How Chocolate Saved My Life

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It should be just another busy night at my restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C. But it isn’t. I feel that reality as I look down the two long bars and lounge tables filled with guests enjoying elaborate desserts and craft cocktails. Dazzling in the dim light are large sculptures that are completely edible, and behind me in a glass-enclosed room is a tempering machine with fifty pounds of melted, constantly-flowing dark chocolate. We are gathered here to say farewell, yet joy permeates. I take a deep breath and let my soul fill with tremendous gratitude and fulfillment as I think about how I almost didn’t make it to tonight.

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As the first-generation American daughter of two Indian immigrants, I was given two career choices: doctor or engineer. Lawyer wasn’t even an option yet. More than a career, whichever of these two roles I chose would define who I was for myself and others. Perfectionism was a family tradition I was expected to keep. I would check off all the boxes at the right time and in the correct order. Get good grades, stuff my after-school hours with extracurriculars, go to a respectable college, earn my degree, marry the quintessential nice Indian boy, become an engineer, have babies. You know the drill.

I played along, making everyone in my life proud — except, as it happens, myself. Not until much later did I realize I wasn’t proud of myself and that I didn’t even bear much love for myself. Love myself — what the hell is that? Not very Indian of me. But I still felt the pull of my beautiful heritage.

I grew up with this amazing sense of Indian culture, but I was born and lived in America — except for the three years that I spent in India as a teenager. At home, my parents would only speak English to me and my sister, as they were concerned we would be confused while at school or around friends. My mother cooked daal and roti dinners for my father, but it was pizza and cheeseburgers for us kids. So my identity felt more American than Indian. But then why did I feel the strong pull of being the perfect Indian girl?

A good Indian girl asks permission to live her life. They sacrifice themselves for others, epitomize humility, and show love to everyone, even when they don’t feel it. Perhaps this is changing for younger generations, but there still is some element of confusion in our shared dual identity. We have one foot in each culture but are expected to be “perfect.” Some might say that sounds like being set up for an identity crisis.

My identity crisis surfaced during a difficult, twenty-two-year marriage. I questioned myself, wondering why I couldn’t make it work like the generations of Indian ancestors before me did, despite how they were treated as women and wives. Feeling stuck and torn between what I wanted versus what I should want, I ended up down the deep, dark rabbit hole of clinical depression.

Depression was once taboo in Indian culture. Same for seeing a therapist or taking medication to regulate your moods. God forbid if it was discussed with others. What would the aunties think? What would my family think? I loved being a mom. I loved it so much that shortly after my first child was born, I left my job as a biomedical engineer for the Navy to be a stay-at-home mom. But something was missing from my life. My soul wasn’t being nourished, and soon after giving birth to my second child, a girl, I developed postpartum depression which became clinical depression.

For a while, I kept up external appearances. I embraced having the dream — a beautiful, loving family and a beautiful dream home where I could host all my friends. I kept the darkness bottled up inside, wearing the mask of the strong woman, mother, and wife while navigating between daily breakdowns of crying my eyes out at night. I turned to Internet chat forums, still new in those days, to feel I wasn’t losing my mind or alone. One evening, in the midst of my depression fog, I mustered up the courage to post. “Is it normal to want to just die? I’m not sure how to do it, but is this normal?” Bless the stranger who immediately responded that it wasn’t normal and advised me to seek professional help.

"I kept the darkness bottled up inside, wearing the mask of the strong woman, mother, and wife..."

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I needed that wakeup call to realize the mounting danger of my inner reality. I dug deep within myself to find the courage to begin seeing a therapist. After 18 months, though, I felt I was still in the same place I had started. I grew tired of answering, “and how does that make you feel?” While I believe clinical psychologists can be extraordinarily beneficial and even life-saving, it’s important that goals are set in place and the patient feels they are progressing and moving forward. I just wasn’t getting that with this particular therapist.

Then came a day that changed the trajectory of my life. I received a brochure in the mail for culinary school, and something inside me sparked. I decided I would visit. There, in a room filled with wafts of butter and sugar, and where I caught glimpses of large, colorful, edible sculptures, I experienced a defining moment. Baking, even as a child, was my happy place; and where I would fully immerse myself, losing my sense of time. After taking a few recreational cake-decorating classes, I searched furiously for any occasion at all to make an elaborate cake, and create happiness for myself and others. It had also become my escape from being the perfect Indian girl. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. So, as my daughter began preschool, I officially began professional culinary school to become a pastry chef. As I scrolled down the list of topics on the curriculum, what caught my eye first, written in bold, was chocolate!

My husband was incredibly supportive about culinary school. My parents, not so much. “What? You want to be a cook?” they asked. You see, their perception was that in India, cooking is a lowly job, not a career for a thirty-two-year-old wife with two kids and Master’s degree in engineering and physics from Johns Hopkins. “No way!” I adore my parents, but I knew in that instant, I was done playing the good Indian daughter role. This time, I was standing up for myself and finally giving my soul what it desperately craved.

Little did I know at the time, that it was just the beginning of an amazing dream. I relished wearing my white chef coat and taking copious notes at the front of the classroom. In retrospect, it wasn’t that much different from when I was studying to be an engineer, except that I was filled with passion for each day of learning something new. My gratitude extended even to dutifully scrubbing metal pans at the end of the day (kind of crazy)!

In 2003, I finished top of my class. Imagine my surprise when I spotted my parents, whom I hadn’t considered inviting to the graduation ceremony, cheering for me as I received my medal and certificate. They had driven three hours to show their support. It was definitely a proud moment for all of my family, and I think for the first time in my life, I felt truly proud of ME!

Five years later, another dream blossomed. I opened Co Co. Sala, a restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., which featured cocktails and artisanal chocolate in almost everything, even the decor. My team and I poured our hearts and souls into Co Co. Sala. Over ten years, we served tens of thousands of patrons, earned multiple awards, were featured on TV, and provided hand-crafted chocolate confections to major luxury hotels and venues…including the Obama White House.

"I think for the first time in my life, I felt truly proud of ME!"

But while the restaurant business has its ups, it also has its challenges. I learned during those challenging times to use meditation as a tool to keep me grounded. Without that grounding, I don’t know how I would have handled what came next. In 2018, I made the agonizing decision to close Co Co. Sala’s doors. Our 10-year lease was ending, and unless major changes were made, the business was not going to be sustainable. I was devastated. It felt like letting my child move away to another planet.

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What should have been the advent of another mental spiral turned out to be so different. Upon announcing we would be closing, guests and staff began sharing stories of how Co Co. Sala had impacted their lives. It had been the site of wedding receptions and proposals, birthdays and retirement celebrations, corporate parties and charity events, family gatherings, and where babies had delighted in their first taste of chocolate. The response was overwhelming and reminded me that I had built something that not only had given me new reason and purpose, but also had brought joy into the lives of others. As a business owner, I was so caught up in the day to day, I rarely stopped to take it all in and  marvel at the journey. Saying good-bye to Co Co. Sala actually filled me with so much love and gratitude that I learned the important lesson of how powerful reframing a challenge can be. I continued to use meditation to keep my head level and gratitude to steer away from the dark side. Chocolate kept me alive. Chocolate saved my life. But gratitude and meditation taught me how to live.

"Chocolate kept me alive. Chocolate saved my life. But gratitude and meditation taught me how to live."

Image credit: Launch Workplaces

Image credit: Launch Workplaces

Since closing Co Co. Sala, I have been on a new path of personal growth, both for myself and others. I have channeled my passion for meditation and self-exploration into a business that would fulfill me, challenge me, and allow me to guide others to find purpose, passion, and healing. After earning my Meditation & Mindfulness Teacher Certification and studies in Positive Psychology, I began MyndTreat — my new business venture where I share what I have learned to guide others through meditation and authentic happiness. Who knew my love for chocolate would lead me to this point in my life’s journey!

"I share what I have learned to guide others through meditation and authentic happiness."

If you are suffering from depression, please know that you are not alone. There is a light waiting for you... and a little chocolate helps, too!

Ms. Media