How a food writer struggling with mental illness found comfort through cooking

David Leite's new memoir, "Notes on a Banana," focuses on lifelong struggle.

ByABC News
April 19, 2017, 4:00 AM

— -- When David Leite was a young boy, his mother used to write notes all over a banana every morning and leave them at his seat at the breakfast table. She called him "banana head" for fun, he said, and every day, there would be a new message from her.

“One end of the banana would say, ‘God bless,’ the other side would say, ‘We love you,'” and then the middle part, which was the big real estate, was anything going on that day, 'Have a good day,' 'Break a leg' if it was school drama club, 'Do well on geometry test,' whatever was going on that day,” Leite said. “It was kind of a way to kind of lift my spirits and I call it the 1960s version of Snapchat. It’s there, you eat it, it’s gone.”

Leite, a Portuguese-American food writer, drew from his mother's morning ritual for the title of his new book, “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression.” Although his memoir is steeped in humor, Leite writes at length about his lifelong struggle with mental illness. He shared his story during a live taping of ABC News' Dan Harris’ “10% Happier” podcast in New York City.

“I had a lot of anxiety,” Leite said. “I had a panic attack starting at 11 years old, I mean, true, full-blown panic attacks, and then I would also have these periods where I was -- just dark, bleak, punitive thoughts going through my head. I couldn’t lift myself up.”

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By the time he was a teenager, Leite said his depression became so severe that he went to his mother and asked for help.

“I told my mother, ‘If you do not let me see a psychiatrist, I will kill myself,’” Leite said. “And I knew that I wouldn’t kill myself but I knew it was the only way that I could, as a 13-and-a-half-year-old, explain to an adult how desperate this was and I was in a doctor’s office in a matter of weeks.”

The first diagnosis he received was for generalized anxiety disorder. He said one doctor recommended Valium, but he and his parents didn’t want him to take it. Leite tried changing his diet and exercise routine, but eventually he turned to writing as an outlet.

After years of trying to sort out his feelings, Leite said he came to believe he was suffering from manic depression and went to see a doctor, who then gave him a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder and got him on proper medication after some trial and error.

“When that happened, I felt as if all this armor that I had been carrying around since I was 11 just fell off me in pieces,” Leite said. “I was no longer fighting this invisible enemy, and that’s why I feel that was kind of like a second birthday for me.”

Sort of by accident, Leite also found some healing through cooking. He said fell into it after leaving Carnegie Mellon University and taking a job as a family cook for a professor.

“I knew nothing about cooking,” Leite said. “[The professor] says, ‘So you’ve cooked before?’ and, I like, ‘Yes, of course, I have,’ which was technically true. And he said, ‘You cooked for others?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes,’ which was technically true, I had cooked for other people.”

But Leite was hired and cooked for the professor’s family for three hours a day, five days a week. Through prepping the family’s meals, Leite realized how soothing it was for him.

“It was that rhythmic, ‘tock, tock, tock,’ of the knife, just chopping through herbs or doing something that just slowed me down,” he said. “Time became very elastic ... time stretched so much that there were these breaks in time where just a little bit of happiness come through. And that was the first step.

“I talk in the book about how just watching a pat of butter heat and start to melt and just slump to the side of the cast iron skillet was just comforting to me,” Leite continued. “It slowed me and made me feel grounded.”

In his book, Leite also talks about navigating relationships and coming to terms with being gay as a young adult. He credits his partner, whom he refers to as “The One,” for helping him through some of the “major times” when he said his life “fell apart” and for encouraging his food writing career. Leite is the publisher of the website Leite’s Culinaria, which has won two James Beard awards.

Leite decided to write this memoir, he said, to share with others the inner war he has long waged with himself.

“I just thought I have nothing to lose by telling the story,” he said. “I cannot battle myself back to ... being straight. ... I can't battle myself to not having mental illness. I cannot battle myself to being blonde hair, blue-eyed and be adopted by Samantha Stephens and Darren Stephens of ‘Bewitched.’ I cannot do that. But that's what the whole book's about. It's me trying.”

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