Their Pain is Real: A Chef Shares Her thoughts on Her Career and Experience with Disability

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Article 4 of 15 in Series: Perspectives on Work, Worth and Faith


I first met Octavia working as a camp counsellor 8 years ago. At the time, she was the assistant cook. Believe me, that year and the next, with her in the kitchen, the food was top notch. I still remember waiting for her pumpkin squares after lunch and I wasn’t the only one.

A few years ago, I texted Octavia, hoping to meet up. It had been a while since I’d seen her. She replied. She was in the hospital. 

For the entire time I’ve known Octavia, I’ve never heard her complain. She’s always laughing and cracking jokes right through conversations. Even while visiting her for the interview, she told me laughing, “I feel like I’m old. Everything I have is from the senior’s store,” as she showed me her 2 walkers. She’s in her late 20’s.

CHRIS-ANN: What kind of work do you do?

OCTAVIA: I’m a classically trained chef and I’ve worked in a variety of settings. I’ve worked for a catering company that also taught cooking classes. I’ve done recipe testing for different magazine publications. This includes taste testing, to make sure the recipe works and nutritional testing as well. I’ve worked in restaurants, mainly fine dining which requires that everything be made from scratch. I’ve also done large scale cooking, meaning you’re cooking for at least 150 people per course. 

Photo Credit: Octavia Coleman | Dish: Beef Tacos with Avocado

CHRIS-ANN: What inspired you to become a chef?

OCTAVIA: At first, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was 17 and in my last year of high school, and was just diagnosed with Lupus. Because of the Lupus, I was in and out of school, and spent a lot of time at home. That is when I really had a chance to explore cooking as a profession.  During that time, I watched a lot of cooking shows and I tried different things. Once I was able to return to school, I took an extra year and did a co-op at a lunch time restaurant. I was able to experience the lunch-rush, do catering and teach portions of the cooking classes, as that was their business model. Through that experience, I realized I was good at it, and it came easy to me. 

CHRIS-ANN: You mentioned that you were diagnosed with Lupus. Could you explain what that is?

OCTAVIA: Lupus is an auto-immune disease where the immune system attacks itself. The symptoms can look different for different people. Mine in particular manifested as kidney issues and arthritis but it can also include swelling or skin conditions, along with other things.

CHRIS-ANN: How did you handle hearing that?

OCTAVIA: It was really hard. I felt conflicted. I had just seriously committed my life to Christ in the summer and then that September I was diagnosed. I really did feel like, “why me,” but at the same time, I had a lot of support. I also had a number of friends who had also given their lives to Christ around the same time so that made it a bit easier.

After that, it was pretty well managed up until 2 years ago. So between the time I was diagnosed and 2 years ago, I was able to really pursue different opportunities. After the co-op,  I did a 2 year culinary management program and then I went to study in Italy afterwards, for a post-diploma. I would say overall, I was able to lead a pretty normal, balanced work life. 

Photo Credit: Octavia Coleman | Dish: Shrimp Linguini Pasta with Asparagus and Yellow Peppers

CHRIS-ANN: You mentioned that it was well managed up until 2 years ago. What happened?

OCTAVIA: I went into the hospital for what I thought was a normal lupus flare. I didn’t end up leaving. My symptoms spiralled: heart, pancreas, stomach, kidneys. It was a bit of a shock. I ended up being in the hospital for 6 months and then 1.5 in rehab. I had to learn how to walk again.

CHRIS-ANN: How did that affect you and your work?

OCTAVIA: I hoped that I would be able to work at the same capacity as before, which I now realize is idealistic. This happened two years ago; I’m still not working. I’ve only been able to do small projects here and there. It’s disappointing but I also know that if I push myself I’m going to do more damage. Every time I would like to work more, another issue comes up. 

Sometimes, I feel like this is the prime of my cooking age and I’m missing it. A lot of things that cooking requires like working long hours, standing on your feet for long periods of time, are the same things that can also cause a lupus flare. And now, I’m also experiencing a number of other mobility issues.

I hope to get back to it soon, but I know it will look different. Right now, I’m on disability income and I’m thankful that it’s available but it’s also tough knowing that you want to work but you can’t. There are simple things I can no longer do right now, like standing on my tippy toes to reach something or it takes longer to put my socks on. Planning for my day takes much longer but I’m learning to know when to slow down and when to ask for help.

CHRIS-ANN: Do you feel like you still have the same support you had when you first got diagnosed?

OCTAVIA: Things definitely look different. I still have support from church family and close friends, but the nature of relationships have changed (distance, marriage etc.). My relationship with God has also grown a lot. He’s the only one that doesn’t fail you. I’m not saying this to point fingers either. As people, we all have the tendency to put our faith in things that are not perfect. I’ve matured a lot and learned to temper my expectations.

I’m not saying this to point fingers either. As people, we all have the tendency to put our faith in things that are not perfect. I’ve matured a lot and learned to temper my expectations.

There are things I could complain about but I choose not to. It’s easy to go into a depressive, downward spiral. Instead, I’ve learned to be more intentional about relationships I want to keep and develop, and prioritize emotional health. I get together with people who make me laugh and I enjoy being around. I also want to be truthful. I don’t want to have the appearance that I’m okay when I’m not.

CHRIS-ANN: What would you say to someone else dealing with a disability?

OCTAVIA: To the person with the disability, I would say be thankful for what you can do. Don’t be afraid to separate yourself from negativity either. Try to get out of your surroundings and do something else: volunteer, get out into your community, do art classes, meet people, have conversations. I’ve spent time in facilities (hospital and rehab) and I see how alone people can feel. Find something that you like doing or that you’re good at. 

CHRIS-ANN: As someone who is often fearful of offending someone dealing with disability, how are some ways to better connect? 

Sympathize. Try to understand that sometimes people can’t do as much as they would like to do. Don’t compare your situation with theirs. Be sympathetic to what they’re feeling and what they’re expressing. Be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that their pain is real.

OCTAVIA: Sympathize. Try to understand that sometimes people can’t do as much as they would like to do. Notice the accessibility challenges around you. Visit more often if you can. Check in. Bring them a meal. Take them out. All of these things help with their recovery. Don’t compare your situation with theirs. Be sympathetic to what they’re feeling and what they’re expressing. Be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that their pain is real.


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