Artisan Toast, Mental Illness, and Forgotten Families

At first glance, it’s simply the latest in San Francisco hipster food trends: artisan toast. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: a $3 or $4 piece of bread slathered with something delicious. Yes, it’s the kind of thing you could make for yourself at home in about 45 seconds (and for about 45 cents). But then it wouldn’t be artisan. It would just be toast.

But there’s more to this story. A look at where the trend apparently started reveals that this is far more–and far less–than a hipster trend.

Last week in The Week magazine, I read a summarized story about Giulietta Carrelli, the owner and proprietor of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club. Her odd little shop, where the trend originated, and the toast itself, are reflections of Carrelli’s own trouble, specifically fashioned to give her the stability and sense of self she would be lacking without the connections they create for her.

Carrelli has schizoaffective disorder, a serious and highly disruptive mental illness that combines the psychotic features of schizophrenia with a mood disorder like depression or bipolar disorder. Like other people with this disorder, Carrelli cycles through episodes when her symptoms are severe and she loses touch with reality. She also loses touch with herself and who she is–and the connections she has built for herself are tools to help her find help and safety during these times of trouble.

The toast is tragically authentic–a comfort food for someone whose life has been full of trouble. For Carrelli, it represents comfort. And the coconuts she serves alongside the toast represent survival–something she has had to work hard for. She’s doing far more than surviving now, thanks in part to diagnosis and treatment and in large part to the “latticework of small connections” she has built for herself. “I own Trouble Coffee so that people recognize my face–so they can help me,” she says. She depends on these connections for survival.

She wants what we all want, hip or not. We want safety, comfort, moorings, a sense of who we are. We all lose these things from time to time, in our own way. But most of us don’t lose them literally. They’re much harder to find and maintain for people who have a serious mental illness.

There’s a fairly obvious lesson here for people in the church. We can and should be communities in which people can find much of what they need to survive and to keep hold on their sense of self–not only as individuals but as people beloved by God. Among other things, the church itself is a “latticework of small connections,” a stable community of people on a similar journey. But too often we don’t see the power in that community. We don’t really show up. We fail to recognize one another. We fail to see ourselves–and Jesus–in the people around us. We seek comfort in image management rather than offer true comfort to one another.

But there’s another application here, and it’s in an open question: what about Carrelli’s family? In an interview she talks about her “big family.” She says the toast reminds her of home. She belongs to people–but they don’t show up in her story. Why?

I don’t know what Carrelli’s family has dealt with over the last 20 years or so, as she has bounced from city to city and lost her roots time and again. I don’t know whether they’ve tried to be there for her, tried to help her find what she needs, or failed her completely. Have they tried to rescue her? Tried to understand her? Supported her business venture? Celebrated her success? Thrown up their hands after watching her spiral downward too many times? Do they even know her diagnosis, or have they been left in the dark like so many? Do they feel ashamed and tired? Or are they proud of what she has built for herself? I can’t answer these questions, and perhaps Giulietta can’t either. But I do know there’s more to this story, and if her family is like others affected by serious mental illness, they have all lost someone every time Giulietta has lost herself.

So often we forget that the hardship of mental illness does not confine itself to the person with the disorder. So often we don’t think about the way families suffer. We forget how much they need our support and how much we have to offer.

Later this week I’ll be at Saddleback Church in Southern California, participating in The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church, sponsored by Saddleback, the Orange County Diocese, and NAMI of Orange County. Here’s the topic of my workshop: “Support for Loved Ones Affected by Mental Illness.” I have a feeling I’ll be speaking to a lot of people who have been what I have been through: emotionally bleeding in the background of someone else’s mental health crisis. Then doing it again. And again. I believe most of the people there will come because of something more in their own story–the soft dough beneath the crusty, toasted surface that helps them survive a life of tiptoeing around someone they love.

I hope they’ll all feel loved. I hope they’ll understand just how many of us are out there. And I hope they will go back and change their churches into bodies that will stick with a person in crisis and help hold a family together.

I hope this catches on like expensive toast.

  1. Simone Booth says:

    Looking forward to hearing you speak on Friday! Can you tell me what time your workshop is? Also, I hope that I can buy your book that day as well. I am a Saddleback Church Counselor and have worked with family members of those with mental illness.

  2. Candace McMahan says:

    Amy, I thought of you when I heard the story on NPR about Giulietta Carrelli and am so glad you discovered her story. This post is, as always, so beautifully and compellingly written. I’ll be praying for you as you speak at Saddleback.

  3. Vicki says:

    Sounds like a great conference-wish I weren’t so far away! Praying that the Lord will use your workshop and continue to use your book. You are a blessing to so many!

    “Adult Children of the Mentally Ill in Missions” was just published in the April edition of “The Evangelical Quarterly” (EMQ). No matter where I go, the Lord puts a woman ( whose parent was mentally ill ) in my path. I always ask if she would feel comfortable sharing her story with me. So often, these women have never or hardly ever have had the luxury of sharing their story. I am not a trained counselor, but it is something that I can do to minister to a fellow ACMI.

  4. Tony Roberts says:

    Once again, Ms. Simpson, I am grateful for how beautifully for breathe life into the brokenness people like me experience.

    I’m listening to the “Gathering on Mental Health and the Church” now (it’s going to lunch break). While I find it’s only scratching the surface, I pray it will open avenues for much further ministry.

    Thanks for all you are doing to foster the compassion of Christ.

  5. Rebecca Wimer says:

    I loved this story when I first read it. (Think it originated here: )

    Thank you for promoting this beautiful story and for the helpful insights you give to all (especially Christians) about the stigma surrounding mental illness.

  6. Andie says:

    Amy, Collin and I were just talking about this story (journalism–it brings people together!). His coffee shop serves artisan toast, and he was so refreshed to hear that it’s not just a trend, but had authentic, meaningful roots. Love what you were able to pull from it.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.