Interview9/11 survivor Manu Dhingra sought comfort and peace in the simple act of preparing food to cope with his PTSD.
If I am stressed, you can probably find me in the kitchen. For me, cooking is a way of downloading, processing and dealing on a conscious level with daily challenges.
But I have nothing on Manu Dhingra.
Working in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he survived the terror attacks but suffered second and third degree burns to 40% of his body. As in many traumatic experiences, physical healing takes less time than the emotional, and after years of physical therapy, Dhingra was confronted by the harsh reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“After 9/11, everyone was so supportive and so loving and I felt that… so you don’t even realize what the PTSD does and how it impacted a lot of people. You slowly but surely know that you’re not getting back to your normal life. You feel that things will never get better. You think ‘I’m just in a rut’ but years pass and nothing has really changed. You can be happy and enjoy moments of life but you drift back to the moment of ‘I’m not really happy,’” says Dhingra.
Then came food.
Enrolling in culinary school and discovering a passion for cooking, Dhingra found a way to deal with his demons, and his inspiring story is being told in the upcoming short film Asha, premiering in New York City and online on September 11, 2011.
Dhingra is open and honest, willing to talk about an emotional transition that most of us could never imagine, but opening up with his story, especially in a film, isn’t easy.
“It was really hard, just to talk about it… it was a hard thing to admit to yourself that you went through a lot of the PTSD stuff. It was very therapeutic also. You don’t even realize how much stuff you had to deal with until you have to talk about it,” he says.
With the heavy realization of spiritual discontent weighing on his shoulders, Dhingra’s recovery began with taking a serious look at what he could do to make positive changes. He tried to go back to the finance world, but realized that what he really wanted was to simplify.
“I was a little lost. What I really enjoyed about life when I was growing up and a lot of my memories were around, were socializing, food and family and friends. I always enjoyed that environment,” Dhingra says, adding that after his realization, he decided to see if food could in fact be an avenue for change, and enrolled in culinary school. He soon had a newfound passion, and with it a way to deal with his PTSD.
But what is it about food that can help someone that has undergone serious trauma come out on the other side, alive, functioning and moving forward? For Dhingra, cooking is now a way to not only deal with the inner emotional scars of PTSD but also the outer ones. “[I had to] create something and constantly look at my arms and hands, which was something I had avoided,” he says of the grafts covering him.
It could also be the inherent connection that we all have to eat food. “I never met anybody that doesn’t enjoy amazing food experiences. Whether it’s creating it themselves or they’re taking part in someone else’s creation,” he adds.
After a restaurant attempt that almost took the passion for cooking out of him, Dhingra started gluttNY, a smaller venture that now allows him “to socialize more and plan one-off events,” like pop up dinners. The business’ debut feast was titled Eat It Before It Eats You.
Ultimately, the moving part of Dhingra’s story is his desire to help other people, no matter what their traumatic experience. “I think you can substitute 9/11 with a lot of things, any shock to the system – a tsunami, hurricane… you can substitute many different experiences and you might end up where I am.”
The film, beyond showing his passion for food and its ability to help him tackle PTSD, is a courageous tale about moving forward. “You’re pushing your boundaries and you’re getting out of your comfort zone and you have to keep going forward. You hope that some good comes out of it and somebody sees it and says ‘I am going through something similar and I can relate to it.'”
That is something we can all connect to, no matter what our experiences.
Check out the trailer for Asha here and learn more about Manu Dhingra’s story at www.ashathefilm.com.