Sara, the author, looking very glam and posing with a cookbook - Photo courtesy of Iconic Pinups
The author with a particularly awesome-looking copy of Meals with a Foreign Flair / Photo: courtesy of Iconic Pinups

When I was a kid and I skipped a dose of medication, my mother would say, "Remember to follow your recipe." I started having panic attacks when I was eight and slid into my first bout of deep depression when I was 14. Now that I’m grown, I realize my mom didn’t use the word recipe by mistake. Although I have half a lifetime of experience in therapy and only half a year of experience in the kitchen, I’ve learned quickly that mental healthcare is a hell of a lot like cooking.

My parents never did much in the kitchen—we ate a lot of fast food picked up after the normal workday, sometimes in the quick hour before one of them had to tackle another work project at home. (My dad always worked on the laptop during the nightly news, and for a few years, my mom had grad school in library studies at night). Unsurprisingly, I became an adult who lived on quick meals made from packaged stuff engineered in food science laboratories. I didn’t start actually cooking with real ingredients until this year. 

I guess that’s why I was only recently struck by the notion that, just as many common dishes can be made dozens of different ways, many mental health issues can be treated in any number of ways, and you have to play around with the ingredients to find the right combination for you.  

Of course, the tasks of experimenting in a kitchen and inside your own brain are not exactly created equal. For an amateur cook, it’s fun to try out versions of the same dish, trying out braised Brussels sprouts and roasted ones, discovering which you like best. But it’s the opposite of fun when you’re stuck with crippling depression, and the knowledge that the new meds you’re trying out may not kick in for two weeks, or even two months. 

This year, like so many folks with or without a history of depression, I’ve been down in the dumps a lot, although I didn’t want to kill myself, mostly. (This is how I determine if my depression is really bad: Do I want to kill myself, mostly? Then my depression is really bad. Do I not want to kill myself, mostly? Excellent news! I can work with that.)

 It is impossible to cook one’s way out of depression, but cooking distracts you from your troubles. You have to focus on the ingredients before you. You have to take care with heat. You have to be present.

But despite my medical problems of the mental sort, I really do have a naturally upbeat disposition. And as someone who has managed on a few occasions to resist the siren’s call of suicide, I tend to walk around with a lot of gratitude—I always say that’s my only religion. Simple things bring me odd delight, like the knowledge that I get to live on my own and stay up as late as I want. I also greatly enjoy taking out the recycling, paying the heating bill, and riding in a car without experiencing a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching panic attack.

This is probably because there was a time when I wondered if I’d ever make it to my 30s, much less get to live on my own outside my parents’ house without close monitoring. I remember very clearly what it was like to be afraid to leave the house even to bring garbage to the end of the driveway, so perhaps you can see why I get a jazzy charge out of taking out that glamorous blue recycling bag.

This year, I carried in my heart all my gratitude, and the knowledge that I was very, very lucky. And still, I got depressed. But there are recipes for combating depression, and recipes for a life well-lived. In the wake of this election, I tried to follow this one: Donate what you can, volunteer, and support and encourage elected politicians with respectable track records. And for the first time in my life, I’ve started following real recipes. I began to cook. 

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It is impossible to cook one’s way out of depression, but cooking can distract you from your troubles. You have to focus on the ingredients before you. You have to take care with heat. You have to be present. And more tangibly, it is very possible to save some money by cooking at home instead of ordering delivery or grabbing fast food every day, even when you work seven days a week and think you don’t have time to cook (chances are high that, yeah, you actually do).

I make basic things: oatmeal, toast, scrambled eggs, candied yams, Brussels sprouts a million ways to Sunday. I live alone, so I cook for me and me only. I like that. I like that I’m in my own little cooking school of one, guided by my small collection of cookbooks.

Sara's cookbooks
My small collection of cookbooks.
The Italian and Palestinian cookbooks are a shout-out to my mom’s heritage, as well as my inborn fondness for the humble and glorious chickpea. I threw in the French cookbook because everyone needs some Julia Child in their life. I’ve ignored dad’s side thus far because they’re Irish and, well, you know. The book about herbs is on my counter because I’d like to start a little garden in my narrow concrete alley if I can figure out how to do it right.

I am trying to figure out how to do things right, to follow the recipe that’s right for me. To that end, I’ve determined it’s time to get back into regular therapy. I called a few psychologists until one called me back. He can’t see me for a couple months, but he said that so long as I’m not in crisis and feel OK most of the time, there are some things I can do on my own that can help a lot, no matter which therapist I end up choosing. He gave me a recipe to follow:

  • First, he said to read a particular book. I’d tell you the title, but I haven’t started reading it yet, so I don’t know if it’s any good. 
  • Next, he said to meditate once a day for even five minutes at a time using a mindfulness technique that feels safe and good. Don’t worry about being perfect. Just do it.
  • Finally, he said to get moderate-to-vigorous cardiovascular exercise six days per week for 30 minutes at a time. He said I should check with my doctor first before I start any exercise plan. And of course, if I feel like I’m in an emergency, call 911 and all that stuff.

It sounded like a pretty good recipe to me. So I bought the book. I’ve started meditating. And tomorrow I see my doctor for a physical, and we’re going to talk about the whole exercise thing. 

Sara made unexpected cinnamon bread
Cinnamon bread!

Tonight I took a photograph to prove that I have indeed started using my kitchen for something other than a place to display Game of Thrones refrigerator magnets and a poster of The Adventures of Pete & Pete. The photo is blurry, but you can see the dough (and my Bride of Chucky t-shirt). I thought I was making pizza, but it turned out to be cinnamon bread. With cooking, as in life, you can plan it out, but in the end, you just never know.

Sara Benincasa is an author and comedian. She's @sarajbenincasa on Twitter. Her weekly zine is The Stories.

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