In the course of my life, I’ve had my fair share of mental-health “vicissitudes,” let’s call them. I’ve never been medicated for any of them, although at one point a psychiatrist strongly urged me to go on lithium. At another point, my best friend and mother strongly suggested some sort of antidepressant. I fear brain meds with the superstitious abhorrence of a “primitive” who doesn’t want his photograph taken for fear of losing his soul.
So I’ve endured these various episodes without anything stronger than booze, food, and books to help me. That might be why I view all my memories through gels that are colored by whatever strange weather was going on in my brain at the time. Sometimes I cringe. Often I cringe. Bad weather influences behavior, especially when there are no meds to act as umbrella, sunscreen, hurricane shelter.
I was manic for the five years it took me to leave my marriage, recover from it, and fall in love again. Mania is a particularly fearsome system because it allows for all manner of outrageous excesses – of consumption, flamboyance, expression – while its high hard winds and blinding sun block rational conscience and regulatory thought.
For the five years before that, I was depressed. For a while, I couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying. I had what I now see was a bona fide breakdown for a number of months. Then I managed to pull myself together enough to go about my daily life again, but I was still not feeling well at all, inside. I remember being interviewed at the Brooklyn Public Library during this period by a local NPR radio host named Leonard Lopate. He teased me about how horrible all the characters in my latest novel were. This came at me like a knife in the chest; I had lost my sense of humor entirely by this point, many months into an unrelenting black fugue state. “I hate nice people,” I blurted, like a two-year-old. When he asked what I was working on now, I said, my voice trembling on the verge of tears, “I’m not writing anything. I can’t write.” He was flummoxed, understandably. This was not a therapy session, that he was aware of, anyway.
And of course there have been all those other mental storms, less extreme than mania or depression, but strong enough to bend my un-medicated, unmediated mind to their force fields – corrosive rage, demented passion, dizzying confusion, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and so forth. Even simple unhappiness has been dangerous, when a swamp of resignation and malaise hindered an urgent need for action and change.
But the most precarious state of mind, in my experience, is always smug complacency, those times when I feel pretty okay about everything, in a warm-oatmeal, chamomile-tea, down-comforter, footie-pajama kind of way, as if I were sprawled on a billowing couch, looking out the window at life going by, almost drooling sometimes with a wholly illusory, borderline-infantile bonelessness.
Invariably, luckily, just as I’m settling in for a long winter’s nap, the gods splash a bucket of ice water over me and I jump up shrieking, dripping and shivering and properly awake again.
My relationship with food always changes radically right along with my mental state. When I’m manic or depressed, at those far extremes of internal human experience, I don’t eat much at all; I can’t. Food attenuates for me into a remote, untenable idea of something I used to love, and still love, in theory, but can no longer tolerate or understand. When I’m anxious or unhappy, I tend to eat whatever comes to hand, standing up, on the fly. In those extremely fleeting, rare states of calm, focused, centered, balanced serenity, I eat thoughtfully and without fanfare, like some species of Buddhist monk, for nourishment and social communion. This almost never happens.
Smug complacency makes me wallow in food, obsess about it, become a glutton, a gourmande. Food nestles at the center of my nice safe life, forms the heart of my warm, fuzzy day. I find myself participating fully in the current national collective obsession with food choices as a way of pretending we have any control over anything at all. Organic, gluten-free, local, wild-caught – these decisions begin to feel political and meaningful, crucial and important. Some evangelical, proscriptive, black-and-white way of thinking, engendered by reports of food-industry horrors, causes me to scan labels, davening with nitpicky ferocity, to interrogate meat-counter guys and eschew all canned food, even organic enoki beans.
Eventually, the gods throw a pie in my face. A pie made with processed, bleached white flour, lard from pigs raised on antibiotics and offal cooped up in tiny, shit-filled pens, artificial chemical flavorings whose cancer-causing properties are indisputable, and genetically modified high-fructose corn syrup.
And there I am, back in what I think of as my “real life,” the one in which there are no down comforters, the one in which I don’t tend to drool, the one in which I’m as crabby, uncomfortable, and aware of my own absurdity as the next guy.
The other night, I coated a few fillets of haddock in a harissa rub, a lovely amalgam of various spices that comes in small plastic tubs from Whole Foods. I broiled them and served them over coconut jasmine rice with steamed red chard alongside.
“This is Harissa Haddock, BBC News,” I said in a fake British accent as I pulled the fish out of the broiler.
I instantly had to email my friend Rosie about this. “Harissa haddock,” I wrote to her. “Dish? Or BBC News announcer?”
“Wait,” she shot back, “I thought she was the tragic, much preyed-upon, oft-violated young heroine of an extremely long 18th century novel.”
“Moll Flounders,” said Brendan.
And then we ate.
Thanks for my first good LOL of the day… that processed pie of the gods! But I think you’re on to something with the concept of getting picky with food as it’s one of the few things we can control…
Oh my! Oh yes! One of my favorites of all. “Sometimes I cringe. Often I cringe”. Yes! And thank you Brendan for Moll Flounders.
I just came upon your blog. And am soooo, soooo glad I did. This post totally resonates. You say it so beautifully. Thank you. Nancy Davidoff Kelton (also a writer and I think we have a mutual friend)
Wow. I think many people can relate to this post. I found you through this blog and now am on your second book- I love how you write and will read them all and I can’t wait for the new one! Thank you. PS: The Orangette food blog recommended your blog with a link-that’s how I found my way here.
I have sort of known you for a bunch of years. I too suffer as you do. I too have resisted the medication route, especially as I have worked with a few Pharma’s who specialize in our little niche of hell. The truth is they do not know the long term effects of the drugs and they cast as wide a net as possible for marketing reasons. You cannot believe some of the things I have heard them say, and in some cases, I have had to sign confidentiality clauses prohibiting me from repeating what I have heard. One of them is enforced until 2025.
Fight the demons, hug your man and your dog, and let them hug you even if you don’t want them too. Drink heartily,and go for long walks. If you can avoid the fog of numbness do. These drugs are not for you; your brain and heart and hands are too special, even though it hurts.
Moll Flounders! No wonder you love him.
“…those times when I feel pretty okay about everything, in a warm-oatmeal, chamomile-tea, down-comforter, footie-pajama kind of way, as if I were sprawled on a billowing couch, looking out the window at life going by, almost drooling sometimes with a wholly illusory, borderline-infantile bonelessness.” <3… think I'm going head of heels here. Dang.
Just read your pal Cathi’s book ‘My Sister’s Bones’ after reading your July 27th entry–I had no idea what the subject was, and I’m glad because I may not have bought it—-and I am so very glad that I did. Just because eating disorders aren’t an issue with me (I have planty of others!!) or anyone I know, it was fascinating to read this book–and Cathi is a supremely gifted writer. Thank you for this gift.
Being urged to take lithium by a psychiatrist? Find someone who visited a psychiatrist who didn’t get a recommendation for meds. Seriously. I dare you. There’s nothing special about drug recommendations by psychiatrists. That’s their entire practice. They have no other tools than meds. Unless you count surgery and electro-schock therapy. Even if you get those, you still get the meds first. 🙂
I know it was probably a metaphor, but I’m concerned about your encounter with the pie gods. It sounded like maybe you wandered into a Marie Callenders?
Harissa Haddock is witty. But Moll Flounders is hilarious. Score 1 for Team Brendan.
I’m in the same non-pharma, boat. And I know this is a highly enjoyable place, your blog, to drool over food, (and I’m here to live vicariously, no doubt, but equally for the gorgeous writing), but I’ve got to share that I’ve found that what I eat makes a tremendous difference in my mood. Chocolate is literally, a killer. Experiment and see if you aren’t thrown for a three day downer- to put it mildly- the day *after* indulging in your regular amount, as I am. I’ve tried cheating by having just a small piece every other day or two and find that it just builds more slowly and generates a low grade depression instead of outright suicidal thoughts, but who wants even that? We deserve to live joyfully. Enthusiastically, at least.
At risk of alienating people, I’ll share that by following my reactions to meals, especially the day after, I’ve found that mostly raw, low-fat, high carb vegan food is the only thing that makes a radical improvement to my mood. This means primarily fruits and vegetables. Lots of them. Sometimes cooked carbs in the form of potato or yams. I can’t digest rice or quinoa and any other cooked food so far sets me up for depression the following day. It’s pretty interesting.
In case it’s helpful for anyone, I’ll also mention that a daily dose of b complex vitamins and vegetarian 5-htp, (non-veg 5-htp is synthesized from material taken from human cadavers – fyi!), was very very helpful before I discovered that raw food made such a difference. (Now Foods brand. None of the other brands I tried worked.) It takes 3 days to kick in. One cap before bed (otherwise can make you nauseous, but not when you’re asleep). Hope this helps someone.