eating is about more than survival

and adulting is difficult

Anthony Williams, 2014

Content and trigger warning for discussions of food, depression, and suicide.

Some people eat more when they’re depressed.

Some people eat less when they’re depressed.

I eat less frequently and in smaller portions when depressed. If I’m feeling anxious I might eat more, but it’s usually food that is far from anything that is good for me. I revert to old habits and crave sugar, processed food, and even consider eating meat for the quick protein and low prep-time. I want comfort, and although the rush of sugar, processed food, or smell of meat might smell good in the moment, none of that feels good ten minutes later.

2016 has taught me one very large lesson about mental health that is applicable to all arenas: ask for help.

We all ask for help in different ways, and I know this first hand. I did educational theatre for a number of years and I used to teach middle school students about depression. I’d explain what it looked like, what the definition was, what it might feel like, and how they might know if they were depressed. We went through trainings on recognizing depression, coaching someone in a conversation, and bridging them to a counselor at their school. Students generally fell into three groups: quietly linger after the show, ask lots of questions that are not at all related to their real question, or get straight to the point. Regardless of the student, however, they would rarely lie.

Have you felt sad or hopeless for two or more weeks? Yes. Have you harmed yourself by cutting or any other means? Not in a while. Are you feeling suicidal? Yes. Have you thought about how exactly you would take your own life? No.

This is a template of many conversations I had with students Monday through Friday. My empathy opened me up as a trusting space for these students. I could empathize with what they were going through and could relate it to my own episodes of depression, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized I didn’t just have episodes of depression. Myself, depression, and anxiety have been close friends since I was about 14. It wasn’t until I was about 24 that I began to recognize how debilitating depression is and how that has a profound effect on everything else in my life. Asking for help is not easy, so it is up to everyone to pay attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people signal they need help.

I eat when it is tied to obligation. I eat when it is tied to productivity. I eat when I’m reminded that it is something I should do. I eat when my stomach groans, stops, then starts up again hours after I still have not satiated it. Rarely do I eat for pleasure. Overall, my desire to cook and my appetite are unfortunately tied to my depression, but I wasn’t always like this. Eating has become a means to an end. Eating is now about survival for me, and hopefully by writing about it I’m working to articulate how I plan on breaking the disconnected nature by which I fuel my body.

“depression meals”

I usually eat when I am responsible for someone else. Whether that be my family, my partner, or a friend, I eat when it is necessary. I typically eat a meal before work and during work — working an eight hour shift without at least one meal is not something my body will allow. After work is a toss up. Is my partner coming over? I’ll probably eat. Did I start cooking dinner as soon as I got home? I’ll probably eat. Did I lay down as soon as I got home? Sounds like cashews, a scoop of peanut butter, or a mango for dinner. Although lack of funds has definitely been a factor when I let my ego get too big to ask for help, generally this stems from not wanting to get out of bed or having little to no desire to eat.

Back in the spring of 2016 I hadn’t eaten even all day. I’d been up for four or five hours and it was mid afternoon at this point. A friend knew I was going through a lot and so he called to check on me. I don’t always like talking on the phone, but the phone call was the best way to go because a text would not have been enough. He asked what I ate and suggested I at least eat a piece of bread. I didn’t want to eat, but halfway through my piece of bread I felt a lot more ready to start my day and I finally took a shower. Mouthful of bread and warm water on my body, I began to feel better fairly quickly as my blood sugar leveled off.

Last night I didn’t want to eat and had no plans of participating in such activities. When my partner asked me what I was up to, I was honest and told him that I was in bed feeling depressed. He respectfully asked if I wanted company and after I told him yes, he made me order food for the two of us as he was en route.

Tonight my friend brought her hubby, her baby, homemade quiche for tomorrow, and enough Ethiopian food for all three of us. It should also be noted that the two of them paid of all of this, but even if they hadn’t just the gesture of bringing me food that I could repay them for would have been helpful as well. Thanks the forethought of my friends I now have more than enough breakfast, lunch, and dinner for tomorrow.

Depression saps energy, effort, desire, and willpower. Depression and other forms of mental or physical illness make what seem like comparatively simple tasks — showering, eating, and sleeping — much more difficult. In order to best support yourself and those around you, I have some advice that might help. This comes from personal experience, reading, and advice from friends that actually worked.

1. Ask for help and place your ego to the side so that you can actually utilize that help.

Sometimes this means sending a text to someone you trust to tell them “I can’t/don’t want to eat.” Often they can help motivate you with texts, phone calls, memes, or whatever form of support best suits your needs. And don’t be afraid to be needy.

For those supporting, we must understand that calls for help may not always be so plain. Sometimes we have to ask open-ended questions such as “what have you eaten today?,” “when was your last meal?,” and “when was the last time you hydrated?” Close-ended questions such as “did you eat today?” demand a “yes” or a “no” answer which allows the recipient an easy out.

2. If you know you’re having any troubles, plan ahead when you’re having a good day.

A few friends have helped me see the beauty of dry goods and other non-perishables. Nuts last a long time and can sit in a pantry for an emergency or for a regular snack. Fresh fruit is great for fiber and a quick boost of energy, but anyone knows that depression makes a trip to the grocery store into a gargantuan task. That means that having non-perishables, cooking in larger batches, and buying frozen or pre-cooked “depression-only” meals for those extra rough days is a necessity.

For those supporting, this means that you may have to help that person go grocery shopping or even drop by their house with a few emergency protein bars. I say emergency because this is not a sustainable way to live, but when the shroud of depression takes over, an energy bar is better than nothing. Additionally, I may not have eaten dinner last night if it wasn’t for my partner insisting. I had groceries in my fridge, but cooking was the last thing I wanted to do and the supportive environment he’s created made me feel safe being honest with him.

3. Create tangible goals for yourself and realistic expectations for those in your life.

Support is key. I am lucky to have a lot of people in my life who love me and who are very understanding of how depression affects my everyday life. Even so, I can be my own worst enemy by not advocating for myself. I had to learn how to speak up because I learned firsthand that no one could help me meet my needs unless I could somehow communicate what I wanted. It was not always perfect, it did not always work, and I still am much more vocal online than I am in person, but I’m practicing.

Secondly, I remember feeling like if someone wasn’t there all the time, then they were unreliable. This is an unrealistic and an unreachable standard to hold for anyone, even family members. We have to understand that those in our lives are fellow humans with complex lives, just like us. They may be battling their own mental health or just might not be available. And that’s ok. Find at least one person you can trust, but write that one person off for the one time they forget to follow up with you. On the opposite side, it took me some time to open up and the wonderful people in my life and patience is required on both sides. If the people in my life had not been patient — and just the right amount intrusive — then I would not be doing as well as I am today.

Whether or not you got out of bed or ate or cried or worked or stared at the wall all day and night? You’re worthy of love. You’re not useless because you need help. You’re not helpless because you need support. You’re not less-than because you need community. Shoutout to us and those who love us.