword.
Yeah, I think if I hadn’t been on them, I wouldn’t have been able to hear or take in some of the tools that I needed. Being armed with those tools—along with the realization that I control my own destiny and nobody else does—has made me strong enough to continue to handle this on my own.
From the time that I was in my late teens or early twenties, I had already been dealing with this for so long that I really did start to think of it like any other health issue that anyone deals with. Most days, you don’t have to think about it, but you always need to be a little conscious of it.
There was a time that I was really having a bad day, and I just said to one of my managers, “Hey, I’m having a really bad day today.” They don’t need to know more than that. Just heads-up. Like, please don’t yell at me today, because I will burst into tears. Or sometimes, I’ll ask my coworkers if I can work service bar, because I just need to keep my head down.
I don’t want to compare one person’s experience to another’s, but there are definitely some unique challenges to being front-of-house, rather than back-of-house. In back-of-house, you can cry all you want. Your co-workers might be like, “What the hell?” But you can be upset, because you’re not literally the face of the restaurant. When you’re front-facing, it’s a unique challenge to be going through a rough time.
How do you deal with that?
Both sides deal with really long hours. We deal with really high-stress situations, poor sleep cycles, all of that. All of those things are bad for our mental health. The extra challenge in the front-of-house is that you can’t live in that. You have to just put on that smile.
Sometimes, for me, I feel like it helps. I can sort of walk through this magic portal where I’m not this depressed person. I’m just this lovely, charming bartender. I get to pretend to be her for a few hours. And sometimes that feels cathartic, and sometimes that feels exhausting. For me, there is something to be said about smiling until it’s real.
In a way, it’s a blessing and a curse, because it’s harder to call out from a restaurant. If I was working an office job, I could just call out and stay in bed all day. I can’t do that. Do you know how many people I would be royally screwing over if I was just like, “I’m sad, I’m not gonna go to work.” And yeah, we could get into sick days and mental health days. But, ultimately, I don’t want to screw over my teammates by not showing up.
So, that’s actually something that I love about this industry: it gives you structure. When there’s no structure, and there aren’t things to go and do, that’s when you wallow. That’s how you don’t shower for four days. That’s how all of those things add up. But having to go to work can be great because you do have to compartmentalize a little. You do have to smile and be nice to people, which is going to make you feel better, even when it’s the last thing you want to do.
At the end of the day, I feel so lucky to get to do what I do. I love my job. When I’m going into work and doing something I genuinely enjoy and get fulfillment from—even if I’m feeling really bad when I walk in that door, and maybe when I walk out the door I feel bad again, there were a few moments in between when I felt at least okay, because I was doing that thing that does bring me joy.
The reason being in this industry works for me is that, despite the long hours, despite all the things that do negatively impact my mental health, I’m head-over-heels for this stuff. I’ve full-on drunk the Kool-Aid. That’s what makes this industry good for my mental health. I just love it so much.
And that’s what gets me through when someone is being a total jerk. A few years back, I made a very conscious choice to be like, “Screw them.” Why should I let them get to me? If that upsets me, I just gave them my emotional energy, and they don’t deserve [it]. I’ve been in this industry a really long time. I’ve been called every name in the book. It’s just not worth it.
I focus in on the people who are having a great time at my bar, and who I’m having great conversations with. Those are the people I give my emotional energy, and time, and attention, to. That can be really hard when you’re already in a place where your brain and your body are trying to feed on negative energy. You really just have to be super conscious.
I think a lot of handling any sort of mental issue is just having consciousness about it. When you lose that, that’s when it can sneak up on you. You’ve gotta catch it. Sometimes it’s pacing with you, and it’s harder. But, the more you can get ahead of it, the better chance you have.
As someone who’s really successful in the industry, does that make it harder for you sometimes, because people expect you to perform at a certain level? I’m just thinking about you preparing for World Class right now and simultaneously dealing with all of this.
I don’t know if I’ve thought about that before. In a funny way, I think it helps motivate me. Because I really care about performing well. If I let myself get depressed, that’s not conducive. So, in a way it’s just an extra layer of motivation to take care of myself, to make sure that I’m healthy in all facets.
When you’re working hard, you’re focused on something outside of yourself. When I’m working to make other people happy, I’m working on something so outside of myself that it’s sort of a wonderful distraction.
Getting to this point in my career has made me realize two things: One, everyone’s got something. Two, nothing’s out of reach. That sounds so cheesy, but mental illness doesn’t have to hold you back. Of course, I’m talking about major depressive disorder, and there are other disorders that are much harder to manage. But, it’s not about the hand you’re dealt. It’s about what you do with that hand and how you view it. It doesn’t prevent you from achieving your goals and achieving your dreams if you don’t let it.
Teenage Naomi would not recognize 30-year-old Naomi. And I’m super proud of that. I somehow wound up becoming this incredibly positive person.
What advice do you have for people who want to support their friends, colleagues, and partners who are battling depression?
For people who are looking to be allies and want to be supportive, there are a couple of things to remember.
One, no two people are the same or need the same things from you. Asking what someone needs instead of assuming what they need is really helpful, and listen to what they have to say. What might make you feel better isn’t necessarily what’s going to make them feel better. On the other hand, if you’re the person going through something—and I know it’s very hard in the moment, because sometimes you don’t even know what you need—try to communicate what you need. Do you need someone close? Do you need some space? Do you need a distraction? Do you need to vent?
Two, it’s not your job to fix. It’s only your job to be there and be supportive.
And “fixing” maybe isn’t what the goal should be, because it’s not necessarily true that something is broken. It’s just different.
Right. It shouldn’t be about trying to solve problems. If your partner is depressed, it’s very easy for them to become more depressed because they feel like they’re letting you down by not being happy or not wanting to go out. So, helping mitigate those fears and those feelings is just as important as giving them a hug and telling them how important they are to you. You can’t take [it] personally. It’s not about you.