How I Learned To Break Bread With My Mental Health
By Tracy Wan
When it comes to giving the illusion of having your shit together in your twenties, few things surpass the decision to move out on your own. But in my case, an empty apartment gave me the license to let everything fall apart, my most insidious instincts emerging from the dark like rodents. The first week I spent in my apartment, I ate chocolates for dinner in the bathtub and listened to the same Whitney Houston song over and over again, wondering what it would be like if I, too, fell asleep in the water. Would it feel gentler than drowning? And what would I look like when they found me?
The following week, dinner was a watermelon that I used as its own bowl, a move that left me with a false sense of accomplishment. It was June then, and every night I would take the watermelon out of the fridge and chip away at it with a fork, pleased by the crisp sound of the pink flesh splitting from itself, the cold rind pressed against my thigh. Of course I was still hungry afterwards. But I liked it: the muted hollow feeling that it left in my gut, the way it cohered with everything else going on inside me. It felt irresponsible, but not irrevocably so. And, like all summer things, falling in love, and staying up late and drinking too much, it was exactly what I wanted at the time.
It’s not that I’m indifferent to cooking, or incapable of it — on the contrary. Some people eat to live, but I’ve always lived to eat — finding immense pleasure in novelty flavors and combinations and the ability to share them with others. I’m a sensory person by nature, and most of my memories are compartmentalized by smells and flavors — flashes of what I tasted, where, and with whom. I’ve cooked for every person I’ve ever lived with, everyone I’ve loved; I am most fond of labor when it’s inextricable from feeling. Preparing a meal for someone is an unspoken declaration of my affections, an unrivaled gesture of tenderness from someone who’s slow to open up and hates being touched. All this to say, I’ve spent a lot of my life feeding those I care about, and yet, once in a while, I lose complete interest in feeding myself.
Only in hindsight did it dawn upon me that these habits — what I had chalked up to laziness and an affinity for operational efficiencies — were symptomatic of something bigger: that I wasn’t well. As a fairly high-functioning person with lifelong mental health problems, I was used to going through the motions of someone who was better: at living, at working, at taking care of people and, at least to the visible eye, myself. It took living alone for me to see that, despite my debilitating introversion, being surrounded by people was what helped. When roommates and friends and family are on the periphery, they become diversions — people to take care of and pay attention to, instead of your own thoughts. I was busy, distracted; sometimes even fooled into believing that what I felt was the carefree thoughtlessness of happiness.
Maybe it was. Maybe we demand too much from pleasure to recognize it in its simpler forms. But in the absence of distractions, depression made itself at home in my head, kicked up its feet and whistled a tune. Sometimes it came as thoughts about falling asleep in the bathwater, or watching subway headlights come toward you, or how many acetaminophen pills it takes to forget where you are (I Googled: a lot). Sometimes it’s not a thought at all, just words bouncing around like the chatter of a pre-concert crowd, impossible to silence and even harder to hear.
Do you know what it’s like, to be a writer who can’t finish a sentence because she forgot how it began? Do you, too, derive happiness solely from having created? I couldn’t stand myself, but she was the only company I had; a lease I couldn’t bring myself to break.
The same impulse that leads others to gorge on food until they hate themselves trained me, at the peak of my self-loathing, to refuse to sit at the table with myself. If cooking is an expression of care, what I served was the cold hand of neglect; feeding myself just enough so I wouldn’t pass out. I thought about this a lot, after the depressive episode had lifted and I was cooking again. I was newly in love, which helped; there was now someone to pour my attention into. I made beautiful, intricate meals in his kitchen, lamb rendang and tuna tartare and bitter melon the way my parents made it. Once, he asked me why I never cooked like that for myself. I remember shrugging: What’s the point?
The point was — and it’s a lesson I’m still learning, my mouth slowly forming to the shapes of the sounds — no one is more worthy of care than yourself. As a child who grew up too fast, whose stubborn self-reliance is more of a fault than a virtue, you will try to tell yourself otherwise. You will give everything you have and accept nothing in return and tell yourself that the dull ache of the void is better than being full on life, better than feeling too much. But you will find yourself sitting in the warm bathwater, night after night, and learn that even the empty sink; in fact, they sink faster.
As a culture, we love to celebrate the sense of communion that food offers us, the coming together of people over a meal that so indelibly marks the human experience. But why do so many of us fear dining alone? Is a meal stripped of its virtue in the absence of company; are its ingredients any less worthy? At my darkest and most self-loathing, I saw this sense of nourishment — both metaphorical and very, very literal — as the turning point; a way to gain control of myself again. Because even though I couldn’t make sense of my own thoughts, I could still make a basic chicken soup.
How does that Holzer line go? It is in your self-interest to be very tender. In many ways, mental health problems feel like you’re in a constant battle with yourself; but the silver lining is, you never know when your mind might give up the fight. Mine does over a cutting board: When I start to cook, the wild insects in my skull fall quietly into formation. It’s primitive, I think. Something about not biting the hand that feeds you. It is in my self-interest to be very tender.
The idea of nurturing your mental illness back to health feels like it should be a physical impossibility, like it’s cheating life. But that’s sort of how food works, isn’t it? There’s always been a beautiful alchemy to cooking — the way two ingredients inexplicably beget a whole new dimension of flavors, the way time and fire change everything. Making a complicated dish fills me with the same full-body thrill of having written; grateful and proud to witness the emergence of something beautiful and whole from so many sharp fragments, a rose from its thorns.
There are inevitably days when I feel depleted of will, when I sink into the same fog that’s followed me around for most of this life. On those days I force myself to cook, to show myself that I still care to survive. It helps. I’ve perfected it into a whole ritual: candles aflame, Al Green playing, wine generously poured. Our libraries are full of countless books on how to seduce other people, but few on how to fall in love with ourselves. But from what I know, food has always been the quickest way to a person’s heart, and mine was no exception.
In that regard, cooking is just another manifestation of self-care: taking the time to listen to yourself and get acquainted with your own rhythms. When I prepare food, every action feels meditative; I’m hyper aware of the sounds and textures and smells around me, but not really aware of myself — as though everything else, the clang and clutter, has fallen through my mental sieve. Cooking is a distraction that corners you into the present, forcing you to get behind your eyeballs and engage. After all, it’s against our instincts to let our thoughts wander while operating sharp objects.
Now, when my mind is at its most anxious and frenetic, I look at a recipe and feel an immediate sense of relief. Everything else falls away. Here is a path well trodden; a clearing in the forest. The structure of a recipe is the perfect respite for a reeling mind; the process of going through it helps me reclaim a sense of control and a moment of clarity. It’s both a checklist (motivating) and a set of directions (comforting), the seasoned learnings from someone else’s mistakes. Each recipe is an invisible stranger’s hand offering you a shortcut, as though to say, I’ve been here before. Here’s how you get to the other side. And sometimes, that’s all you need.
Illustrations by Barbara Moura