Trigger warning: eating disorder and other shaky mental health related events
I write this piece after at least four days without cooking. Not that I don’t want to be in my kitchen and spend hours kneading some dough, cutting veggies and baking cookies. It’s that my body simply refuses to cooperate: I am too sick to stand up. And I miss cooking. I miss the heat of the stove. I miss the cold of the fridge. I miss the sound of onions caramelising in the pan. Because for me, cooking is not simply preparing food; cooking is expressing myself, it is healing my wounds, it is exploring a whole new dimension.
I cannot visualise shapes. If you tell me to imagine a carrot, I will simply see the letters c-a-r-r-o-t, written on a blank canvas. I will hear the word too. My voice says carrot deep in my head. I genuinely know what a carrot is, but I cannot picture it. I know it is orange, elongated, quite hard. But those elements do not come together to form a clear photograph of the concept of a carrot. However, I can distinctly taste it.
The simple word ‘carrot’ awakes my palate: I feel the sweetness of the veggie; I can dip it in humus, grasp that subtle garlic note; or I can grill it with peanut butter, and perceive the roughness of the paste. I can build a whole meal in my mind; I can mix tastes without even opening my mouth. Cooking is my art. Sometimes, like a musician, playing a piece of Mozart, I opt for the classics: a delicious potato gratin, or some crêpes. But I can also do the opposite, I can mix all spices, only having a broad idea of the destination I will reach. Cooking is exploring; it is playing with your senses; it is being strongly creative or deeply traditional; it is a world within our world.
However, I have not always felt this way in regard to cooking, or to food in general. I used to control what I was eating, following that diagram they taught us in primary school: half a plate of green, composed of fruits and veggies; about a quarter could be grains, but they had to be whole; a quarter was reserved for proteins, but no red meat, no cheese, no processed food; finally, the only drink allowed was water. I became a control freak, forgot to listen to my body, and only learnt how to “cook healthy” food. Being a vegetarian did not help on this matter. Don’t take me wrong, I became vegetarian and then vegan for ethical and environmental reasons, not as a way to regulate my diet. But being a vegetarian seven years ago was not the same as it is now. With a family not knowing anything about it, the only resources I had access to were created by fit 30-year-old vegans who practised yoga everyday and were into mindfulness. On paper, they had their shit together. And as a 13-year-old teenager, I wanted to be the same: I wanted to be pretty, to lose that apparently “excessive” weight, to be “healthy”. I fell into a form of orthorexia: I was obsessed with what I was eating. I was obsessed with being skinny, having soft skin and shiny hair. I was obsessed with “detoxicating” my body, as if my kidneys were failing at their task. At this point, it was not only refusing to listen to my body, I was not even giving it room to express itself. I drew a clear border between my mind and the rest of who I was. I started to dissociate, not only when I was anxious or exhausted, but on a daily basis: I was seeing myself from the outside, I was not feeling anything. To strengthen that fence splitting me in half, I drank, I took excessive doses of paracetamol, I forgot I had a body – and doing this is particularly easy when you have physical health issues pushing you towards different treatments. But dividing myself into pieces of confetti did not prevent me from seeing my body changing, not fitting in my jeans anymore, finding myself ugly. I started to skip some meals to “compensate” for the calories I had eaten on the previous day. I was consistently contemplating the shape of my thighs and my hips, finding them disgustingly wide. I got haunted by the amount of sugar I was eating. Oil started to scare me to the point that even eating almonds was not thinkable. I felt like everything was dangerously unhealthy when, in reality, the only unhealthy thing was my relationship with food.
With time and some therapy, I started to heal. I would not claim that my relationship with food is perfect, but, at least, it is way better than it used to be. And I must admit, covid and the lockdown helped a lot. Without school or anything to do, I could explore cooking more in depth. I learnt how to make my own vegan burgers, how to cook pho, how to bake homemade pie dough. I took the time to really Cook, to connect more with the tastes, the smells, the sounds, the textures, and the colours. I started to use cooking as a medium to express myself. Now, when I go through a phase of anxiety and overwhelm, I always have rice and soy sauce. When I feel lonely, I cook rösti. When I feel good, I experience, I mix ingredients, I discover new recipes. I used to be armed with antidepressants and a therapist, now I am armed with a cabinet almost always full and a very small pan. I used to discuss how I was feeling, sitting on an uncomfortable couch, now I sauté my emotions, and have delicious meals.
To all my fellow people struggling with food: healing is a process. I still track my relationship with food, to not fall back into that autodestructive cycle. If food gives you anxiety, find yourself a therapist, there is no need to be scared to eat.
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