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Putting Mental Health On The Table With Skull & Cakebones

Episode 83

090822 podcast skull cakebones deep dive

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For most business owners, your business is you—and you are your business. With identities intertwined in business plans and goals, setting boundaries between your work and personal life can be a challenge. In this episode, Emily is joined again by Yauss Berenji and Sascha Biesi of the Texas craft bakery Skull & Cakebones to take a deep dive into their mental health journeys and how it has impacted their business. They also provide tips on how to ensure you’re bringing your best, healthiest self to work.

On the Yelp Blog: “If I can reach one person, then I’ve done something right.” Read more about Sascha’s mission to destigmatize mental illness and provide a safe space for connection.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Typically I share a story featuring conversations with a business owner as well as someone who wrote them a Yelp review. But this week we’re doing things a little differently. I sat down with former guests Sascha and Yauss from Skull and Cakebones Bakery to talk about identity and mental health, and how their own personal experiences have impacted their business’s identity.

I want to give a trigger warning to this episode. We share a lot of personal experiences with mental health and mental health disorders. Electric shock therapy as well as suicide are discussed. If this episode isn’t for you,  we understand. But if you have interest in hearing the relationship between these entrepreneurs’ lives and their business, I think you’ll really enjoy it. Let’s give our conversation a listen.

EMILY: Sascha, I’m going to have you kick us off, because I want you to really set the stage with whatever you’re comfortable sharing about your own experience with mental health and how that story became a part of the business’s dialogue and identity.

SASCHA: When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with depression, which made a lot of sense back then. When I got to my college years, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which made a ton of sense back then.

I continued to be what they deemed med-resistant. So they were always trying to find combinations of medicine that worked and nothing ever worked. I’m really sensitive to the side effects, blah, blah, blah. So I was largely unmedicated for most of my life. I did go through a period where I was pretty heavily medicated.

And I think looking back that was probably the healthiest I was for a while. But I was overweight, which is how I am now. I’m on the same basic regimen of drugs and I’m overweight, but I don’t care this time. Because I’m old. And I’m just happy to find a combination of medicine that works.

In the end of 2009, in October, I started electric shock therapy, because I was incredibly suicidal. There was nothing that was working. The doctors weren’t having any luck, I’d been hospitalized, something like four times that year. So I started electric shock therapy and I had 13 sessions in two and a half months, which is like 13 car crashes with a concussion.

I came out of that. I weighed less than a hundred pounds. It was a pretty crazy time. I couldn’t remember anything. I couldn’t remember my way to the store. I didn’t know how to do anything.  So I started using my grandmother’s recipe box. And I started using food. Yauss was really trying to feed me as well, because I was so underweight and so unhealthy. So I started using cooking and baking as a way to start trying to remember more than one thing at a time. And that was how I got really, really good at the vegan stuff.

Originally I started vegan baking because, when Ruby was little, she had allergies and so I had to learn how to do it. And that’s a much nicer story to tell. It’s so sweet and so relatable for all the moms out there with kids with allergies or anyone who’s ever had allergies. And it’s just such an easy story to swallow of how I got so good at vegan baking.

But really it was after electric shock therapy that I just sort of woke up from that experience with this ability to be a vegan chef. I was unmedicated pretty much from 2009 until right before COVID. I am really highly functioning. I mean, I function pretty well for someone with such a severe mental illness.

I was finally diagnosed before COVID with schizoaffective bipolar disorder, which then made everything made sense then. Got an antipsychotic. All the voices stopped. It was like a light switch moment. You know, for a really long time, I was a lot more comfortable telling the story of how I got good at vegan baking because of my daughter and meow meow meow.

But really, it was after the electric shock treatments, it was my way of getting back to health, and it wasn’t until we did our first depressed Cake Shop in 2018 that it was interesting when I started really telling my story.

I just started being really honest about how this all came to be for me. You know, I just got, I’m just really good at being a vegan chef and a vegan baker. Did I train for this? No, but I guess I did in a way, just by trying to feed myself back to health was training enough.

EMILY: Thank you for opening up and sharing that. I cannot believe how long you were going without medication. On a personal note, that’s the only reason that I’m as stable and balanced as I am. I had a manic episode in 2018. I was hospitalized and given a bipolar disorder diagnosis. And like you said—it made sense to me. I had had mania before then, of course. I just didn’t know what it was.

And it was never so bad that someone thought something was wrong, I guess. But my point, and the biggest difference in our experiences, is that my inpatient doctor picked the right medication on the first go, you know? And I’ve been lucky to be on those same meds—it’ll be four years in October. I never had to go through the very difficult process of finding the right combination. So I can’t even imagine not being medicated that long.

SASCHA: Dude, me either.

EMILY: It’s crazy to me. And you must look back at all those years and think, oh my gosh. I mean, there’s no point in dwelling on it. Cause once it started working, it was working, which is all that really matters. But I’m just sending you a huge virtual hug because I know how hard that must have been. I mean, I used to have a constant stream of thought all the time and now I don’t ever really have that. So people who had never had that, they don’t get it. But I totally know what changed.

SASCHA: Yeah. It was just. I was suicidal.

YAUSS: …and rapid cycling.

SASCHA: …and rapid cycling from the minute I woke up till the minute I went to bed at night, you never knew. And my moods were so unpredictable and I was so paranoid and freaked out all of the time and all the time I was trying to hide it from everyone. I’m surprised that my relationship survived it. I’m surprised that I survived it. I’m surprised the business survived it, you know, when I look back, I’m like, wow, I’m lucky.

EMILY: Yeah. Well, I’m glad you survived it.

EMILY: Yauss, it sounds like you’ve really been there for Sascha throughout her journey. How did you two meet, and how long have you been together for?

YAUSS: I’ve known Sascha since 1998 as friends. We started our relationship in 2010.

And so our relationship was a best friend type relationship. When she was going through all this stuff with ECT, I was there as like, I basically would teach and get up at like 4 am in the morning. And I drive to Austin cause I wasn’t living here and take her to the hospital for her ECT appointments and then stay with her because I was so freaked out.

I was very against it. But what are you gonna do? I was honest. I told her everything that I felt about it. I vividly remember walking around my backyard for hours when I lived in Denton and on the phone with her, because at that point in time, she would not answer the phone. Like that’s how bad it was.

It was, I think that the phrase used to say was, I’m gonna fill my pockets with rocks and walk into the ocean. And I was like, okay, but hold on until I get there. You know, like, wait for me, we can walk together. Just, just don’t do that. And so she wouldn’t answer the phone for days and, you know, times were different than with cell phones, right? You could like text, but it wasn’t super prominent. So I would come down for her ECT appointments because everything that I was reading was terrifying. Like seizures, like lockjaw. You sit in this dark room with like two other people and it’s probably the size of a dinner table and you’re just like waiting with this fluorescent buzzing. And the appointments were like 10 minutes and then you’re just like, okay. It was very Clockwork Orange-y feeling, you know? There was barely anything on the walls that, I mean, like at least put in a hang in there, poster or something, dude, you know, like give me some sort of hope that this is gonna be okay.

EMILY: It was such a different time. Even though it wasn’t that long ago! But it’s pretty alarming to hear some of the things they couldn’t label with certain terminology or words. That was the biggest thing for me when I was going through my diagnosis and treatment. I was on leave for three months, going to therapy Monday through Friday instead of work, and I got this entire rolodex of vocabulary to use, to describe how I was feeling and what I needed and what I was going through. I never had any of those words before, but a lot of them are words to describe how we feel without diagnoses. As a country, we’re just really not good about talking about that stuff.

We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back I want to hear more about this Depressed Cake Shop campaign and how you integrated your mental health journey into the business’s identity.

EMILY: And I know we’ve talked about how it’s accelerated a lot through the pandemic, but I kinda wanna stick back in that, you know, pre-time where everyone wasn’t using terminology like anxiety and depression. Depressed Cake Shop was 2018. Can you tell me what depressed Cake Shop is, how it got started? We didn’t really dig into it deep in the last episode.

SASCHA: So Depressed Cake Shop started in the UK actually in 2013, I think. It was started by a baker in the UK and she ran it for a couple of years, I think, and then became overwhelmed by it. And now it’s held by a woman in Los Angeles and we’re really close with her.

She’s amazing. And what she’s done with Depressed Cake Shop is amazing. She’s really made it what it is today. We were first invited by NAMI to do a Depressed Cake Shop. That was the first time I was introduced to it.  They reached out to several bakeries in Austin and said, would you like to be a part of this? And we were like, oh my God, this is so great! Yes, of course, this is amazing. So Depressed Cake Shop is a popup. It lasts anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks to a month. It’s usually during May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. And the idea behind a Depressed Cake Shop is that you make baked goods that reflect the light and the darkness of mental health.

So you have gray cakes with rainbow colors on the inside, and you have gray cupcakes with colors inside sprinkles coming out of gray rainbows. Things like that. So you get a real feeling for the light and the dark.

YAUSS: Or it’s like, you know, something that visually looks dark, but the taste is like a pop of color. Like, it feels like a pop of color. Like it’s zesty you know, or citrusy or something like that.

SASCHA: The idea is it creates this unique unusual space for people to come together. Because who doesn’t love baked goods and who needs to talk about mental health? All of us. So it creates this really wonderful and unique space for people to come together, to raise money and to support each other.

YAUSS: The goal is to break the stigma surrounding mental health and that’s through vocalizing it.

EMILY: So, Sascha, had you been open in any of the stuff for the business about your mental health prior to the first Depressed Cake Shop?

SASCHA: No. No. I was singing the song of the mother. I was telling the story of how my daughter had allergies and that’s how I got good at it. And it was very relatable and sweet. And then we had an employee who actually was my daughter’s age and went to school with her. And one day she went home from work and she ended her life.

YAUSS: She worked for us.

SASCHA: She left work. She left me at work and went home and ended her life. And, it was at that moment that I realized that I wanted to be more involved. I wanted to be more open. I wanted to be more vocal. I wanted to be more available. And the only way for me to be able to do that was to use our business as a platform to say, yes, my daughter had allergies and that’s how I originally did it.

But I’m working under extreme mental health pressures. And creating all of this stuff—stuff that I never created back in the day when Ruby was little—this is me now, and this is who I am, and this is why I’m able to create all of these things. I didn’t want Beatrice’s life to be forgotten. So it was important to continue to tell her story. And the charcoal lemon scone that we always sell every year, that was her recipe. But I also really felt like if I could tell my story and be honest and open, then maybe it’ll reach somebody who feels the same way or is having the same kind of struggle or whatever. It doesn’t matter. If I can reach one person, then I’ve done something right. And then everything in my life makes sense.

Because of what I went through after electric shock treatments, I didn’t remember my daughter’s name. I couldn’t find my way to the store. Like the first bit of my daughter’s life is gone. There’s no memories from that time when she was a baby or anything, because that’s the way electric shock therapy works. It just wipes out your memory. I just, I didn’t want everything that I went through to be in vain. I just can’t sit here and just bake cupcakes forever. There’s gotta be a reason. And for me telling my story through Skull and Cakebones platform is such an honor.

EMILY: Thank you for sharing that. And I am so sorry about your employee. That’s heartbreaking.

Take me back to when Skull and Cakebones first started being vocal about mental health—do you remember what the first share was? Was it a post?

YAUSS: It was, it was a post for mental health for Depressed Cake Shop. Because that was like up until then, you know, we told the story, but we didn’t really put emphasis on the story of why.

You know, that’s why we have a lightning bolt in our brand that represents electric shock therapy, which I also really want people to know that we, in no way, support the use of electric shock therapy. I don’t want someone to think that it gave her a superpower and it helped her or fixed anything because it didn’t.

SASCHA: I just turned what it did for me into a superpower. I did that.

YAUSS: You did that. Yes. But you had those powers first. Yeah. You just don’t remember having those powers before, but yeah, it was after Beatrice, which was, I mean, you can only imagine that she started to talk about it more. And I was like, please, please let me tell this story.

It is so important. It was important because it wasn’t that far off from when Beatrice took her life. And we, it wasn’t just, you know, our employees that were working for us at the time that were affected by it. It was her entire class of friends that was affected by it. It was anyone that went to school with Beatrice, her family, and you know, and anyone else that we didn’t know that was indirectly or directly affected by what happened. And these kids, I mean, Beatrice was 16.

At 16 years old, you don’t know how to process these feelings. It was like an opportunity for us to not only create a way to not create, but an opportunity for us to share the importance of communication, but also give these kids if nothing else, a safe space to come and cry or just sit and not be alone.

SASCHA: But through Depressed Cake Shop, you give this opportunity to give this space to so many people. To strangers, to friends, to family, to your regular customers. The Depressed Cake Shop really opens the door wider, I think. And when you do that, there’s a lot of risk involved in leaving yourself so exposed by telling your story.

But when the door is open that wide, there can also be this rush of goodness that comes in, you know. And I think in telling my story, that’s all that we’ve experienced is this incredible response and people being so kind and so wanting to share their story then, opening them up. So not only am I open now, but through opening myself, other people are opening too.

And I see this happening in our bakery where somebody is one minute, they’re sitting alone eating a sandwich, and the next minute I’m standing there talking to them for 45 minutes about what they’ve been through and how their therapy went that morning and how they don’t know where they fit in, but they just found themselves here all of a sudden.

Conversations like that and experiences like that—that I love about Depressed Cake Shop.

EMILY: I love stories like that. You’ve clearly created a safe space within your community where people feel comfortable being themselves. We touched on this briefly in our first episode together, but I’d like to circle back to it now as we’ve been talking about putting yourself and your struggles or your story front and center in your business.

I’m sure you’ve inspired others to share their stories, but I know there are people out there who don’t understand why you would want to talk about or share those private things. Do you have any advice for other business owners who are thinking about being more open but are afraid of backlash or opposing views?

YAUSS: I mean, we haven’t had that from customers. Truth be told, we had an employee that was disgruntled. That created a lot of that backlash the following year for Depressed Cake Shop. And they were trying, because the next year for Depressed Cake Shop, we did an all month long and we offered free workshops. We worked with some local yoga studios, and they came in and did free yoga. And Val actually flew in from LA and was here for the last two weeks, I think, of Depressed Cake Shop. We were doing knitting sessions at night and like art therapy and writing cards for Not Alone, which is another non profit organization.

We were trying to spread the word. And we had an employee that was basically taking all the posters and social media posts and she was trying to say that we’re posers and that we’re liars because we ruined her mental health. And I had a lot of people reach out to me personally that were either friends or peers in the business world.

And they were like, “yo…” And I was like, “Dude, I’m sorry, just let it go.” That is going to exist no matter what, the circumstance you can’t control, that you cannot create change without backlash. It might not be insane backlash. It might be smaller and a little bit more sharp in the hurt, you know? But it’s impossible to create change or to take something like mental health that has so much stigma and shame attached to it and expect that everyone’s gonna be like, oh my God, you’re so right. We haven’t talked about this for like 700 years, but now is the time. You have to let it go. You can’t, it feels personal, but you can’t take it personally.

And just my response is just to say, you know, I’m sorry that that person feels that way. And I hope that somehow they can see that this is for the greater benefit and move on.

EMILY: I think there is sometimes concern for businesses to be advocates for certain things, because it maybe takes the attention away from what they’re trying to do: sell a good or service or a product.

When you do something like Depressed Cake Shop, it obviously takes time, energy, resources to make all that stuff, do a pop-up. How do you measure success and how do you balance community efforts and making a stand for something and your bottom line of how much revenue you’re selling in a product in a given day or week?

YAUSS: Well, I mean, they don’t go hand in hand, but to some level they do, because like specifically for Depressed Cake Shop, you are trying to raise money for NAMI. So that aspect of it is like, you want to do the good financially to be able to hand them the check and be like, boom, look at the shit we just did. But truly the measure of success, isn’t the financial part of it.

The measure of success is having those conversations—and was the Depressed Cake Shop bustling, from open to close. Was it a line out the door and people were selling us out of everything and we had to make 18 rounds of scones and whatever? No, it wasn’t like that, but we still find it to be successful because it allowed us opportunities to have conversations with real people who needed a friend in that moment or had a friend that was suffering, and could come pick up a cookie that said ‘shine it on’ or ‘it gets better’ or ‘it’s okay to not be okay.’

And they could take that to their friend and in turn, give them a sense of hope or allow them to open up and have a conversation about how they’re feeling. That I think for us was the measure of success of whether it worked or not, because we continue to do it and we’ll continue to do it even though it’s not it’s not like being a part of a festival where it’s like an influx of money.

EMILY: It’s really refreshing to hear a perspective that considers factors beyond revenue in measuring business success, so thanks for sharing that. On the topic of success, what do you think the best return on the whole ‘opening up’ has been? Is it new customers coming to your place and feeling safe? Is it getting the dialogue going more? Is it extending your customer base to people who maybe come now to support for this reason? What have been some of your favorite positive returns from putting this story out into the world?

SASCHA: For me, the greatest return has been the people that I’ve met after telling my story.

YAUSS: I’ll have to agree with Sascha. I think the relationships with our customers. You know, of course, in order to keep our doors open, we have to have that revenue. So there is that component that’s important. But I think being able to see a customer that we know may be struggling and being able to do things like make sure their ticket goes to the front so it can be made first.

SASCHA: Yeah. Because they have become friends now. You know, once you start talking about your mental health with somebody, they stop just being a customer, they start to become a friend because you’re exchanging really personal information with each other now. You’re starting to talk on a different level than “How is your grilled cheese today?” And so we’ve built stronger relationships within our community of customers, I think, which has been really special.

EMILY: Absolutely—you guys have done a great job building that community. Let’s close out by offering some tips to the entrepreneurs out there who may be struggling with prioritizing their mental health as they manage their business. What advice would you give to them?

SASCHA: It took us a really long time to learn that we had to put our mental health as a priority. And I think it’s something that we still struggle with because you have to be there and you have to be on all the time.

And it’s important to shine it on no matter how you feel. But I think we’ve gotten really good at reading each other and knowing when it’s time for someone to go home, knowing when we need a resting day. And trying to have those things implemented in our lives.

YAUSS: I mean, the reality is as a business owner, you think everything has to be done now or it’s never gonna get done or it’s too late, or you’re gonna be fucked.

But the truth is that if you take care of yourself and take that time, you can probably make those decisions without the panic that ensues. So if you take the time, take a deep breath, go home, chill out for a second, come back, make better decisions. Always think of your future self. That is really the one thing that we have learned and we continue to share. Every single person that we come into contact with, whether they work for us for five minutes or five years: Take care of your future self.

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