Cooking Out of the Darkness — One Woman’s Postpartum Story

Nicole and her baby in 2008 after the birth of her first daugther.

Imagine a scenario where you, or someone you love, is suffering from anxiety or depression, and your healthcare provider says that one promising support strategy is to prepare more home-cooked meals, and to learn to cook if you don’t know how.

Jacqueline K. Gollan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says, “Cooking and baking are pursuits that fit a type of therapy known as behavioral activation. The goal is to alleviate depression by boosting positive activity, increasing goal-oriented behavior and curbing procrastination and passivity.”

When I ask clients in my private practice if they’ve ever suffered from anxiety and depression, many respond with something to the effect of: “Anxiety, yes, a lot. Depression, no, never.”

The World Health Organization calls depression “a common illness” that affects a more than 264 million people of all ages, globally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety disorders often go hand-in-hand with depression. If anxiety and depression are often two sides of the same coin, why the shame and stigma around depression? Why is it so hard to say “Yes, I have,” or even “Yes, I am”?

My clients’ reticence makes me want to share my story. Because I have been there.

Nine years ago, I was 33 years old and at the beginning of motherhood. I had two beautiful daughters — a toddler and a newborn. My husband and I owned a cute home. I had dear family and close friends. There was no shortage of love and opportunity in my life.

I also had postpartum depression.

As a new mom, I felt I was constantly drowning in exhaustion and fear. Oddly, looking back at this period, it was my guilt and shame for feeling those things that remained the heaviest weight of all, even many years after getting healthy, both physically and emotionally.

One spring morning during that time — a time when I wore a lavender bathrobe whenever I could because changing into yoga clothes was akin to climbing a mountain — I literally crawled into my bathroom. My eyes were unusually sensitive to the springtime light, and I had a throbbing headache. But the most disturbing symptom was a shooting pain searing the skin over my rib cage.

I opened my robe. A line of blisters dotted across a rib on my right side. I could tell that the burning trail of little bumps started somewhere on my back, and a single track continued horizontally toward my right breast. My nipple was the trail’s painful end point, a cruel joke to play on a nursing mother.

That afternoon, in my primary care doctor’s office, I choked back tears and said, “I think I’m doing something wrong.”

This was the uncomfortable truth: I was doing everything to make it seem like I was holding it together, but my body was breaking down. What those around me mistook for energy was simply a symptom of being hyped up on worry and anxiety. In reality, sleep was fleeting. Intellectually, I knew that being a new mother was supposed to be tiring, but this was beyond normal fatigue. I was totally depleted.

My doctor handed me a prescription. I had a toddler at my side, an eight-month-old baby in my arms, a household to manage, a freelance business to run, dark circles under my eyes, postpartum depression, and now I also had shingles.

***

Almost a decade has passed since then, and a lot has changed.

Shortly after those shingles appeared, my acupuncturist said, “Nicole, you have to eat better.” And a small, quiet voice inside of me whispered, “Nicole, he is right.”

I started to develop the belief that cooking and eating at home was the single biggest and boldest move I could make to improve my overall health, including, as I soon came to realize, my mental health.

So I began. I went to the grocery store and bought ingredients from the perimeter — produce, meat, mostly perishable. I went back to my kitchen, and although I did it painfully and pitifully at the start, cooking was an action, and that forward motion ultimately saved me, time and time again.

When I started cooking, I had few tools. I had no skills nor good instincts, and everything I tried to do in the kitchen took many times longer than it should have. I cried into stews, I screamed into cabinets, and I felt defeated a lot of the time. But somehow I kept myself going because unlike anything else I had tried until that point, the practice of cooking was going to yield some sort of result. Even if the culinary results were as imperfect as I was incompetent, those results were often as nourishing as the process itself.

As it turns out, “The reward part of the brain, called the striatum, is active when we predict and experience reward and relief,” says Dr. Gollan. “Reward experience and learning can be broken down into two concepts: mastery (how well you do something) and pleasure (how good it feels). Cooking and eating can be a space and activity that promotes both dimensions of reward.”

Back then, I didn’t know what I know now: Cooking real food was the warm, glimmering string of lights that lit my path out of darkness and depression. Simply peeling a root vegetable and witnessing a pop of colorful flesh reveal itself from under the root’s dull skin sparked my curiosity. Mincing a clove of garlic or chopping an onion could be precise and neat or wild and irregular, but either way I had to focus on using my knife and not on my worries. The smell of a soup simmering on the stovetop was like a salve on my frayed nerves and still has that effect on me today.

Over time, I got better in the kitchen. Not only was I able to nourish myself more wholly, I was able to feed the little mouths that called me Mama and then bring my husband back to health when he got very sick years later. Eventually, I was able to cook with more ease. Sitting down for a meal became a meeting point, a nexus. It plugged me back in.

Cooking is about community, creativity and closeness. Are there times when it all goes by the wayside and I call one of our favorite takeout restaurants without a second thought? You bet.

On occasion, I’m asked if I eat out at restaurants, and my answer is an emphatic yes. I consider chefs, and those involved in the process of putting food on tables in our communities, to be some of the most important positive change makers when it comes to our collective health.

When I first started talking about the need for more home cooking in our society, I stopped short of telling my story, in part because the beginning of my cooking journey involved motherhood, babies and essentially being barefoot in my kitchen. Would some people feel that my platform is about women belonging in the kitchen in these modern times, after so many women fought hard to get out of it?

This is not only about women. This is not about being in the kitchen alone. Those who are able to cook in any capacity — men and women, teenagers, and even children — can benefit from the action of cooking, the incremental building of this skillset, the eventual joy of mastery and the practical, yet significant, outcome — nourishing food. There are people who need this type of medicine, and it is indeed powerful medicine.

“Therapeutic goal setting, like cooking, is focused on activating a person’s reward experience and learning”, says Dr. Gollan. “Mastery is defined by the patient, and thus, it can accommodate a person’s gender politics and gender roles. It is about using a scientifically-proven therapy to treat a medical illness, and thus, our focus is on the patient’s recovery.”

I am aware that cooking from scratch may not be aligned with the way many of us endeavor to do life in 2020. Most clients who come to see me are busy and overwhelmed. They’re often hoping for efficiencies, with ways to make eating right faster, cheaper and easier. Strolling through a farmers market, beholden to what is in season and locally grown, and then spending precious time cooking are certainly not the solutions they’re expecting to hear.

I am the first to acknowledge that it is hard — sourcing ingredients, creating a plan, executing in the kitchen and sustaining the practice is work. It’s especially challenging when you’re new at it. This paradigm gives us a unique opportunity to look at our lives more closely, but also begs us to find ways to make the worthwhile practice of cooking accessible to more people.

When I began cooking, I didn’t have a guide, and I experienced many setbacks along the way, but my hope is that I can be part of a solution for those who are most in need of the healing that cooking allowed for me.

When someone is at a very low point of his or her life, even the simplest of tasks feels impossible, as cooking once felt for me. But given a roadmap, inspiration and the audacity to love and care for oneself, a person can express that love and care in the form of cooking and nourishing his or her body.

Moving forward often means taking one small but revolutionary step at a time. That could simply mean peeling a carrot and slicing it into bright orange carrot sticks. With that one small culinary action, a nourishing process can take hold and a transformation begins.

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