The Story of Soulful Suppers
For anyone who cares to read anything I write or have written, you may have noticed that for the past few months I have been talking about Soulful Suppers, a fundraising initiative I created to raise money for Mind, the mental health charity. The intentions of the initiative are pretty simple, I want so passionately to not only make some money for an extremely important cause, but also to contribute to the growing awareness and conversation around mental health, as well as encourage people to have loving and connected meals and experiences as part of their own well-being. For me the benefits of such a project are “many fold” for many people; and so I have thrown myself in 1000%, in my usual style of not really knowing what might become of it, but hoping for the best. Quite frankly I’m loving the path it is taking me on.
It may seem slightly removed from the sorts of things I’ve spoken about before, the lighter side of life; recipes, adventures, fashion (or fashion attempts), table styling and floral arrangements – but for me there is an obvious connection. Because surely in inviting the lighter things into your life you are brightening up the dark? By that I’m not saying that in lighting a few candles and having a dinner party you are going to solve the complex thing that is anxiety or depression, I’m simply suggesting that in actively choosing to make a celebration out of something so ordinary as our mealtimes; being grateful, instilling a little joy in these daily rituals, using the time to check in with the ones we love – it can be one positive step amongst many towards a happier and more connected world. I know for me when I’ve experienced bleak days and felt lost or alone, nothing has lifted me more than these sorts of experiences, getting together with the people that bring me back down to earth and enjoying a meal. It may not be the same for everyone, but I’ve just wanted to share what works for me in the hope that it resonates with just one other person. I’ve met some wonderful people already, had some of the most honest and open conversations I’ve ever had in my life, received messages from countless people affected by their own experiences and am getting the ball rolling in raising the much needed funds to make a real difference.
In promoting this and talking about the concept there is a question that keeps coming up time and time again. Why mental health? Where does all this come from? What’s the link? I haven’t really wanted to answer this in an honest way because I have felt so burnt from opening up any part of my private life in the past. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve handled things incorrectly, I’m human. The intentions of Soulful Suppers certainly weren’t to put any more of a spotlight on my personal life, quite the opposite, but I see how I can’t expect others to open up and invest in the aims of the cause without being somewhat open myself.
So… on the opening night of Soulful Suppers this January, I shared a story that I haven’t spoken about in years. There are people in my life, close to me, that wouldn’t even know much of what I spoke about on that night. For the past two years I have made a habit of shying away from difficult conversations or addressing pain or sadness for too long for fear that if I engage in any of those emotions they will take a hold and I won’t be able to find a way out. For fear that people would view me differently, seeing vulnerability as a weakness or a flaw. In the things I talk about, the work I do, the parts of my life I choose to share publicly – it has all been around the good moments and the positive parts, the things I am proud of or that make me laugh – and that’s all important stuff. Through this little exercise, however, it has been brought to my attention that this isn’t what it means to be authentic and whole. Wholeness is about the hard as well as the soft, the dark as well as the light, the bad as well as the good. I listened to that and I understand that to honestly answer the question – “why mental health..?” there was a story that I needed to share, and so just like on the launch night of Soulful Suppers, I’ll share that with you now.
Five years ago a friend of mine took her own life. A story that is tragically becoming more and more common place. I was living in Sydney at the time, with my then husband, feeling pretty low and homesick. In an attempt to shake myself out of a bad headspace, I signed up to an outdoor boot camp in my local neighbourhood in the spirit of getting fit and healthy. Averil was the coach and I was instantly enamored with her. For one she looked like she could give the average man a run for his money, she was a proper girls girl (which I love) and I felt so inspired and motivated by her infectious energy. She made me want to push myself and she single handedly lit a fire in me for fitness that stays with me to this day. We trained as a group two evenings a week and the friendship between Averil and I grew so much that we began training with each other in our own time; doing wonderfully Aussie things like barefoot beach runs after work, whilst exchanging life stories and motivating each other to get physically fitter and healthier.
The more time I spent with Averil, and the more she opened up, it became very clear that she was suffering with a mental battle that she was struggling to keep at bay. Exercise was her outlet and a way of controlling things that her mind could not and it was obvious that her approach to fitness was not healthy after all, it was an unhealthy obsession. She would count calories, skip meals, turn down offers to go out to dinner with friends as she didn’t want to “slip up” and put what she deemed to be the wrong things in her body. She had a history of broken relationships and a less than encouraging family life. Quickly I went from being her mentee to her mentor, listening to her fears and unhappiness and I was more than happy to do so. She got diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and was prescribed medication and various therapies, so I was reassured that she was taking the right steps to receive the professional care she needed and I was glad to be a friend in the meantime; a shoulder to cry on, listen and be there for her as best as I could.
As we became closer her behavior become more erratic. The relationship was beginning to take a huge strain on me personally and the exercise classes I had joined to help with my own state of mind turned into something I feared and left me feeling helpless and emotionally drained. On one particular occasion I missed a session because I got held up at work, and came out of my meeting to discover a series of unpleasant voicemails and messages from Averil which left me devastated. You see, what Averil and everybody else didn’t know or realise was that I suffered…suffer from anxiety myself. Something I have struggled with since my university days and tirelessly fought to hide and deny in public – so scared was I that people would think less of me or judge me. Compared to many others, for me, it is mostly manageable and flairs up periodically following spells of stress or discomfort. Even so, I have gone to great lengths my whole adult life to hide it, if I’m honest even from myself. I have hidden it from friends and loved ones, instead completely shutting myself off for days even weeks at a time if I was struggling, so ashamed and embarrassed I felt by this version of my character. I have believed for a long time that no one would want anything to do with me if they knew I had vulnerabilities and down days instead of being the upbeat, funny, happy girl I prefer to show to the world. I would throw myself into friendships, work, exercise – do all the things you are supposed to do, so determined was I to overcome the problem in my own head and “heal” myself. I had come to think that if the best version of me couldn’t show up, then it was better I didn’t show up at all – and that’s what I got into the habit of doing – I stopped showing up.
As the situation with Averil escalated, at this point my concerned husband stepped in, in a sort of intervention, and encouraged me to take a step back from what he deemed to be a destructive relationship. He reassured me that I could still be a friend, but as I was in a vulnerable position myself I needed to look after my own well-being. So that’s what I did. After that unpleasant encounter I spoke to Averil shortly after to explain that I was taking a break from training for a while and having some time to myself. We didn’t speak for a few weeks and one day I got a text from her out of the blue asking me to meet for dinner. This is something she never did before, so I thought she must be making positive steps to suggest going out for a meal. I couldn’t make it as I already had plans, but I wrote back and suggested a rain check. I told her I’d be in touch the following week to sort something out. That evening Averil locked herself in her car and took her own life with a home-made gassing kit she researched on the internet. I remember receiving the call the following morning to tell me the news and falling to my knees with utter despair. Rationally I understood it had nothing to do with me, but I felt a level of guilt and regret that haunts me to this day. Was I a terrible friend? Could I have saved her? As someone who was severely suffering behind closed doors, it felt like the most bitter irony that I couldn’t help someone else who was suffering also. In trying to do positive things in my own life, how could that result in me essentially pushing away someone who needed support – it felt like the cruelest lesson and I am still not sure what I could have done better. Rightly or wrongly, now – I always show up. Perhaps to my own detriment, but if someone is hurting or lost or needs help – I will drop everything to be there or to offer support. It no doubt stems from this, and is probably more selfish than it sounds, because I want to save myself from feeling that guilt ever again. The healthy balance of what it means to be there for someone, whilst maintaining my own well-being and taking care of my own needs is something I still struggle to get right… but I’m trying. At the end of the day that is all you can do right? Just try and don’t stop trying.
That very same year I lost another young friend to cancer, safe to say it was not the best 12 months of my life. As gut-wrenchingly devastating as that was, and it was, the situation seemed so different to Averil’s. By comparison Mel was as happy as you could be; blissfully married, with a child who she loved and adored – and here she was having her young life cruelly taken from her. In the waiting room at the hospital in what were her last days – I have never felt so much love in the one room. As “hippy” as that may sound it was tangible, literally hanging in the air like a warm and familiar scent. The room was full of friends and family, laughing through tears not of sadness but of happiness as they retold stories of Mel’s wonderful and rich life. It was not a solemn time, but it was a time of celebration – not of loss but of Mel having blessed us with her presence for the time that she had. It was an approach to death I hadn’t felt or witnessed before and it changed me, immeasurably. The positive thing I took away from such a dire situation was a different perspective. It made me see life as a gift, I know that’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but it is, it’s a gift. Never was that more obvious to me than in that hospital waiting room on that night. I made a promise to myself to do everything I could to make every day count, to not fear the unknown, to trust, to love openly and honestly and to love hard, to take risks...even if they don’t pay off and to trust that I may make countless mistakes but I wouldn’t have any regrets or “what if’s”.
I quit my job in Events & Marketing and made some huge changes in my own life. The first of many was in starting up my own business, creating and hosting supper clubs and dinners for companies, friends and contacts. For the first time, possibly ever, I was being true to what I love with no idea if it would make any money or be any success. My first dinner was held in my own back garden. I invited 30 friends and strung canopies of lights, greenery and flowers over one long trestle table; we snuggled under blankets and ate and drank from when the sunset to when it rose again the next morning. Looking up and down the table on that night reminded me of that feeling in the hospital waiting room. Tangible warmth, love and connection – laughter lit by candlelight, smiles that came from nothing out of the ordinary beyond the simple enjoyment of food, conversation and people spending time together without the distraction of emails, work calls, iPhones or appointments. Just people being people. It truly was one of those movie moments, and it’s moments like that which spur me on in my work with food to this day… because if I couldn’t save my friend from the despair she felt, then at the very least, I want to make everybody feel the joy I felt on that evening.
That was four years ago and life has thrown me some serious curveballs since – I happily moved back home to the UK but came to the (mutual) unhappily realization that the man I married was not the man for me. I’ve struggled with achieving balance in my life with being a single working mother, and keeping those feelings of anxiety at bay requires daily strength and action with incredible support from friends and family. One of the things that remains my constant, however, is my belief in the restorative and overwhelmingly healing power of genuine connections with people – and for me the vehicle through which I am able to achieve that is with cooking and with food. What better way to facilitate those connections than in taking the time to invite people around and share a few quality hours over a lovingly prepared meal. We have three opportunities on any given day to make a meal time count – not just by getting fuel into our body, but taking it as an chance to fuel the mind as well. Really talk, really listen. Fortunately for me this is a passion, so it has been the most heavenly and convenient of combinations – but even if you’re not a cook or it’s not something you’re inclined to do, we all have to eat – so however you can, make it a priority to use that time well and wisely…as often as you possibly can. Teach your children to do the same, to help prepare food, get involved in the process and sit at the table and connect with them.
So that, my dear friends, is what Soulful Suppers is all about. I want to encourage and hopefully inspire as many people as possible to take a step out of the digital world we so readily exist within and instead step back into reality. Leave false connections behind, in favour of making genuine connections a priority, in the celebration of the simple and ordinary acts in life such as our meal times. I’m not saying this is achievable every day, but once a week, once a month – let’s actively get together – open your doors to your neighbours, friends and family without fear about what to cook, or how tidy your house is. With the understanding that when all is said and done, it’s the experiences and memories we take with us – nothing more, nothing less.
Thank you for listening, and for showing up.
With love, Jenna xx