Every month, I’m dropping a little personal reflection here, with some links.
Content warning: This piece makes brief, non-descriptive references to suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depression. In case you or anyone you know might need it, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1–800–273-TALK (8255).
A few months ago, I flung confetti of battered-butter chunks and flour across the room thanks to my inability to use a hand mixer, the cat side-eying me from his safe spot under the table. It was an act of giving up and giving in, morphed into a ritual the same way you look up and realize the walk you started taking every day around the same time has become a saving grace: Batch after batch, accidentally substituting lemon extract for vanilla extract only once, I mastered pan-banging cookies. The process was punctuated, as the name might suggest, with smacks of cookie-thunder, the metal hitting the counter, echoing through the house as the middles puffed up only to crinkle down around the edges, like a sugary breath being held, then exhaled. I did the same.
Over the winter, I’d tweeted that though breaks shouldn’t be about productivity, I was proud of myself for mastering the cookies. It was the more whimsical version of a half-truth: I started baking them because I needed a tangible, inconsequential reminder that I didn’t have to do things the way I’d always done them, at a time where I couldn’t imagine feeling differently than I felt right then.
I had not been able to answer, confidently, when my body wouldn’t feel like chronic illness was turning the insides outward. I had not been able to answer when family members with long-haul COVID effects would feel any better or be “out of the woods,” since I had a feeling we were just standing at the treeline. I had not been able to articulate to anyone, really, that the threads tethering me to my own life were fraying more quickly than I could grab hold of them and tie a knot — that my mental health, long-ignored under my favorite emotional shoulder-shrug of “not that bad,” had deteriorated, and I was lost. I had not been able to answer how to fix any of this — my own problems or the real ones of everyone I encountered. But I could make those damn cookies.
When I opened the computer window to the recipe, it wasn’t because I decided to finally develop a skill I could bring the results of to a party someday, when everyone else knew how to mix a good drink or brought appetizers I never knew whether to eat with a fork or with my hands. It wasn’t even because I needed a hobby, or some levity. But I needed to touch something, to finish something, to do something with an outcome I could see, one that wasn’t consequential if I failed but joyous if I didn’t.
It still doesn’t feel like my place to share this — because of the pressure to have “fixed” it; because sharing something I haven’t “figured out” feels risky and too vulnerable; because other people have it tangibly, immeasurably worse — but: I baked cookies because battling with the batter felt more manageable than battling my brain, which is what the steady thump of depression and anxiety felt like.
This is not the part where I say that finding a hobby was a magic cure, or that changing my focus changed my life. That isn’t what happened for me. Shame of past mistakes, shame of having not done it all perfectly, shame of failing when and where it counted, felt all-consuming, nestled in anxiety I couldn’t burrow my way out of no matter how much I tried. And I did: I tried to finish a book, to show up to the job I was lucky to have, to be a good friend and a good daughter and a person who tries to do more good than otherwise. I tried to hang on. You look for things to cling to; I looked for things to hold, things more tangible, more immediate, than “it won’t always feel like this” and “there’s so much more to do.” Instead, I found loose ends: Texts I hadn’t responded to, hard conversations I hadn’t had, changes I hadn’t made, what I’d failed at, lists of things I should’ve done better as long as a grocery list for a family of 6.
Practicalities felt impossible. When you feel this way, it’s hard to fathom feeling differently. Even as I imagined a better world — and tried to support and listen to people whose knowledge and lived experiences should guide that vision — I couldn’t imagine me, personally, feeling better, and then felt selfish for feeling that way. My expertise is in trying to keep other people’s peace — to feel I was failing at that meant I’d failed at everything, and my own peace was nowhere to be found.
Seeking proof that things didn’t have to be the way they’d always been, I decided to bake something that, years ago, I wouldn’t have touched. As I finally learned to ask for help and waited to see if medication worked and realized my illusion of keeping some kind of peace wasn’t tying everything together in my life, but unraveling the wobbly spool around which my self-worth was spun, I banged. Multiple batches at a time, every single Friday night. I ate them during breakfast by the fireplace with coffee, consumed more dough than is advisable by the FDA, and pushed them off on family members and friends. The steady rhythm of the baking sheet metal against the wood counter, the conversations about dreams and future walls painted blue, the whirr of the mixer and hum of Britney Spears’ songs playing from the speaker gave me a rhythm, too. It was a minute kind of Midas touch, this small and silly thing; this space-creator that changed nothing except giving me a chance to think: I am doing something a year ago I didn’t know how to do. I am eating something I wouldn’t have touched a few years back.
And so, if I could do this one thing differently, that meant, surely, other things could be different too. I could find the right medication. I could treat my physical health. Instead of dwelling on past things I’d do differently and feeling the shame of regret waft over me, I could actually do them differently. I could show up for other people; I could learn what it means to show up for me. It means there could also be joy. Joy could be different.
Here is the link to preorder the book that I did finish, which is out May 4th. I’d be very appreciative of your preorder! My plug is that it is paperback, and thus a little less expensive, has a colorful cover, and hopefully makes anyone reading it feel a bit less alone in “figuring it out.”
Here are some stories I wrote recently that I loved reporting, including homesickness while at home, how the pandemic has impacted parents who are teenagers, and how the “youth” label impacts young activists and organizers.