Weekend Reading, 5/5/19
May 5, 2019

Weekend Reading | The Full Helping

My voice is hoarse from singing, and lots of it. I was at a kirtan last night at my yoga studio, basking in that awesome community and the friendships I’ve made within it. The kirtan featured mash ups of Vedic chants and contemporary songs: the Beatles, Magnetic Fields, Madonna. The kirtan purist in me was a little affronted when I heard that the program would work this way, but I’m glad that I kept an open mind. It was wonderful.

Kirtan and yoga: two experiences that make me feel both light and joyous. I emphasize this fact because this month, May, is mental health awareness month, and because lightness in particular is not a sensation that comes easily to me. I’ve struggled with depression, on and off, for a long time. Even when it’s distant, which it often is, I have a melancholy temperament. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, and with it the tendency toward excessive rumination, seriousness, and sadness.

You probably wouldn’t realize this meeting me for the first time. I tend to come across as confident and upbeat. It’s not an affect; I’m both of those things in many ways. But, like many people with melancholy temperaments, I’ve learned to keep my sadness bounded. The sunny disposition is something that I cultivate consciously, for myself as much as for others, working against the pull of dark moods.

This is a hard thing to admit to in the age of Instagram, with all of its glossy imagery and carefully curated narratives. It’s especially hard to admit when you spend a lot of time on social media, by choice and by necessity. It runs against the “positive vibes only” trope, which seems more and more predominant these days.

I don’t take that imperative too seriously (and I don’t actually dislike it, depending on the context), but how to make sense of it when your positive vibes share space with a whole lot of not-so-positive ones? I often hear that we “choose our thoughts,” but is that the case when thoughts are both repetitive and intrusive? And, while “happiness is a choice” feels spot-on to me sometimes, how true is it, really, when you have depression?

I’ve been writing about eating disorder recovery for a long time: naming it, owning it, disclosing the little, unsavory details. That, combined with the softness and self-compassion that recovery teaches, has allowed me to release pretty much all of the shame that surrounds the disease. It doesn’t trouble me to talk about it, even when that means talking about the messiness and non-linearity of my recovery.

I’m not sure I feel this same lack of shame when it comes to talking about other mental health struggles. I’m getting used to naming my depression and anxiety, but there’s still a moment of hesitation when I do it—less when I’m here than when I’m out in the world. It’s not hard for me to admit that I’m anxious—heck, so many of us are—but admitting to having had panic attacks is a little different. And it’s hardest of all to talk about the fact that I’ve self-harmed in the past, though that’s an honest part of my story, too.

When one’s culture is heavily oriented toward the conscious cultivation of a positive mindset and a happy posture, difficulty accessing happiness can feel like failure. Mental health struggles, no matter how hard we’re working to de-stigmatize them, can feel like failure, too.

As I was writing this post, I asked myself a question that I’ve asked about my eating disorder: would I take it back if I could? It’s a trick question, of course. The disorder, like everything else, is part of who I am. Wishing that I could erase it would be akin to wishing I weren’t myself, and—the obvious quips aside—that’s not actually what I want. ED recovery, with all of its lessons, is part of who I am, too.

I don’t pretend to regard my mental health struggles as blessings. That feels too pat, and it’s not exactly the truth. I often wish I could feel contented more easily, that I didn’t obsessively overthink things, that negative thought patterns weren’t so often my default. I wish that sadness didn’t sometimes descend on me without warning, like stormy weather. But these patterns aren’t active choices; they’re tendencies that are built into my foundation, so to speak. I have do a degree of choice about how I manage them, and I’ve developed a toolkit that invites me to challenge them when I can.

In the meantime, I do my best to make peace with myself and my history, which is another skill that recovery has gifted me with. I take comfort in the fact that happiness may be a little elusive for me, but I have steady access to a wide spectrum of feeling. It includes joy, awe, pleasure, and love. It also includes grief, anger, and loss. Anyone who has experienced depression as a kind of numbness and absence of feeling—which is how it has felt to me at its very worst—might understand when I say that experiencing true feeling, both painful and pleasurable, registers as a gift.

Depression and anxiety have taught me a lot, just as anorexia did. They’ve taught me to give thanks for what’s sweet. We read a lot about practicing gratitude these days. It always sounded like a worthy exercise to me in the past, but depression is actually what has taught me how to do it. Without fearing pain or despair, I give thanks for every moment of gladness.

Depression and anxiety have also taught me to stop sweating the small stuff. This isn’t to say that I don’t get agitated about work, relationships, and family—who doesn’t? But the little things—annoying encounters, train delays, boring errands, crummy weather—they don’t bother me the way that they used to. It’s not because I’m an especially calm or sensible person. It’s because I remember how deeply unhappy I was a few years ago, and when I remember that, life’s little irritations stop mattering quite so much. Having fought for happiness, I’m eager not to squander it.

A couple years ago, at Maria‘s suggestion, I read Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom. In it, she writes “wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others . . . I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. ”

These words capture the best way I have of understanding my own struggles with mental health. As long as the struggles are there, and they probably always will be, I consider the ways in which they’ve made me stronger, more resilient, more empathic. I ask myself whether they’ve enriched my perspective on life or made me more appreciative of love and kindness. The answer to both questions is yes.

Mental Health Awareness month or not, I’m glad for any opportunity to create a real, non-judgmental, and compassionate conversation about the mental illnesses that affect so many of us. If you’ve got one, or a couple, know that we’re all in it together. Today and always.

Happy May. Here are some recipes and reads.

Recipes

Kathy’s easy blueberry sauce is perfect for topping waffles, pancakes, oatmeal, French toast, and all of the other breakfast things. I’ve been making a similar one with frozen blueberries this winter, but I’m going to take her advice and add some cornstarch for a little thickening!

Speaking of blueberries, Richa’s blueberry muffin energy bites will be perfect fuel for my upcoming food service rotation.

I eat a ridiculous number of breakfast tacos. I think Jasmine and Chris’ vegan refried beans may need to become a new staple ingredient.

For the olive lovers out there, a simple, elegant, briny spring pasta.

Finally, my sweet friend Jessie May is launching a vegan cookbook club, and she kindly chose Food52 Vegan as one of the first selections! She’s sharing the book’s muesli now on her blog (and reminding me to cook more from this one, which has gotten a little neglected since Power Plates came out).

Reads

1. Lots of good news about the mainstreaming of vegan meats this week.

2. Julie Kim has written a brave and beautiful essay about her daughter’s congenital genetic disorder how it has changed her experience of parenting.

3. I think Erika‘s baking experiments are mesmerizing, and I loved this Taste profile of her work.

4. A new study finds that girls who have serious or repeated infections in childhood are at higher risk for developing eating disorders in adolescence. It’s unclear whether anti-infective agents or psychological factors (stress and trauma associated with serious illness) explain the association, but it’s interesting. The New York Times reports.

5. Not a new article, but I just found and loved Robert Sietsema’s ode to NYC’s last standing hippie cafés—places where a macro plates are in abundance and TVP and seitan continue to take starring culinary roles. This is the way I love to eat, and it always will be, no matter what other plant-based trends pop up. Reading the article reminded me of my own farewell tribute to the late, great Angelica Kitchen. Thank goodness that a few of these old-school treasures are still around.

Tomorrow morning I begin my food service management rotation. I don’t have a schedule yet, so I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but I’m taking a second to acknowledge that I’m only two rotations away from completion of the internship (it’ll be done mid- or late July). My stamina is waning a little, but I’m still going. Sending you love, and see you around here this week.

xo

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    7 Comments
  1. Hi,
    It’s the very first time I read your blog. I discovered it while updating a few of my recipes and I was looking for a new (or just slightly different vegan pesto) and I decided to read this entry because I thought it was a very nice idea to introduce your readers to articles you saw on the Internet.

    What you wrote, I wondered at times if I hadn’t wrote it myself (forgive the grammar mistakes, English is not my first language!) because it felt like such a big part of my life, my journey. A lot of your opinions are also my own, a lot of your struggles are my own too, present and past.
    Thank you for writing this blog post. I might not have followed your blog if it wasn’t for reading this. Now, I’m definitely going to read past posts and look at recipes… wait for your next recipe and post.

    I really appreciate your writing too. It’s refreshing to read such a blog post from someone who does mainly recipes (in my very limited time here anyway, it was my impression)

    Thank you ! You’ve gained a new reader 🙂 xxxx

  2. Dear Gena, First of all “kirtan purist””–love loved that and also loved that the mash up was fun for you and your beautiful open mind. That might awaken my “kirtan purist” aspect at first as well! I love all you wrote here about depression and the difficulty sometimes of choosing happiness. I think a good definition of depression is when one CAN”T access that field of choice. You write so honestly and beautifully about your experience with it and I am honored to read it and be in an ongoing exchange with you about so many things. I loved that you quoted Rachel Naomi Remen about our wounds bringing us to compassionate service to others. Though indeed they are not a blessing per se, they are powerful teachers. More the blessing I’d say, at least in my own life, is my ease at being distracted from them by some little thing that carches my eye or makes me laugh in the midst of difficulty–especially when I’m not looking to find it. Anyway, I was just so grateful for you and your life and our friendship and all you’ve brought out in me to consider when I read this, that I at least wanted to say as much, though all the particulars or some of them that came when I first read it have lost their more specific details. But the gist is here. And the food looks great too! love you lots

  3. Gena,

    I think it is brave and honest of you to write so freely about your thoughts and struggles regarding mental illness; both what you experience and what others may experience too. Thank you.

    One of the hardest things that we are tasked with as conscious beings with big, thinking brains is knowing ourselves; how we are made and what we think. What is our place in the world and how do we fit in? This figuring out business never ends and I don’t think that it should. We never arrive at our “final, best selves” and are always a work in progress. (It’s the illusion of social media that people are stagnant.) And all of our parts contribute to the whole. The good, the bad, and the ugly all count towards making us who we are as humans.

    So, here’s to Mental Health Awareness Month, to your new rotation and to sunny skies (at least for a little while). Thank you for your post and I hope things go well with you.
    Libby

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Love hearing honest accounts of mental health! So encouraging and real and heart warming. And important! I struggle with my own mental illness issues and reading other’s understandings of theirs is just so affirming in a way I can’t describe.

    You somehow seem to talk every week about a topic that is really hitting me hard in my own life at the time. This is no exception. I really appreciate your honesty and views on things! Keep them coming!

    xx

  5. Hello Gena,
    I loved your thoughts in this post on mental health/illness and on having a melancholy disposition. I, too, have a melancholy disposition! I am long since recovered from my ED, and indeed food and cooking are a huge source of vital pleasure in my life these days. But my melancholia and anxiety have never gone away, no matter how hard I’ve worked at reducing them. Indeed, as I get older, I find their levels increasing, rather than decreasing. I think this is to do with the fact that the ageing process inevitably involves frailty — something many therapists and practitioners who are engaged in the process of helping people ‘recover’ from EDs and other mental illnesses don’t necessarily always acknowledge.
    The best tool I have found to help me accept and live with my predisposition towards melancholia, with its attendant rumination, overanalysing and worrying, is to remind myself that the most important thing is for me to always seek meaning in my life and in my interactions. Whenever I find myself worrying that I am doing things ‘wrongly’ or that I am ‘failing’ or that I am just plain ‘not good enough’ (all of which are fears I find myself ruminating over every day), I take myself back to the concepts of meaningfulness and of compassion. I ask myself: Am I interacting with other people meaningfully? Am I acting compassionately towards myself and others? Did I do both of those things today, even if I did nothing else? If I can honestly answer ‘yes’ to those questions (e.g. yes, I had a meaningful conversation with someone today; or: yes, I provided a service in the course of my work that was useful to the recipient; or: yes, I reacted with compassion in that conversation), then my fears about failing and doing things wrongly fall away and become what they are: irrelevant.
    Thank you for bringing up the subject. As always, your thoughts are wise and generous.
    R xo

  6. Loonnnggggg time reader, never commented. As a person with an ED, depression, and intermittent self-harm during my teens hx (& being two months away from finally being a clinical psychologist), I can’t thank you enough for bringing to light the granularity that comes with disclosure. We all struggle with not just “one thing” and I can honestly say I have never met a human, patient or friend, that has only had “one struggle.” I have gotten to a place where I feel comfortable talking about my depression (b/c “it’s so common”), but less so around my ED and self-harm history (even though I bare a visible scar on my inner forearm). Having had the privilege of sitting with many people, I can promise you that so many people have engaged in self-harm in their life and so few people actually talk about it. Self-harm can also be things purging and substance use. It’s not about the form it comes in, but rather, the function of the behavior… i.e., intentional self-punishment. I continue to be inspired and in awe of your willingness to share yourself and your relationship to yourself on this platform. I feel confident the modeling you’re providing for this community is deeply healing.

    Also, we certainly don’t “choose” our thoughts and that catchy, simple phrase is a dangerous one and, if one reflects on it, is actually the antithesis on what mindfulness practice tells us. We have tens of thousands of thoughts a day. At least half of those will be “negative.” I *think* what that phrase is perhaps trying to get at is the idea that we can choose to pay attention & give credence to certain thoughts vs. attending/believing all the thoughts that arise. And, when there’s repetitive and intrusive thoughts, that’s even harder to do and honestly is a lifelong practice. Well-meaning popular short phrases like this end up back firing so often b/c they fail to capture the complexity of the human experience and in turn, feel invalidating to many.

You might also like

Happy Sunday! I hope everyone has had a nice weekend so far. Mine involves a combination of work, study, and play — work for clients, studying in the form of my first few forays into preparing for final exams, and play in the form of getting my Christmas tree up. The arrival of a tree always seems to make the holiday season feel real, and I’m so happy to have it. As you’ll see tomorrow and on Tuesday, there have been plenty of fragrant…

Happy weekend to you, and happy Easter to those who are celebrating today. This is less my holiday than Passover, which I celebrated on Friday, or Greek Easter, which my mom and I will celebrate next Sunday, but I’m spending time with the idea of rebirth. A year ago today, Steven moved out. It’s a strange anniversary to commemorate, but I’ve been surprised at how much feeling it brings up. Memories have been coming and going, and I even had my first dream…

Happy weekend, everyone! I hope you’ve been enjoying some restful time and sunny weather. I’ve had a busy weekend so far; last night, I had the honor of teaching a vegan cooking class at Haven’s Kitchen here in New York. It’s a beautiful space, and it allows for cooking classes of intimate groups (my class had ten students). We got to know each other, cooked five recipes from Food52 Vegan, and then sat down to a late dinner, so that we could enjoy the recipes…

A few weeks ago, one of my readers sent me a link to Steph Davis’ post “Love Dogs.” Ostensibly it’s the story of how Davis lost one companion animal and found another, but it’s more than that. It’s a sweet, moving reflection on the boundlessness of love. Davis’ story begins with a description of the bond she formed with Fletch, the quiet and self-sufficient dog she’d adopted from the brother of a friend. Davis and Fletch were both uprooted when they met, and they…