Cooking My Way Through Mental Illness

By Emma Birrell

Mental illness is one of those things that has been shoved aside for pretty much all time. Here in Australia, we are pioneers in the field and thanks to organisations like beyondblue, headspace and by The Inspire Foundation, we have built a genuine, nationwide dialogue relating to mental health. I’m so proud of this sector I am fortunate enough to be a part of. We are making real progress.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety almost six years ago. I was in my first year at university, but upon reflection, things hadn’t been OK for a while before that. A month or two earlier I was told I had Glandular Fever, a real bugger of a thing that knocked me about physically. It isolated me from my new life as a fully fledged adult (albeit living at home) and I was in bed for weeks, but managed to soldier through my uni subjects from home with the help of my very understanding lecturers and tutors.
The diagnosis of my mental illness came as more than anything, a relief. Because I was, as my British psychologist described me once, very poorly. I was en route to being totally unraveled, and now I knew why. Finally I could try to make sense of why I’d been feeling so hopeless, why I wasn’t able to look forward to anything, and why some days the world felt like too much for me and I didn’t leave the house. Why everything I did was cast in a murky, dark shadow. Why I was feeling so completely defeated but numb at the same time. This incredible mish-mash of confusing bullshit finally had a title.
I started to get the help I needed – I had a wonderful doctor, a psychologist that empowered me with the tools I needed to look after myself, and the best family support system you could imagine. I started to get well. And I continue to look after myself and get the treatment I need to this day.
Now, it is no secret to anyone who knows me that I have always, always, always, ALWAYS loved food. The concept of “being full” has never meshed with me, and I am the girl who makes friends with the waiters at catered events. I’m also a feeder, like my mother and grandmothers before me. I express feelings through the food I cook for people—it is my way of making people feel special and loved.
A major symptom of depression and anxiety is the inability to concentrate, and I experienced this in spades. My mind would dart around like nobody’s business, jumping from random thought to ridiculous thought—and it was exhausting. A lot of the time I felt like I had next to no control of the one thing that should be wholly mine: my mind. The principles of mindfulness, a common treatment for depression and anxiety (written about so beautifully by Rebekah), focus on being present. I found myself feeling most present, in control, and peaceful, in the kitchen.
Cooking helped bring me back. When I was making a dinner for my family, I started to feel like me again. The step-by-step-by-step of it all. The being in the moment. The following of a process. The focusing of the mind on the task at hand.
I could actually do stuff in the kitchen. I felt like I was contributing again. During a time in my life where I felt like I was just keeping my head above water, I could take a bunch of ingredients and make a cake. And a yummy one at that. I could share my accomplishment with my family and friends, encouraging me to be social when often all I wanted was to stay in bed covered in a doona in the dark. Cooking is incredibly enabling, and it helped give me back the confidence to be able to put one foot in front of the other.
Cooking continues to be a way for me to just calm down, and something that I will continue to adore for, I have no doubt, forevs. However, my belief is that something as accessible as cooking can truly compliment the treatment paths laid out by professionals in the treatment of mental illness. I think it can help generate conversation, helping those that are dealing with issues themselves, but also helping their loved ones get their head around it all. I think it can be an everyday way for people to manage their mental illness. I think it is a bit magic.
So, the next time you’re feeling rudderless, bang-up a stir fry. When the thought of socialising gives you the chills, grab a recipe and pull together a cake. Take pride in your achievements, and share them. Share them with your friends, your housemate, your family, and feel engaged with the world around you. Own your illness and own your experience, and hopefully create something yum along the way.
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emmaEmma is 24 years old, has very little patience for naysayers and loves marathoning TV shows. After stints in France and the UK, she has settled back in her beloved hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Having spent placements and internships in government both in Oz and abroad, Emma now works in youth mental health research and policy for the Young and Well CRC, and hopes to make the lives of young people brighter. She spends much of her time wearing wooden shoes, thinking about her next meal and daydreaming about what her future could be. She has her own blog, talk scrumptious. that you can see here. She is also on the Twitters @missemmabiz. She is pretty awesome all round, really. She also wrote this bio.
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Photo from We Heart It
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