Cooking: Cutting through my anxiety

Cooking: Cutting through my anxiety

Lately I have found myself wanting to write things that are more meaningful to me while also sticking to what I love and talking about food. With this in mind I feel like it is a good time to talk about something quite close to my heart and I assume this may even surprise a few people that know me. Since a very young age I have had two constants in my life which are a love of food and a constant, crippling anxiety that can sometimes make my life incredibly difficult.

In recent years I have felt the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety slowly lift away and I have seen a certain amount of understanding starting to develop within our society. I think there is an element of people tweeting and sharing posts on ‘World mental health day’ without really considering what it means and how much of this is genuine I am not sure – but what it has done is allow people like myself to feel more comfortable in talking about it. Many people spend their nights hoping they wake up the following morning feeling less exposed and vulnerable than they went to sleep only to wake up in the same vacuum of dread, while not allowing themselves to talk to their closest friends and family for fear they will not understand. I have always been one of those people.

Mostly my anxiety is tied to a constant and unrelenting awareness of my own mortality which has more often than not manifested itself as health based anxiety. What this does is completely preoccupy you with thoughts of long term or life threatening illnesses and makes every day life almost impossible to deal with – I think that in isolation this would lead some people who haven’t suffered with a similar problem to think something along the lines of ‘Just get over it’ or ‘ Don’t worry about it’ but unfortunately the reality is this isn’t possible. Health anxiety alone often isn’t the culprit. Obsessive Compulsive disorder also likes to get involved and I am not talking about the cliché tropes of cleaning the house constantly or tapping my foot 3 times when I close a door – these problems do exist for some people however OCD very often comes in the way of obsessive and compulsive thought. To put it into context someone who functions in a very matter of fact way might watch the news and see something about a foreign country’s aggressive rhetoric towards another and take it at face value, maybe even ignore it completely and change the channel. However what someone with anxiety or compulsive thoughts may jump to are thoughts of world war 3, conscription and the idea of being sent against their will to fight a war and dying in some trench somewhere in the desert.. or worse yet nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. I know as that is something I myself had during the build up to our involvement in the Iraq war in 2003. I was 14 at the time.

Nowadays though my problems almost exclusively hit home due to the aforementioned health anxiety and to put that into context at a fairly young age I had a cancer scare. I had some discomfort in my groin for near enough 2 years and liked to put it down to a rollerblading injury externally while worrying and having panic attacks every single day during the year of my GCSE’s internally. I was worried about testicular cancer but in my naivety was too terrified to get it checked out, of course after a certain point I didn’t go for fear of being told I was terminally ill. I just couldn’t face it. Until one day when I actually found a lump. That was the day everything changed. I had always run on the logic that if I couldn’t find a lump then I was probably ok (Disclaimer: Do not adhere to this logic. It is the logic of a teenager too scared to face up to the possibility something may be wrong, If in doubt GET CHECKED) …But there it was. I was hysterical. I spent the next 4 days leading up to my doctors appointment unable to eat, sleep or even talk to people about how I felt. The panic attacks got worse and I felt like I was under water 90% of the time – my hearing came in and out, I went from cold flashes to hot sweats, involuntary muscle twitching and tremors to wave after wave of extremely painful headaches. It was the culmination of 2 years of utter panic, denial and an inability to deal with the cards I believed to have been dealt. I was checked out by the doctor who wasn’t particularly concerned but I refused to believe her and was booked in for an ultrasound. Long story short the scan came back fine and I have it checked every now and then to make sure everything is ok. The point is no matter what the ailment is I have at least 2 of these episodes a year about one thing or another. In 2017 It was an absolute fact I had MS, then Leukaemia and subsequently finished the year with Motor Neuron Disease, which in itself I find a dark humour in looking back on it as I must have felt really unlucky having all 3 at once.

2018 though was different. I find myself a lot more equipped to deal with this after many, many years of trying and failing. I feel like I am finally winning the war. A war that I know will never truly be over but nonetheless one that I have never felt more ready for. Every day when I wake up in bed, staring at the emptiness presented to me by the ceiling I try to conduct a certain level of mindfulness about my position in the world, what I am and what is around me. The tastes and smells of life and the joys to be found within them… it is within this that my personal cure is rooted. The first brief sip of coffee that alerts, hydrates and prepares us for the 12 hours to come, the heat and texture of the liquid. The finer details available to us in this world can make all the difference if we allow ourselves to take a brief moment to really appreciate and savour them. That is where my tonic comes from and my ability to shut out the unhealthy noise of my inner demons comes from the creation and consumption of food. I never really appreciated it during my time at school but I have an insatiable hunger to learn and create, which isn’t necessarily satisfied by my work life. I love my job I really do but I am a firm believer in having an escape from the pressure and the up’s and down’s of your 9 to 5, for me that is coming home and cooking a meal for myself and my family. It has been that way since I first started working.

I think it is important to mention at this point I am not talking about compulsive eating or gorging but rather the method and the principals of cooking that can take my out of my ‘bad place’. What it enables me to do is take me away from a place where the only thing I can consider is ‘Insert health concern here’ and take me to a place where I have to solve a problem. When done correctly, cooking is simply problem solving with incredibly enjoyable consequences and what I love about this is that it is so subjective and malleable. When looking at an open fridge I find myself doing equations, adding and subtracting items from a mental image of the prospective dish I want to create. Shopping is not something we simply have to do so we have food in our house it is an event of inspiration and promise for the week ahead. The fishmonger is my muse, The butcher my influence and the green grocer is my insight. This passion can be so much stronger than the darkness that dwells beyond logical thought and it allows me to cut through it and be myself, as we are never more ourselves than when we are doing something that we truly love.

The key thing for me is that I had to embrace who I was and what I loved doing to tread on the neck of my anxiety and not allow it to ruin my life. It inevitably still bubbles from time to time and there is no silver bullet for this ailment unfortunately, however this shouldn’t stop us from looking for answers. Whether it is exercise, cooking, playing an instrument or drawing there is sanctuary to be found there and within that sanctuary are the weapons and armour you need to fight the battle. For example when I had my rough patch in 2017 I got my pasta machine out and made at least 9 different types of pasta and copious amounts of it at that, but it was a physical and mental challenge that allowed me to escape the continuous loop of negativity and thoughts laden with impending doom.

My advice for anybody who struggles is to be mindful of the smaller joys in this life and don’t allow the demons to steal away your opportunity to enjoy this life we have been given. The world is an incredible place and we have the ability to do incredible things be it on a canvas, a plate or a stage. Never let it steal away from who you are. It will never truly go away but neither will a chronic physical injury – but yoga could help that…So make your passion your ‘mental yoga’ and keep yourself stretched and prepared to allow yourself to be yourself every day.

There’s nothing wrong with struggling and not being ok – but it is a fight you can win if you sharpen the right tools. It just so happened my tools are a smoker and a set of knives.