73. On Eating

1st Nov 2018

I remember clearly my pastor once asking why we take so long and so much discussion just to decide where we’ll have lunch, every single day. After all, all food that goes into our mouths has one final destination!

Unfortunately for depressives, food and what to eat, really can become a point of contention – every single meal.

One good thing – possibly one of the few good things – about being warded is that food is highly regulated. Mealtimes are fixed – breakfast, about 7 to 8, lunch is about 1200 to 1230, there’s a tea break about 4 in the afternoon, followed by dinner at about 1830, or 6:30 in the evening. Snacks aren’t generally encouraged, unless brought by a visitor or a relative, and now and then gifts are brought by ex patients who know the struggles of current patients in the system. 

The food is all chopped up into little pieces, and cutlery is restricted to thick plastic (reusable) spoons, not unlike those used by kids in primary school canteens. No knives, and not even forks are allowed as a general rule. It’s a mental health institution after all – even razors for shaving are closely tracked, and disposal must be done by the nurses, not patients. I almost got a sympathetic nurse who saw me struggling with my six o’clock shadow into trouble, by disposing of the razor without telling him. 

Not wooden. Plastikkk.

But food. By regulating what we eat, and when, despite the low amount of activity we had, this helps us when we aren’t able to decide. I met people with various mood disorders, and amongst them, there was one who couldn’t even eat what they provided except maybe once every two days. He had a repulsion towards human contact, and the thought that someone prepared the food – and therefore touched it – was enough to make him go off all food together. Only when the hunger got too much did he eat. The nurses looked on with sympathy, but didn’t force him.

Food has a complex relationship with people with mental health conditions. Not surprising, really – meals and mealtimes have so much to do with our interactions with others. Certain smells and foods still bring to mind memories, however we suppress them. Just the thought of something disgusting that has crossed your lips before is enough to make you retch. The idea of a homely meal is usually linked with a warm family memory, where things were simpler, and life was content, if not outright happy. Or the same homely meal would bring memories of quarrels, fights, and bottles flying across the table. 

Food, in that sense, becomes more than just items we put in our mouths and masticate, for nutrition. Much more.

When depression rears its ugly head, there is little incentive to do much. Energy is lacking, and the bed is so inviting because it’s soft, comforting, and somewhat safe. Nothing bad ever happens in bed. Usually. Definitely not when you’re wrapped up in a blanket, air conditioner (or heater, depending on where you live in the world) at full blast, just hunkering under everything. For that moment, nothing else matters other than the sound of your own heartbeat. 

Comfy? No?

When there’s suicidality in the picture, things get even more difficult. Why bother getting out of bed? Why dredge up whatever little energy there is to eat? Why bother eating or drinking? It’s not even a case of wanting to harm ourselves by denying ourselves sustenance. There’s just no point in doing so. We just want to stay in our stupor, and just continue in our deadness of feeling, not wanting or desiring anything. 

Food, is not important at all. Even if you give it to us on a platter, why bother chewing? Why bother eating? Every little bit of food tastes like ash in our mouths. 

When I was being warded, as they were processing me, the nurse who’d put up with an outburst from me took pity on me after realising that I’d had nothing to eat or drink for more than half a day at that point. She brought in a hot cup of Milo (a chocolate malt drink), and a slice of cake wrapped in plastic and placed them in front of me. I didn’t want either. But to avoid disappointing her, I drank the Milo. I didn’t feel anything drinking it.

I left the cake alone. Unwrapped. Untouched.

I didn’t eat until breakfast the next day. By then I forced myself to eat, not because I was hungry. But because I knew I had to face the day ahead in the unknown of the acute ward where I was. To protect myself against others. 

Food was then a necessity. I didn’t care what passed my lips. I just ate what was in front of me, as long as it wasn’t too spicy.

Food is a strange thing, for some of us depressives. It can become one of the things we get addicted to. Addiction is a common problem in depression, as we struggle to find something that helps us to feel, and one of the easiest ways to feel is through our tastebuds. Not our stomachs. Our poor stomachs sometimes go through a lot of physical torture for the sake of our tastebuds. Through food and the continued consumption, we find redemption in control, and for that spark of life that we can dig out from every taste explosion that occurs in our mouths.

When everything’s dark… light comes from the mouth.

For others, we struggle because we don’t want to eat. We can’t even think of chewing because we just can’t. We struggle to imagine eating. We don’t see the point. So we don’t eat. Much. If body image issues are related to our clinical depression, things get even harder to manage. And don’t talk about cooking – we can’t even bring ourselves to think about the energy to chew, less say plan and prepare a meal.

And yet others of us have no difficulties with food. Just eat. No problem. Don’t eat? Also no problem. The depression works itself out in other ways.

Still, few depressives would say no to comfort food. Comfort food is something that comforts us. In actuality, it’s not because it tastes good – it’s actually food that helps us to relate to better times. Food that makes us feel safe and warm, because it reminds us of better times, when we had that food before and we were safer, or better. Comfort food helps us to feel better by simply bringing us back to those times with every bite. 

So sometimes, we overindulge in comfort foods. Fried chicken. Baked beans. Soft boiled eggs. Toast. 

Bread, only, for every meal.

I struggle with food in general now. I don’t have a good BMI, and my electric scale tells me my visceral fat levels aren’t as good as they should be. My clothes all accentuate my paunch because I can’t be bothered to dress up anyway. So you’d think that struggling with food would help me to lost weight. 

In a way, it has. I lost a lot of weight in the ward, though I won’t recommend it as a good weight loss method. But shortly after discharge, I gained it all back, as I felt better and started eating better. 

But things took a turn for the worse again, and my appetite collapsed. I struggle to eat, but I do eat. I have two main meals a day now, with a snack in between. Sometimes, I get too hungry in the middle of the night especially if I can’t sleep early enough, and then another snack helps to beat the hunger back. 

But mainly, I eat for my wife.

If you gave me a choice, I’d eat only when the hunger gets too intrusive or when I’m trembling. Otherwise, I don’t see the point. I don’t want to eat a lot of the food I used to like. I used to love Japanese sushi and a lot of Japanese cooked foods. But now I don’t really eat that. I can’t explain why. I just don’t want to, in general.

Though I definitely won’t say no to a soba with a hot soup dip in Liang Court. I just like that dish. I don’t know why.

Meals are difficult because I need to think through what I feel able to eat. There’re many foods now that I can only put in front of me, and feel paralysed in bringing the food to my lips. So what I do instead, to cope, is to plan ahead. When I wake, the first thing on my mind is lunch, and what I feel like eating. It’s not always cheap, but it’s not always expensive. It could range from fishball noodles to fish and chips or fried chicken. It also depends on the plans for the day – if I’m headed to the hospital for my therapy or medical for example, that determines my travel path and therefore my food options. 

But if I can’t plan what to eat, that’s where life gets a little more difficult. 

So much food. But can’t eat.

I’ve marched through a shopping mall at least 5 times around before, trying to get my mouth to agree to put something in. I’ve had to trudge around a food court (a food hall where multiple stalls offer an often dizzying array of food) multiple times, sitting back in my seat in defeat, trying to tell myself to choose one thing. Just one single thing to eat. I’ve also gone the other way. After telling my close support group what I’d eaten for lunch, one friend piped up – “Are you tanking up, or just gorging?”

In my defense, I just felt like eating a lot that meal. And when that happens, the next meal usually is a light or super light one.

Food is a matter of necessity. But in order to persuade myself to eat, I need to think through and even visualise what I want to eat, so that I can psyche myself to be excited to eat it. Sometimes, when I arrive at a place and find that the stall providing that food is closed, I can go into a spin for a bit, trying to swallow my disappointment, and trying to find an alternative. It’s hard to get my head around the idea that I should eat something else.

Singapore is a blessed place, where food is concerned. I’ve never had a point where I can’t find food. But depression makes eating a chore for me. To cope, I have to find food that appeals, and even comfort foods don’t always appeal.

I continue to take photos of what I eat, so that my dear wife need not worry. That kind of sucks, but I have no choice. It helps her to know that I’m really eating, and that’s one less thing she has to worry about. It also helps her to note if she needs to help me balance my diet, with fruit or vegetables as needed. Generally that’s not a problem, but in bad times, it’s critical. 

I wanted only duck meat. No carbs. My wife prepped some veg to add on.

I’ve been advised to go on diets before, to help my mood. I can’t even control whether I want to eat – and I work my mind overtime to find something I feel like eating at that moment. What diet? How to diet, I ask you?

So while others eat to live, or live to eat…

I eat to please my wife.

When recovery is a real possibility, when the path straightens a bit, I plan to revisit my relationship with food. I like cooking, and I like planning how to prepare a meal so that I don’t end up burning everything. I like it when my boys try my food, and end up finishing everything even though they already had their own portions. I feel like I’m worth something for those few minutes, before everything comes crashing in again like a wave of offal.

Wintermelon soup made from dashi and pork bone soup stock from packets. I did the meatballs and coriander myself. The boys finished what I couldn’t.

I don’t know how to watch my weight. One day I’m eating fried chicken, the next, I’m eating wheat biscuits. I try to exercise, but when I eat like crap, the muscles just don’t want to activate. And then I feel worse about not being able to exercise. 

I’m not that adventurous. I wish I could be.

Spices help. Italian seasoning and chillis are two important components that help me to eat more when I really struggle. Somehow. I don’t question why. I just give in.

I also tend to eat what I put in front of myself. I don’t want to waste food. Even if that means gorging, I just eat. However little or much there is.

I know that I need to eat, and eat better. I keep trying, at least until one day where something in me almost audibly clicks and then I either don’t eat, or eat rubbish. Chips. Fried food. Sugared drinks and candied chocolates. And then the next day I feel so guilty and start depriving myself and eating less, and all that.

It’s not like I’m not thankful, oh no. It’s just that when living is a challenge, when pain is a constant, when I don’t know why I’m bothering to feel better about myself, eating kind of doesn’t seem… important. But because it is, I need to make reasons to keep it important.

So I choose what to eat – so that I can choose to eat.

Perhaps one day, that will change. But for now, I have to let that be enough.

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