This blog was written by ECBC contributor and designated cook Matt, who can always be found sat on the kitchen floor reading a cook book and trying to ignore the washing up.
Imagine the scene; pot warming on the stove, steam steadily filling the kitchen, knife in your hand cutting vegetables delicately in what you imagine is a particularly chef-like manner (“rustic” is a particularly useful chef term for “bad at cutting”, right?). You’re like a Shakespearean witch, a delicious potion bubbling in the cauldron as you tap in a sprinkling of this, a dusting of that (admittedly, less of the “eye of newt and toe of frog” and more “a sprig of thyme and clove of garlic”).
For some, cooking is a chore- a vision of boredom. For me, this is self-care.
I love food. I know this is far from a unique perspective, but I get so much out of trying new dishes and delving hungrily into old. My passion goes beyond eating; I also love learning about what different cultures have created over their histories, and what influences particular foods or dishes have picked up on their way.
Food has always been a source of comfort for me. About a decade ago, I lost my dad suddenly in a work accident. The evening that we came back from the hospital, an Italian relative had turned up to do what Italians do best- cook, whatever the occasion. In this case, she boiled some spaghetti, fried some garlic in olive oil with a bit of chilli and mixed the two together. It was incredibly simple, but the comfort it gave me was immense.
But my love of food has never been as simple as just exploring the wonderful corners of the culinary world. Unfortunately, alongside the other more standard “mourning”, my dad’s death coincided with what I have decided would have probably been a temporary teenage experiment with bulimia.
It quickly became a comfort blanket; one which I didn’t give up until very recently. Reflecting now, I realise how serious the situation was. There was rarely a day where I didn’t throw up at least one meal; most of the time it was at least two meals and a binge-purge session when emotions got too much for me.
I felt incredible levels of guilt.
“I have nothing to worry about; I don’t live in a war-torn country”
“So many people are starving in the world and here you are throwing up food you didn’t want to eat in the first place”.
In the middle of last year, with the encouragement of a friend, I ended up going to counselling. It was unbelievably helpful. I had pushed back against this decision for quite a few years. When my dad died, I went with my mum and sister to family therapy. Which I am sure has helped many in similar situation. But the man we saw wasn’t particularly helpful, to put it lightly. Having just turned 16, my defiant streak decided I was going to “test” him- he asked me to point myself to a figure on a tree on how I felt. I pointed randomly.
“So you feel pretty grounded and happy then?”.
“Oh yeah”, I replied.
No of course I fucking don’t! My dad just died!
“I feel okay”, I said to him.
He swiftly moved on.
My recent counselling helped me to realise what many people had already told me; you need to find someone who’s right for you. You’re forming a counsellor-counselee relationship; like many other relationships in life, some people aren’t quite your cup of tea.
Through my sessions, I discovered that I’d been feeling massive amounts of pressure. I was not-quite 16 and my dad’s death pushed me into a role I wasn’t prepared for. People looked to me as someone who could be relied on. My mum did her absolute best, but she had just lost the love of her life and my younger sister needed her attention too. Bulimia was something that I could control fully. I knew what I’d eaten, I knew I had the ability to control what stayed and what got flushed away.
Since counselling, things have got much, much better. It’s not perfect, but I’m building up a better relationship with food. I developed a sort of mantra after watching a beautiful anime called “Your Name” (and eagerly gobbling up the accompanying book). In it, the main character’s grandmother tells her of an ancient philosophy of “musubi”. A little bit of googling since showed me that this may be more of a creation of the writer, Makoto Skinkai, than reality, however what I took away from it has been immensely helpful. In my understanding, musubi is the philosophy of everything being linked together. When you eat something, it becomes a part of your body and helps you to heal and repair. It may seem incredibly simple, but it came to me at the right time, and has led to me whispering “Musubi!” to myself, chasing away negative thoughts after a large meal.
Musubi has also been a massively helpful concept to make me see food as something our body uses to fuel our minds, not only our muscles and cells. It’s not useful to me to consider food as a treat if I’ve managed to complete a task on my to-do list (or if I’ve considered completing it really hard). But whilst it’s not a treat, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it in whatever form it takes. I’ve begun to recognise my own mind; takeaways and huge desserts don’t make me happy, even if they seem to at the time. Fish and vegetables with a huge glug of fancy olive oil that I probably spent too much money on do. As do eggs and haloumi and olives. I’ve transferred the idea of controlling what I feed my body to considering what my body needs to “combine with” to feed my mind and muscles.
Food is so important to mental health. It can be so difficult to even want to feed yourself when you’re feeling particularly down or anxious. But even boiling an egg and throwing a piece of toast in the toaster or heating up a tin of soup can make a huge difference.
For me, I’ve come to realise that, like with other forms of mental health issues, issues with food take time to heal. I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I’ve read my fair share about food over the years, and of course I’ve had 26 years of very varying degrees of healthy eating, and it has all come with one overarching truth; eating well helps. It doesn’t instantly patch over mental health issues or difficult or stressful periods in our lives, but it can give us the fuel we need to keep going and to overcome.
Throughout September, ECBC is focusing on the importance of self care. Download our free Selfcare Calendar here and keep your eyes peeled for further ideas (don’t forget to tag us in any of your #SelfcareSeptember snaps too!)