“Dining in the Dark: A Famed
Restaurant Critic’s Struggle with and Triumph Over Depression”By Bryan Miller
Skyhorse, September 2021, 9781510760394, Hardcover, 216 pages, $22.99 USD, $32.00 CAD, Biography & Autobiography/Personal Memoirs
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How can one graduate from Columbia, have a good start as a journalist at the Journal Inquirer, get hired as a restaurant critic by the New York Times, have a lovely french sweetheart as his bride, and then lose it all?
Bryan Miller was hit by depression. “The black bear,” as he chose to name it, emptied his bank account, ruined his career—as one of the most celebrated restaurant critics of his generation—and took his home from him, “a seven-bedroom farmhouse on five lush acres,” as well as “a good number of friends.”
Bryan Miller reviewed restaurants for more than a decade at the astonishing frequency of “five to six nights a week in the company of one or two couples,” appearing on TV almost every week, while writing magazine features and giving speeches for culinary events. He dined out more than 5100 times during his career.
By his own admission, he had “what was widely considered the best job in food journalism,” a position most people would only dream about; tasting food and giving their opinions on fancy NYC restaurants for a living.
Although Miller admits that his depression had begun in 1982, the first sign he’d felt was one morning in November 1983, when he woke up to work on some reviews, but all he really wanted is go back to bed and continue sleeping (he’d mistaken it for fatigue back then, a common assumption among unaware depressives).
For a young Miller, with goals and career ambitions, taking the first step to counter-attack his depression was to simply admit the malady—something he equated with acknowledging that he’d joined the ranks of the defeated— and visit a doctor. He took some time, but he did it in the end. The doctor first prescribed him Nardil—a Monoamine Oxidose Inhibitor (MAO)—a classic old staple for treating depression that gave Miller “the most relief,” but made him depressed “at certain levels.”
Miller was prescribed 90mg of Nardil, a drug that he described as a “real party pooper,” due to its effect—at such high dosages—on one’s libido, sex life, and overall energy levels.
Nevertheless, Bryan and his first wife Anne were on a roll during the early 1980s—fully aware back then, that they were living their best years—and still, they sensed that “big things were on the horizon,” and as a result, their early marriage years were so sweet and adventurous—with countless visits to the best restaurants New York, Morocco, and Europe had to offer—from Marrakesh to Salamanca.
But his affairs were as unpredictable as his life outcomes, and his depression soon worsened, affecting his life—at home and at work—making him go on a path that ultimately left him jobless, penniless, and alone. Even his writing, which could had been a form of escapism, turned into a dreadful task he avoided when he wasn’t in the mood.
When depressed, Miller took up to two days to write a review. But when he felt health and motivated, it took him 1/12th of that (four hours) to get the job done; He wrote up to 4000 words when he wasn’t “suicidally ill.”
He called what one experiences during his/her childhood as “indelible tattoos,” events that shape our attitude towards the world and how we act in the world “at no matter what age.” His father died when Bryan was three at the age of twenty five.
At one point, amidst his collapsing career and health, he discovered he’d got a tumor and had to get rid of it, a process that eventually made one of his ears “decorative,” and deaf.
Everything kept falling apart. His mother married again, a cardiologist named Lucian, “the iron man for his robust health and imperturbable nature,” who helped him “medically and otherwise, on many occasions.” Then, his mother got dementia which broke his heart as he watched her deteriorating condition.
But he tried! He tried teaching writing at the Culinary Institute of America, and after just two lecture, the dean told him that he should “improve his meager pedagogical skills at another institution.”
Then, he tried freelance book editing and was fired by clients. He hit a point when his net worth was $16.10. He “laughed, and taped,” the bank statement to the wall.
At the end of the book, Bryan declares: “I am reacquainted with life.”