My Relationship With… Diet and Depression

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Last month the male stars of TOWIE opened up for the campaign #icrybecause in recognition of World Mental Health Day. Though an undoubtedly admirable idea to raise awareness of male mental health, it did not resonate with me. I haven’t properly cried for years, and I don’t believe crying is intrinsically linked with male depression.

However much it is characterised by these expectations, depression is not solely about that crippling, tear-inducing sadness you feel after a break-up or bereavement, but is also about the intense dullness of mind, clouding of motivation, and potent hopelessness.

One aspect of my life on which clinical depression has had a most detrimental effect is my diet. This article of personal mental health musings is not about eating disorders, nor have I had any diet-related health issues. I have a healthy BMI and when at home, eat wholesome hot meals. The cupboards are permanently well stocked with cereals, fruit, and the odd chocolatey snack on the top shelf.

Moving to university was one of the most exhilarating, terrifying experiences of my life. My mind was spinning and my entire body was sweating for weeks before. I genuinely considered arriving before anybody else at 8.30am and necking some vodka to calm the nerves (the former actually happened, the latter did not). All of my fears about friendships, classes, and homesickness were alleviated and I settled in to university better than I could have imagined a few weeks prior, when my deteriorating mental health was leading to me question whether or not higher education was the route for me.

Yet, despite planning in therapy for every possible issue that I might face once at Southampton, one crisis stemming from my mental health that I did not anticipate was with food. After the tinned food that I had brought with me for freshers’ week had run out, I realised that it was time to head to the shops. But searching for a sufficient incentive to head to a 9am lecture was work enough, and not knowing the location of the closest supermarket felt like a major barrier to filling the cupboards. A simple Google Maps search would have solved that problem, but I just couldn’t be bothered. The idea of being incarcerated by my primary digestive needs in a giant concrete box full of squeaking trolleys and crying babies terrified me.

So I headed online. My mood swings are intense, so I made sure to order my shop when I was feeling positive, resulting in bags of fresh fruit, salad, and fish. I felt elated filling my shelf in the communal fridge and observing the total absence of chocolate, sweets, and pizza. That day, I walked briskly through the breezy autumnal Common, arriving at my lecture fifteen minutes early, feeling genuinely positive.

Over the next few days, the sun rose, the sun set, and the unstoppable diurnal rhythm began to cripple my mind again. I began to spend longer hours in bed, hidden under layers of comforting duvets. The friends I knew were only acting with their best intentions continued to direct me towards the Just Eat and Deliveroo apps as a coping mechanism. I binged on tin soups and packet pasta, and by the time I was ready to realise my unassailable resolution to return to a healthy diet, I opened the cupboards to be welcomed by the stench of rotting food. Returning to a deep state of melancholy, I found myself back at the takeaway menu furiously asking myself why it is that fresh food seems to stay fresh for only about five minutes.

But gradually I began to understand what my university mentor meant by ‘healthy body equals healthy mind’. The imbalance of my diet was triggering an imbalance of emotions, clearly an unsustainable state for my mind and body.

I began to look for real and practical solutions to my worsening dilemma, and after realising that my deeply emotional relationship with food would never translate into a purely functional one, I began to redirect those feelings. I wanted to take pride in my diet, to feel a sense of achievement as I ate my meals rather than disappointment.

I have not yet found the answer to my problem, but I am certainly closer to a desirable diet than ever before. I have found that, oddly, almost empty cupboards are one solution that work for me. No, this doesn’t mean going hungry. It means that I have to leave the house to collect ingredients, and I will buy little and often. This reduces the pressure to consume the unwanted vegetables which are gradually approaching their use-by date at the back of the shelf, whilst simultaneously taking away the stress that comes with choosing what to cook next. A positive relationship with food enables me to look for exciting recipes online, not always healthy, but its all part of the balance. 

Now I don’t feel so guilty when ordering a takeaway, because I know it’s not every day. There is less food waste coming from my kitchen, and I am getting out in the fresh air more often. I enjoy watching cookery demonstrations on Youtube and Facebook, and I am learning the skills I wish I had bothered to learn before hitting adulthood. Not only has my improved experience with cooking stopped the destabilising of my mood, but it has become a fantastic, healthy coping mechanism when living with depression. Some days I can’t cook, and that is fine – I know my body will wait for my mind to catch up. My relationship with diet and depression has not been an easy journey, and whilst I might still be far from the finish line, the end is beginning to take shape.  

More articles in My Relationship With...
  1. My Relationship With… University
  2. My Relationship With Grief
  3. My Relationship with Job-Hunting
  4. My Relationship With… Therapy
  5. My Relationship With… My Scars
  6. My Relationship With… Diet and Depression
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Traveller, theatre-goer, student blogger.

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