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My relationship with cooking has always been complicated.
As a kid, my parents always prepared meals for me or left enough food in the fridge any time they had to leave for longer than a day. All I had to do was heat it up.
When I got older, I met someone who truly enjoyed cooking. After living on his own for over 10 years, he knew exactly what he wanted from his food, loved experimenting and trying new things, and always surprised me with something tasty and new. He introduced to me to Mexican, American, and Asian food and, most importantly, to all the things that later became my favorites.
When we moved in together, he took over the role of the cook in our relationship, taking care of the groceries and cooking, which would make me feel lost and hungry any time he’d go on a trip or spend a day in the office.
Occasionally, I would surprise him with some complex recipe I found online, but for the most part, the idea of coming up with meals and having the skills to prepare them on a daily basis would agitate me. Needless to say, from living with my parents to moving in with a boyfriend who was an excellent cook, I didn’t have that transitional period of being alone to gain such fundamental survival skills.
I knew the basics but was afraid of trying anything new or experimenting with my food. I simply didn’t understand the art of food.
How long do you fry it? What if it’s not enough and you get poisoned?
And don’t even get me started on those three excruciating words: “Just eyeball it.”
Every time I tried to cook something, I wanted to know the exact measurements and preparation time, step-by-step, but every time I’d ask someone for advice, I heard something like:
“And then boil it until it’s done.”
“How do I know if it’s done?”
“You’ll just see.”
“And how many cups should I put?”
“Hmm, I never measure that—just eyeball it.”
And that would be my breaking point.
In next to no time, my lack of cooking had created certain dependencies. Not being able to have breakfast or lunch without my boyfriend helping me felt more and more desperate. I didn’t know what I like, and I didn’t have my own cooking or eating routines. Every day, I had to wait for him to decide when it was time to go to the store and what we were going to eat that day. Then I’d have to wait for him to prepare it, occasionally tiptoeing near the stove to ask about progress, which clearly annoyed the hell out of him.
When he and I broke up, my whole world exploded. I took our separation hard, and at some level, I still do.
Breaking up with someone you still love can be tough. You don’t have anyone to blame and no one to be mad at. There’s nothing you could’ve done differently, and the pain of losing your best friend feels unbearable.
I always considered myself prone to depression and swinging moods, even before the breakup. But then everything I’ve ever felt before seemed so insignificant compared to the mental pain and despair I felt after. The depression covered me from tip to toes, and soon enough, I’d switched from living to just existing.
Crying for several mornings, days, and nights, I didn’t have the strength to even think about food. In order to take all the pills my psychiatrist prescribed me, I had to eat something at least every night before taking them. Being on medication made it impossible for me to move very far. I couldn’t talk, because my jaw was numb, and I couldn’t walk since my muscles were atrophied. Therefore, going to the store wasn’t an option for me, and the groceries my parents would occasionally bring were just rotting in the fridge.
Every night at my medication time, I would make my way to a café down the street, sit at the same table, and order the same chicken cutlets with mashed potatoes from the same waiter.
However, the longer I was on medication and working with my therapist through Skype, the more I felt like the time to change was coming. I shared with him how useless I felt, thinking about all of the things my ex-boyfriend used to take care of for us. Maybe it was finally time to explore myself, find the things that I love, things that make me happy, and learn to take care of myself. After all, I needed to come back to life and build it the way I always wanted it to be.
I couldn’t start big.
There are many things people do when they are trying to get over a breakup. As for me, I almost adopted a third cat, because it looked exactly like my other ones, but luckily, my therapist knew what to do.
During one of our sessions, he gave me some unusual homework. He asked me to cook myself a nice dinner for an entire week without exception. No junk food, no delivery or bakery down the street — just me and my kitchen.
I must confess, the first few attempts were not edible. The chicken soup that I forgot on the stove for a couple of hours while taking a work call became some kind of chicken mush, and something that was meant to be a roasted chicken turned out to be unidentifiable. But the more I tried, and the more serious I took it, the better I felt.
Soon enough, I started to feel more fulfilled. Without big changes, I felt like I finally had something I cared about. I didn’t feel lost, and my days started to look less chaotic and more productive.
Such a fundamental thing like cooking turned out to be of the main component of my cure:
It gave me a purpose.
When you’re depressed, small things can create a purpose for you to keep going. Researching cooking channels, making notes on the recipes I’d always wanted to learn, planning my next grocery shopping trip, washing the vegetables, peeling, chopping, frying, serving — I found my temporary purpose in all those things, making my day a bit better thinking about all of the stuff I could cook for myself on a daily basis.
I had something to think about before bed that wasn’t related to my ex-boyfriend. Am I running out of milk? I should remember to get eggs tomorrow if I want to do this bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich for breakfast.
It makes me feel in control.
There’s something about preparing my meals and being in charge of my own nutrition. I know what’s currently in my fridge, which spices I’m running out of, and exactly what I am going to make myself once I get home.
I don’t have to wait until someone else is hungry to eat, and I don’t find myself running to the closest café and waiting 30 minutes for my food to come — I can simply fix something out of the things I find in my kitchen.
I never thought I’d find cooking therapeutic. But when I cook, I don’t have any distraction from the outside world—the only thing that worries me is making sure that the meal is turning out the way it’s supposed to.
It is that moment of the day when my head is clear, and my hands are busy. I can finally be alone with my thoughts, but not overthink whatever sensitive issues are on my mind, since I still have to keep track of what is happening on my table.
I open a bottle of wine, turn on the latest episode of my favorite show, and begin to create. Suddenly, my evening doesn’t seem so empty and lonely.
It makes my mornings brighter.
Mornings can be especially hard when you’re trying to get out of a depression. If crying yourself to sleep helps you to escape reality, waking up actually forces you to face that reality.
Most of the time, I didn’t have enough motivation or strength to do it. And though, during the first month of depression, even Queen Elizabeth knocking on my bedroom door wouldn’t motivate me to get out of the bed and start the day, at some point I had to start looking for a purpose.
As it turns out, there’s no better way to start your morning than making a plate of fluffy American pancakes. I remember how after one particularly emotional night, I woke up not knowing what to do. Suddenly, the thought of pancakes hit me. I’d always wanted to learn how to make them. Why not do it today?
I ran to the store down the street for some milk, butter, and berries, and was already near the stove 10 minutes later, watching some German cook on my phone flipping her pancakes for the camera.
When everything was ready, I put them in a few piles and decorated with the berries I just got. Everything looked so tasty; I couldn’t believe I could make something like that so quick.
Believe it or not, my morning got so much brighter just because of a few piles of pancakes. Making and decorating pancakes should become everyone’s weekend morning tradition, whether they like eating them or not.
It broadens my horizon.
At some point in my cooking journey, I stopped limiting myself by choosing to cook only familiar things. I didn’t want to cook chicken anymore, when there was so much more out there.
As soon as I started to feel better and was able to be around people, I invited one of my friends over, whose relationship with cooking was on a professional level. He brought me into the world of Israeli and Asian cuisine and gave me the greatest gift I could ask for — the ability to cook spring rolls, my most favorite food of all time.
All of that improved my relationship with food in general. I’ve become open to experimenting while cooking, and trying out new food when I’m out. Before, being afraid of new food, I’d normally go to Applebee’s, searching for a familiar taste. Now, I’m happy to stop at some local restaurant and try Caribbean food.
Experimenting with food is not only a great way to keep yourself busy, it can extend your general knowledge of foreign cultures, and it gives you an opportunity to find new favorite foods.
It creates new routines.
I’ve always been afraid of routines. Being trapped in one seemed like a nightmare, and therefore, I was constantly trying to avoid them. Cooking can become the most common and essential routine, and that is one of the reasons I never really liked doing it. But one day, my therapist told me that everything in our lives is a routine. Something that doesn’t seem like a routine for you, can be one for somebody else.
After all, life is just one big routine, no matter how much you’re trying to run away from it. But sometimes, after going through pain and loss, we really need a good routine to feel in charge of our lives again, even if it’s something as simple as making a meal, loading the dishwasher, or cleaning the kitchen after yourself.
Surprisingly, my new routine turned out to be pleasurable. It constantly creates a mini purpose to life, gives me a lot of confidence and pleasure, and most significantly , it helped me to fight the worst depression I’ve ever had.
And now, whenever my evening feels lonely or I find myself feeling blue or exhausted, I put on my headphones, take out the cutting board, and open the fridge. It is my me time.