Celebrated chef Seamus Mullen discusses working with his hands and how he manages his rheumatoid arthritis while running the hottest restaurants in New York City.
When were you first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
I was officially diagnosed with RA in 2007, but in retrospect I know that I had been suffering with it for several years before then. At the time, I was a young cook working my way up in the kitchen and logging insane restaurant hours, I just assumed all the aches and pains must be from working too much. I actually went to the hospital numerous times before I was diagnosed—in excruciating pain—and each time the doctors didn’t have a good answer for what was going on and sent me home. Nobody knew what was going on.
What was the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome after being diagnosed?
For me, there were two big challenges. One was being able to ask for help. Maybe it’s a male thing, maybe it’s a chef thing, or both, I don’t know. But for a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for help. I didn’t want to be a burden to others. And what’s really hard with RA, as it is with many autoimmune diseases, is that they are so-called invisible diseases—from the outside you probably look fine. There is nothing about your physical appearance that gives cues to other people to think, “Wait, here, let me help you with that.” With RA, there was no part of my body that didn’t hurt at all times: putting my shoes on hurt; standing in the kitchen hurt, sitting in the wrong kind of chair hurt, you name it. But as a chef and as a business owner, it was hard for me to show weakness to my team, or admit that I needed help. My wife would secretly email our staff and say, “Listen, heads up, Seamus is having a particularly bad day, please make sure he doesn’t overdo it, have someone else work the grill, send him home early if you can, etc.” What I didn’t want to admit was that by not asking for help in the short-term, I was probably just making things worse in the long term.
The second big challenge is a little more abstract, but it was about finding the right perspective about this disease, and being able to control my mindset and my attitude. Negativity feeds on negativity—if your mind’s not right, your body knows it and feels it too. And trust me, it is really hard to mentally pull yourself out of this defeatist, despondent cesspool of negativity. If I were to map out my state of mind over the last eight years or so, it went first from fear, to denial, to frustration, to depression and despair and finally, to hope. The first few years, I let myself give up. I thought I had tried everything and I didn’t want to try anymore. What was the point? Nothing was helping. It took hitting an all-time physical and emotional low point sometime in late 2012, early 2013 that I finally thought, “Something has to change—I refuse to live like this. I can’t continue to put myself, my wife and my family through this anymore—there has to be a better way.” Gradually I let myself be open to the possibility that I could take back control of my own health, and thanks to an incredible doctor and the support of my wife, family and my staff I was finally able to do so.
As a celebrated chef and restaurant owner, how did you learn to cope with the day to day pain while being so active?
To be honest, for a very long time, the way I coped was by ignoring it. I didn’t put my own well-being first. I had busy restaurants to run, staff to manage and mentor and dinner services to get through. My strategy was, “Let me get through service and I’ll deal with it later.” The stress, adrenaline and pressure of this business would be enough to get me through the day, and then I would go home late at night and literally just collapse in pain. I didn’t want to let my staff down, I didn’t want to let my guests down. I figured I would just suffer through it for now rather than be honest with myself that I needed to make some drastic changes if I had any hope of one day feeling better. A true turning point for me was in early 2013 when I met my doctor Dr. Frank Lipman, a functional doctor who believes in utilizing the best of both Western and Eastern medical philosophies, who truly understands the healing power of diet and lifestyle changes. But it required a lot of time, hard work and energy on my part to truly effect change in my own health. And this is where I have to point out how incredibly lucky I am to be a business owner, and to be surrounded by a great team and support network. My wife is my business partner, my management team is like family—they allowed me to step away from the day-to-day restaurant operations in order to focus on my health. Now I feel better than I have in over ten years and my health is priority number one. I’ve learned to say no to things, I’ve learned to put limits on what I can or can’t do, I’ve learned how to truly take care of my body and my well-being.
Why is it important for people suffering with arthritis to speak out?
Even though there is much more awareness about RA and autoimmune diseases than there was when I was first diagnosed, it’s still relatively under the radar. There are a lot of reasons why we should continue to speak out and raise awareness about RA. We need to encourage more research to take place about the causes of RA and ways to treat it. There have been an increasing number of studies linking bacteria and imbalances in the microbiome to causing RA, which I definitely believe in. But we need funding to continue to explore that further. We also need to help those affected by RA—spouses, families, colleagues and employers—have a better understanding of what RA sufferers go through on a daily basis. I mentioned earlier about being lucky to own my own business and having a team that I could count on, but that’s not the case for the majority of people. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to work in an environment where you didn’t have a choice about how you spend your time, or where your employer didn’t understand or care about you were going through. I hope this encourages more open conversation and understanding between employees and employers. And third, the more we speak out about our experiences, the more hope we can give to others. When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to—it was very lonely. In the last few years since I’ve been more outspoken about my experience with RA and I’ve met or corresponded with so many people at events, through Facebook or social media, who feel encouraged just by hearing another person’s story. I feel extremely humbled and honored that by sharing my own experience that I might be able to help someone else, even in the smallest of ways.
Any last word of advice for our readers?
I have three pieces of advice. First, you have to take personal responsibility. You can and need to take your health into your own hands. Our doctors have good intentions, but the reality is that our Western medical system is broken, and we can’t rely just on our doctors’ word to fix ourselves. You have to do the work yourself and you have to not give up. There is absolutely a time and place for traditional doctors and medication, I’m not saying there isn’t. But there is so much you can do to help heal yourself. Don’t forget that nobody knows your body better than you do. I may have been fortunate enough to have found the right kind of doctor to set me on the right path and give me guidance, but I had to do the legwork.
Eat real food. Take a real, hard look at the food you are eating. Food is meant to nourish us, not harm us. While everyone is different, there are a few cardinal rules that everyone can follow to reduce inflammation and feel better. Reduce your carbohydrate intake, take out all processed sugar and load up on healthy fats like olive oil, avocados and chia seeds.
Last but not least, patience—change does not come overnight. I attribute my health transformation to diet and lifestyle changes, the effects of which take time to manifest. You need to have diligence and patience to go through the trial and error and see what works best for you.