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The Power of Polenta

Comfort food brought my ex back from the brink after years of mania, depression, and psychosis

Christiana White
Oct 13, 2018 · 17 min read
Photo: Electronza/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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When Lorenzo began going off the rails again, it was a sunny June evening. The rays of the sun entered the room at a slant; the light was wan, but tender, bright, hopeful. It was a peaceful time of day. There was some hustle and bustle in the house, people coming and going. I was distracted and had been for some time when I suddenly noticed Lorenzo sitting at the dining room table, in the end chair near the swinging kitchen door. He was seated slightly to one side, as if talking to someone standing near the table. But he wasn’t talking to anyone. He was sitting. Quietly.

And it struck me. That is not Renzo’s modus operandi. Renzo sitting quietly is like a garbage truck arriving quietly. They don’t do that. They labor up the hill, squealing and squeaking, lumbering from side to side. They stop hard, they make a big show of arriving, people fly off to collect things, and things are thrown into the maw. It’s a production.

Renzo, too, changed a scene when he arrived. Everyone does, of course, but Renzo altered it a great deal. I sometimes liken him to a golden retriever puppy: cute and compelling, totally lovable, and totally impossible.

In a crowd, his arrival can be pure magic. He’s 6'5" with a beautiful, straight back, long legs, and grace galore. He has a booming and melodic voice, a radiant smile, and handsome dark locks. He immediately changes the energy in a room. Everyone seems to perk up. He charges the air; he exudes a feeling of fun and possibility.

One-on-one, though, I had always struggled with him. I felt he didn’t listen to me, and really he didn’t. Sometimes he would parrot back what I had said to prove he was listening. I would say, “But I want you to hear me, to respond, to interact! Do you have any thoughts about what I said? Can we talk?”

We couldn’t talk. It was hard to talk with someone wired to pace rather than sit.

Which is why seeing him sitting quietly at my dining room table was striking. I watched him for a moment, then put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Renzo, your energy is different today. What’s up?”

Then, something else unusual happened. He responded. He took in the question, heard it, and responded sensibly.

He said, “Yes, I stopped the pot. And I’m having bad withdrawal.”

I paused, then said, “Wow, I didn’t know that. Well, bad or not, you have a really nice energy today.”

And he did.

This was after more than a year of extreme hypomania.

For the previous two years, Renzo had arrived three mornings a week to bring our daughter Nina to school. He exploded into the house, but not before he’d pulled up with a jolt, leapt from his sickly car, started the water in the hose, let the dog scrabble out, grabbed a tennis ball, and pitched it down the street. Then, he’d enter, pull a cast-iron pan from the ceiling rack, toss some oil in it, crack an egg or two, and beat it furiously with a fork from the drawer he’d leave open.

Once the eggs were on a low flame, he’d flee the kitchen. He’d stride up the driveway, watering the strawberries. Daisy would bound up, and Renzo would reach down for the ball and pitch it into the street without looking to see if cars were coming.

I’d knock on the window, hard, place my mouth at the open crack and yell, “What are you doing? Don’t throw the ball into the street like that!”

Then, he’d burst back in the house, stir the eggs, yell up the stairs, crash out again, water some more, cater to Daisy some more. And on it went.

The timing was not impeccable. He flooded plants and the driveway, nearly killed the dog, burned and overcooked eggs, toast, bacon, and plantains many times.

The energy was crackling, irritating. He angered quickly, yelling with immense pressure in his voice for Nina to come down, yelling she was late, losing his temper. He was angry, bug-eyed, tight-voiced. He struck fear in our hearts.

I’d hear Nina screaming at her dad to calm down as they drove off at breakneck speed, bald tires squealing. I’d be left exhausted and confused. The chaos was intense. I was nauseous after some of these mornings.

This went on for almost two years, after Renzo’s previous—and first ever—breakdown.

He’d been teaching, and he was woefully ill-equipped to teach, but we live in Oakland where the teacher shortage is so severe they will hire anyone to teach. Anyone. Renzo had been out of work for years. I suggested he try substitute teaching. He was snatched up for a real teaching position, with no credentials or experience other than assisting in the physics lab at University of San Francisco a few decades before. But there he was, commander of his own classroom, supposed to teach math to a passel of disenchanted, disenfranchised, semi-hulking kids.

He’d been losing it for a while, I’d noticed. He was excessively scattered and increasingly afraid. He had a kind of haunted look, as if he expected something to come at him from the side. He was losing weight, papers, homework. He couldn’t keep up and began to panic. Organization had never been his strong suit, and now he had students, their parents, and school administrators to answer to. He had no idea what to do or how—and no training or support.

Yet the kids liked him, and some parents did too.

One day, a fight broke out in Renzo’s classroom. He stopped it, physically, with his body. He entered the fray and was struck in the shoulder. It wasn’t serious. He was okay. But it rattled something in him, something big. It knocked something loose.

Renzo had been hyper his entire life, as far as we knew—“we” being me and Denise, who’d known him the longest — 30 years to my 20. He’d never been otherwise. Renzo was always energetic, magnanimous, distracted, inexhaustible, exhausting. In a word, manic. It was his natural state.

For years, I had been asked by people , “Is Renzo bipolar?”

I always said the same thing. “I don’t know. He won’t look into it.”

Shortly before I left him, Renzo and I walked in the forest near our house. Renzo had lost a number of jobs due to “disruptive behavior.” I begged him to see a doctor, to look into the possibility of mental illness, see if it was bipolar disorder, see if he could get help. He promised he would. I said, “I will stay with you if you get help.” He said he would. But he didn’t.

After he quelled the fight in his classroom, Renzo went home. He was invited to take the following day off.

That night, something happened. All I know is that at three in the morning, Renzo left his house, walked to the police station, and turned himself in to the nearest officer because he “was afraid for his life.”

He was committed to John George Psychiatric Pavilion and held there, heavily medicated, for four days. When I went to pick him up, it took staff hours to release him. He emerged shattered, subdued, faint, gaunt, washed out. He was quiet. He was medicated. He was confused.

I didn’t know what to do. I brought him to my house. He said he couldn’t find his wallet, couldn’t find his papers. It was hard to know what he was talking about. After a few hours, unsure of what to do, I took him to his house. The kids and I checked on him a lot. He slid precipitously from bad to worse.

He was hospitalized a total of three times between October 2015 and January 2016. He lost 40 pounds.

One of those times, he checked himself into Herrick Hospital. The kids and I visited him there. We were led into a sterile little room. White floor, white walls, metal table. No windows. Renzo was brought in. Dark hollows lurked under his cheeks. What really scared me though were his temples, sunken and shadowed, as though his face was caving in. The kids tried to talk to him. He glanced into the corners of the room and answered in monosyllables. Then he’d gaze down at his hands, clutched between his legs.

We were quiet. Our son, Rob, blurted, “Papi, this is bullshit. Let’s get you out of here.” He looked terrified. Renzo did too. Rob tried to hide his feelings with bluster. I was terrified. I called some doctors. They said, “He is a very sick man.” They would not release him.

After five months, three hospitalizations, and two different outpatient programs, Renzo began to return. He began to eat. He came alive again slowly. At one point on this trajectory, he arrived at a place where he was gentle, present, at ease. He was able to speak and listen, to interact and respond. I remember thinking, “If this is the new Renzo, this is fantastic!” In fact, I thought more than that. I thought, if this is the new Renzo, maybe we can be together again.

Then, he hurtled through that plateau and kept going, right into mania.

We had endured that for nearly two years. It was disappointing, but it was how we knew him, how we’d always known him. That was Renzo. Totally hyper. As the months wore on, however, I became more concerned. Though it seemed impossible, the mania grew. Angry outbursts grew and became increasingly random and unpredictable. He began having problems with his roommates. I began to get calls and emails.

Suddenly, this late-afternoon, sunny June day… after months of electrified Renzo, his energy had shifted to something radically different.

I asked about it. I said it was nice. And it was. He was a benevolent presence in the room. I liked having him there. I didn’t feel angry and annoyed as I usually did in his vortex. I commented on it. He responded.

But he didn’t stay there. He teetered, and he began to slide.

It was June. Summer was coming on. Each time I saw Renzo, he was quieter. He began losing weight again. His pants grew baggy, his belt cinched tight on his waist. He stopped shaving.

In July, Renzo’s older son, Ben, who is in his mid-30s, came to visit. Ben had planned a trip to Mount Dana in the Sierras and rented a car for the trip. My daughter went too. Renzo was nervous, exceedingly so. He was scattered. He couldn’t help Ben pack or sort or plan. He was … afraid. Afraid to leave the Bay Area, to drive, to do anything. Everything was threatening. He didn’t want to go.

They did go.

They climbed the mountain the first day. Renzo was afraid they’d run out of water, afraid they’d get lost, afraid someone would get hurt. He practically ran up that mountain. Nina said they went up so fast she got a nosebleed at the top and almost threw up at the bottom. Renzo booked up that mountain and down again at head-spinning speed because he was terrified something bad would happen.

The whole trip was that way. Renzo worried and fretted. He was hesitant, reluctant, gloomy, tense. Ben and Nina just carted him around and tried to ignore it.

The weeks passed, and Renzo worsened.

In late July or early August, Denise called me from the corner house, the co-op in Berkeley where Renzo lived.

“He’s not doing well,” she said. “I don’t think he’s eating. He stays in the dark in his room. He won’t come out.”

One day in August, I took a good look at him and realized he’d lost about 30 pounds.

Renzo’s girlfriend Teri called.

“I’m worried about Renzo,” she said.

They’d met at La Cheim, the second outpatient clinic Renzo visited after his first breakdown. La Cheim was good, until Dr. Beckerman called Renzo out on not taking his meds; he was growing manic. Teri said the doctor was angry with him, and told him he’d get worse.

I remembered that. Renzo was showing up with all kinds of ideas for La Cheim. He could start a cooking school there! Every day it was another bright and impossible idea.

I recalled the nights in our past, when the kids were little. He’d be up for hours talking to me about the lightbulb company he was launching, the wooden toy company he’d start in the garage. I remember boxes and boxes of fluorescent light bulbs filling the house. I wince at these memories.

And then Beckerman cut him loose from the program.

One night, our son and I went and got him. I don’t remember the catalyst. I was just increasingly worried. I became afraid I’d lose track of him and not be able to help when I needed to. He had stopped answering calls or emails. I’d had enough. I was scared.

We brought him home, where he remained, ensconced on my couch for the next six weeks. I work in Redwood City. I could not stay home. But in the early days of Renzo staying with us, I was afraid to leave him. It was obvious he couldn’t be left alone. He was paranoid, semi-delusional, and severely depressed. Pacing, gaunt, frantic, muttering. His favorite and constant phrases were, “I can’t” and “It’s impossible.” I had the daughter of a friend stay with him one day. I had a neighbor check on him a few others. Every morning, I left food on the stove for him, which he didn’t touch.

Each night, I made a good dinner. Renzo would push the food around, pretend to eat.

We were all busy. We were worried, of course, but we had to keep living our lives. Rob was interning at my company, and Nina was getting ready for her junior year at Berkeley High and enjoying the last few weeks of summer. I was working hard and commuting. Each night, we’d gather for dinner. Renzo wouldn’t eat.

He wasn’t sleeping either. He said he hadn’t slept in weeks, and it looked to be true. He had wild eyes, shadows, exhaustion writ all over his face. He wouldn’t go outside, was afraid even to water the tomatoes. One afternoon, I forced him to leave with Daisy, our golden retriever. I put the leash in his hand, led him to the door, and nudged him out. A few minutes later, I found him in the backyard, hiding behind the fig tree. Shame emanating like a wave.

He said he felt “rotten” inside. He worried he was physically—and seriously—ill.

He was ruminating, constantly rehashing the past, filled with regret. He sighed constantly, big heaving sighs that pierced my core. He apologized and spoke his regrets constantly.

“I let you and the kids down.”

“Remember when we went to Portland with your dad?”

“Remember when Nina was born… Why did I…? Why didn’t I…?”

“I’m sorry…”

“Remember when…”

It was constant. Lamenting, pining, missing. Missing me. Missing what we had.

It was rough on me. I personalized it. It filled me with guilt and shame. I felt completely responsible for his condition. I still do.

Night after night, I listened to him on the couch, turning, sighing, murmuring. Several nights, I went to him and put my hand on his shoulder, firmly, as if to pin him to the earth.

“Renzo,” I said. “We all have regrets. It’s human. It’s normal. You can’t fixate on them. None of us can. It will kill you.”

I was getting scared of his lack of sleep. He was wild-eyed, desperate. He was miserable. Tortured. I told him, “Your mind is not your friend right now. Don’t believe everything you think.”

I brought him to my bed and held his shoulder for hours. I breathed slowly and deeply and coached him to follow my breath. In a state of constant, toxic panic, he breathed in shallow pants.

He didn’t bathe or shower for weeks. Twice, I drew a bath and undressed him. His shoulders were like a chicken’s, bony, drawn in like little wings. I led him to the bath. I ordered him in. He protested. He said he was scared. I yelled at him, I admit it. But he got in the bath. I made him brush his teeth. We made him change his clothes. Or we tried. Sometimes we gave up.

The kids—and I too—ranged from terrified to irritated to incredulous. We were scared, but sometimes we felt almost taken for a ride. It was hard to believe. Was this all a giant ruse to get back into the house?

For years, he’d asked me if he could just live in the garage. For years, he’d left the garage door open by lowering the door slowly and carefully just before it clicked. Then, when I was at work, he’d cart possessions into the garage. Every year or two, I’d pitch it all out. It was a long, old story.

One night, I made chicken. It turned out well, particularly tasty. And Renzo ate. I watched him across from me and he cut and forked the chicken pieces and put them in his mouth. I marked the moment.

I was greatly heartened.

From then on, he began to eat at mealtime, desultory, dutifully, and sparingly, but he was eating.

That was an improvement, but he was still lamenting and worrying, still deeply depressed.

The night before Nina was to begin 11th grade, I sent him home. I was uneasy, but I did it. I said, “Do you think you can drive?”

He’d been with us for six weeks. A new phase was starting. I wanted my daughter to be successful in her most difficult academic year. I didn’t want her to be unduly worried about her father, to have his situation right there in the living room. I thought he might be well enough to go home to the corner house, the co-op he shared with a number of aging hippies in Berkeley.

He was reluctant. He said he was “scared of everyone at the corner house.” He was ashamed. Embarrassed. He was confused, scattered, passive, anxious. As skittish as a doe. But he said he could drive. And then, he left. We watched him drive away. My heart was in my mouth.

That evening, Nina and I visited my dad at his nursing home. Afterward, we went to Mistura, a Peruvian restaurant on Piedmont Avenue, to celebrate Nina’s last night of summer. After we’d ordered, I decided to check on her Papi.

He had no phone. His bills had been in free-fall for months. His phone was cut off weeks before. We’d paid his August rent and his car insurance. And were feeding him, of course.

I texted Denise to inquire about Renzo.

“No, he’s not here,” she wrote back.

Nina and I exchanged a glance.

I called Denise. “Are you sure he’s not there? He left our house at least three hours ago.”

Evening was falling. The sky was an electric blue.

I could see us in my mind’s eye, fleeing the restaurant, driving all over Berkeley, searching for Renzo, the night before Nina’s first day of school. I was upset and afraid.

We had no way of reaching him. Of course, my mind traveled to the worst. I thought of Renzo driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. I thought of the two shocking, high-profile, celebrity suicides earlier in the summer.

Then Denise called back. “I’m sorry! He was in his room. I didn’t see him come in. I thought he wasn’t here. He’s so quiet!”

Relief flooded Nina and me. We relaxed and enjoyed our dinner.

The next day, I dropped Nina at school and went straight to Renzo’s. I knocked on the door, called up to his window. When he appeared, I was faint with relief. When he opened the door, I touched him as if to make certain he was really there. I was grateful.

I found a couple of eggs in the fridge and a tired waffle in the freezer and cooked them. I found a zucchini and sauteed that. I served Renzo breakfast and then fled for home so I could get to work in the South Bay.

I did the same thing the next day.

On Friday of that week, I combed through my own cupboards and pantry and brought Renzo several bags of groceries, stuff that would be good and easy to make, frozen shrimp, tamales, rice and beans, and the like.

Teri and I had contacted Berkeley Mental Health Services over the summer. Renzo had been assigned a social worker named Altaf, who was wonderful: kind, compassionate, hard-working, and persistent, and things were beginning to happen.

Altaf got Renzo an EBT card (food stamps) and an Obama phone, so by late-September, Renzo was reachable. He got Renzo an emergency monthly stipend of $300. This, in addition to the $300 of grocery money, made all the difference in the world.

But Renzo was still deeply depressed, anxious, and slightly paranoid with an edge of psychosis.

Two weeks ago, Renzo was over for breakfast. It was a Sunday, and I had made all the food in the house. We were short on eggs. Some of my children’s friends stopped by, hungry teens around the table. We needed more food. I quickly whipped up a pot of polenta, which took five minutes.

We were eating outside in the garden.

I brought the pot out and placed it on the table. Renzo leaned forward. “Polenta?” he said. Something new had crept into his voice. A touch of wonder.

He served himself polenta. He served everyone polenta.

Renzo was born in Caracas, Venezuela to two immigrants: a father driven off the family farm in post-WWII Italy and a mother who fled post-Spanish Civil War Madrid, an impoverished and hungry orphan.

In other words, Renzo knew polenta. His father had made polenta his whole life.

The next day, I got a text message from Renzo: “I made polenta for you and Nina!”

This was huge. It was the first thing Renzo had done in months. The first time he’d taken initiative on anything. And he’d shared it. He’d taken the time, attention, and focus to send a text about it. It was significant.

That day, Nina came home with bright yellow squares of polenta wrapped in wax paper.

A couple days later, Renzo invited me to stop by after picking up Nina from tennis. He led us into the kitchen and presented a big glass casserole on the stove, filled to the brim with golden polenta. He dished it out into little saucers. We sat at the round oak table in the kitchen. Light filtered through the dusty windows. A housemate came in from the garden. He and Nina joked around, speaking to each other with faux British accents.

For the last two weeks, each time Renzo has come over or we’ve seen him, he’s been carrying polenta.

He’s brought a few other things too.

One night, he came by with a huge fire extinguisher. It had writing on the side in Sharpie pen.

I said, “Where did that come from?”

He said, “Oh, the corner house…”

I was quiet.

“Maybe I should bring it back?”

“Yes. Maybe,” I said.

He brought smoke alarms. He brought a “hex” for Nina (turned out that was an axe) — so she could chop her way out of her room in the event of an earthquake. He put it under her bed.

Renzo began bringing food to us. One night, he brought polenta and meatballs that he’d made. First time I knew him to cook meat, meatballs, anything remotely complicated that might require a recipe.

A couple nights ago, he brought roasted chicken. It was delicious. He sent a picture of all the spices he used, and they were manifold!

Last night, I got a text: “I made polenta and meatballs! Can I bring them over?”

Renzo is on his way back, and I credit polenta and the magic of food.

Of course, we’re not out of the woods. We probably never will be. Now that he’s feeling a little better, and he clearly is, the concern is that he’ll stop taking his medication because the mania feels good. He feels happy and invincible when he’s manic. He doesn’t notice that he’s exhausting and annoying everyone around him.

Recently, I said to Renzo, “You’re going to have to feel your way toward what normal is for you. It’s possible you don’t know what normal feels like. This is how life is. We all feel regret. We all feel anxiety, boredom. Life can be painful. We make mistakes. We have to forgive ourselves. You can’t fixate on the pain.”

But, for now, it’s polenta that’s working. It’s polenta we rely on.

We pray Renzo will never go to the depths again. I honestly don’t know how often a person can endure that level of depression. I thank God he’s been returned to us.

For now, I marvel once more at the power of food.

Writer, copywriter, editor, and word lover. Subscribe to my newsletter at christywhite.substack.com

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