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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

The healing power of food

When I was 13, 14, 15, food was my enemy. Eating anything--three almonds, half a clementine--made me feel guilty, overindulgent, like a failure. Every time I ate felt like punishment and it did not happen willingly. I argued over every bite of apple, every strand of string cheese. I lied to my parents, mostly about eating. They couldn't possibly understand that I didn't want to exist anymore, that I didn't feel worthy of food. They frequently demanded an explanation; there wasn't one. I couldn't take the pain anymore. At 13, I wanted to disappear and never be a burden on anyone again. Eating disorder brain, just like my bipolar brain, isn't necessarily logical or trustworthy. It lies to you, tells you you're worthless, that everyone would be better off without you.

I spent a week at a teen psychiatric ward, forced to eat every bite of the pat of greasy butter on my meal plan (I wrote about that memory in a micro essay on butter published this week in MicroLit Almanac). I did what I had to do to get the hell out of that place and, for a while, abided by the meal plan and continued to gain weight, to avoid being sent away again. That didn't last for long, though. Soon I was back to hiding food and restricting what I ate, punishing myself with grueling workouts on no fuel. My parents and I argued a lot. I didn't feel like I could connect to anybody anymore, least of all myself.

My recovery came, not from being sent to a psych ward or from my mandatory sessions with a child psychologist or from being forced to eat, but from discovering a love of food and learning to love myself in the process. A huge part of that journey for me was my aunts--foodies/an executive chef in NYC--sharing their love of food with me. They would buy me a cheap Jet Blue flight to New York for a weekend and I'd be allowed to go, provided I follow the meal plan to a T. That rarely happened, but I did eat. Mostly without obsessing or counting calories. They took me to nice restaurants and farmer's markets and food stands, showed me how to pick out the best artichoke or eggplant. We indulged in giant donuts from The Donut Factory and red velvet cupcakes at Sugar Sweet Sunshine (which I will never be able to think about again without being reminded of this scene from "Orange is the New Black"). Food became, not a punishment, but something to enjoy.

My aunts taught me what I know about food and cooking. They gave me the tools I needed to feed myself again and the confidence to want to. They showed me how I could enjoy life again--museums and shows and fun things. That their were places for other weirdos like me. They taught me to make hollandaise sauce, still once of my favorite indulgences and ways to use up all our farm fresh eggs from our chickens. I write about this discovery of a love of food in my essay "Hollandaise" from my forthcoming essay collection Feed Me (out in September from Moonlight Books).

When I tell people my book is about mental health and food they usually ask, oh, so like a cookbook with stories? Or, it's about the best nutrition to support mental health? Nope. It's an essay collection about my experiences with bipolar depression/mania, being diagnosed with Bipolar I at 29, surviving an eating disorder as a young teen, living with multigenerataionl family alcohol addiction, and learning to take care of myself, each essay told through a story of food. Food is central to all of our lives, our cultures and histories, and for me, has been a huge part of my ongoing recovery. Meal planning and cooking give me a positive outlet, a way to feed both myself and others. Most of my memories have a connection to food--a meal shared, a discovery of a new food. It's about the role food has played in my mental health recovery and the connections it's forged for me. On one of our first dates, my now-husband and I cooked a meal together and it was the first time I thought, this is something real. That intimate act had me imagining a life of cooking together, enjoying good meals.

While my book does not include recipes, I'l be sharing some here over the next several months. To start with, one of my favorites that's deceptively easy but does require some attention.

Hollandaise sauce (delicious over poached eggs, vegetables, or pretty much anything):

1 stick butter, cut into slices

3 lemons, sliced

3 egg yolks

If you have a double boiler, fill bottom with water and bring to boil (If, like me, you don't, stack a pot above another). When that comes to a boil. melt butter and squeeze lemons in. Add one yolk at a time, beating well. (Recipes will tell you to add 3 tbps water. I never do). Continue to beat over medium-low heat until thick. Salt and pepper and serve. Veggie eggs benedict (pictured above) is one of my favorite easy dinners.

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