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On Jan. 2, Padma Lakshmi posted a video on Instagram about entering 2021 feeling “blah, I feel empty” about how “I look outside and there’s still a pandemic. I hope for all of us this ends soon.” She had spent much of the quarantine caring for her 11-year-old daughter while also promoting new Hulu series Taste the Nation, then going right into filming Top Chef. As she tells THR, the weight of 2020 eventually took its toll on her mental health around the holidays, admitting “a dam broke inside me.”
To pick herself back up, she turned to therapy and 20-minute self-care practices and has a new outlook coming out of the pandemic: “The one thing COVID taught me is that all those things I thought I absolutely had to do? I don’t.”
What has your mental health been like in this last year of the pandemic?
I have done pretty well for the most part. I toggled between worrying we wouldn’t have enough groceries to worrying that something in those groceries that wasn’t wiped down well enough would kill us, to being Zen and saying whatever will be, will be. I had good days and bad days and also days when I didn’t come out of a darkened room, where I watched five hours straight of the lust and gore on Game of Thrones in an unblinking stupor. I suppose I needed something scarier than what was going on in the actual world.
You posted on Instagram about feeling low around the new year. What’s the importance for you in being open to others about how you’re feeling? How were you able to bounce back from that point?
I held it together pretty well for about eight months. I made cooking videos and made a lot of jokes, which helped. I think a bit of gallows humor always helps in stressful situations. I then went into a very stringent and tight bubble for filming Top Chef that made the earlier quarantine months look like an extended vacation. When I came back to New York City, I busied myself with the holidays, keeping it festive but keeping us all safe while celebrating. We needed the holidays so badly this year.
Then I just broke. I couldn’t do it anymore. I found myself crying at the most odd and inopportune times. I have always been a late bloomer. I made it through much of the quarantine keeping my shit together. All through quarantine, I was focused on my child and her studies, promoting Taste the Nation — which premiered in the middle of June, during a pandemic summer. I needed for the show to do well so I threw myself into a never-ending stream of Zoom calls and interviews and podcasts. This was my baby and I wanted it to have the support it needed to get the word out. I got through to the other side and it was all worth it. But six months later a dam broke inside me. I am an open person, but I do like my privacy. Discussions of mental illness on social media can be truncated and performative at best. But honestly, just saying it out loud in such a public forum took the sting out of its hold on me. I was through trying to cage the undefinable sadness and anxiety that the walls of my body had tried so hard to contain. Just naming the beast defanged it to some extent. So, me saying “I’m not OK” was just acknowledging my own pain, finally to myself. I guess I thought if everyone knew then I could no longer camouflage it to myself.
Have you received solace from any specific sources, some healthy, some not so much? For the former, what or who has inspired you?
Honestly the best thing I did was go back to therapy. I have been seeing the same doctor for over a dozen years, and she has helped me pull through some really rough patches in my life. I believe in good therapy from a highly experienced and well-trained expert. Those folks are great guides, but you also have to do the work yourself and have discipline enough to show up for your own mental health and well-being, even if life pulls you in some very valid seeming directions. It takes fortitude to say, “I need a break, and I’m not going to feel guilty for taking it or feeling this way.” In the end there is little virtue in martyrdom. It serves no one, including the people you’re trying to serve by having your own mental health take a back seat. I also remembered that I have been through a lot of stuff in my life and come through it. From car accidents and sexual assault, from illness to divorce, and even through the death of a lover, I came out learning a lot about myself — and those things inform my life. So, I kept saying to myself, “It’s going to be OK, it’s OK, it’s OK, you’ll make it through this, just breathe and it will be over soon, and you’ll come out the other end learning something.” I literally talked to myself in my head like that. I had to mother myself. I soothed myself as I would my child. And what I learned is that like most women, I am resilient. I am strong. And I will handle it.
What mental health issues do you feel like this last year has highlighted, particularly for women?
I think it’s easy for us women to forget about ourselves, to put others’ needs before our own needs. We have been conditioned by many centuries of patriarchy, family dynamics growing up, and even just plain motivated by our own love for those important to us, to make sure everyone else is OK first. As a parent that instinct is the correct one, and it served me and my daughter well over the last year. But self-subjugation takes its toll. Over time we get depleted of a spirit that cannot always be replaced. My hope is that we see childcare and women’s work both inside and outside the home as valuable and essential, because it is the most valuable thing in our culture. Those of us who tend and teach our children shape our whole society’s collective future. That is the one most salient thing we were shown in the pandemic — teachers, caregivers, all those people who do the work that they don’t make nearly enough money for? They deserve our care now. We need to be worried about their mental health and well-being because we depend on them to care for, educate and nurture our most valuable people — our children, our future.
What ways have you found best to cope and keep yourself in a good headspace?
My best way to cope is to go to the gym or cook. It’s meditative for me. I’m Indian, so a lot of the recycled Hinduism that gets peddled to the masses for profit leaves me cold. But I do believe in meditation. You don’t need to speak in Sanskrit to center yourself. You need to take yourself seriously and give yourself the time and space to think. Spend time doing an activity that is just for your own benefit. Cooking and working out are two soothing rituals for me that also make me feel productive and accomplished. If I can do something good for myself that also gives me pleasure? Man, I’m halfway home then.
When it comes to keeping up one’s mental health, starting can be one thing but maintaining is another. Do you have any advice or suggestions in that arena?
Maintaining your mental health is a practice. It’s a lifestyle alteration that will benefit not only you but the people around you. My advice is to make a time commitment of 20 minutes a day. It doesn’t matter what you do, you just need to be alone and have the mental space to think your thoughts freely without the infiltration from the world around you. Those 20 minutes you can walk, sit up in bed and just think, or say a mantra if that’s what you’re into or meditate silently. But 20 minutes must be for you and you only with no agenda. There were days during pandemic where l just locked myself in the bathroom and sat in the dark because that’s the only place people don’t come looking for me. I think that’s why I like the gym. I put in my headphones even when they’re not on to say “Do not disturb” to the outside world.
What mental health lessons can we learn from the pandemic to take into the post-COVID world?
The one thing COVID taught me is that all those things I thought I absolutely had to do? I don’t. Not half of them. I am not prepared to relinquish the excuse of not being able to go to an event or meeting because of the health risk. I realize that though I’m now vaccinated, there are still many mental health risks to doing too much. We give ourselves away a little every day, thinking we are doing the right thing in pursuing our goals and working hard. Working harder at doing nothing can often pay dividends we did not know we were so desperately hungry for.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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