My Quarantine Baking Habit Helped Me Heal
I went into the kitchen to learn how to bake a cake. I came out a stronger person.
When the coronavirus stopped the world and we went into lockdown, I was almost done with college. My college years had been tough, and I was caught in a wild storm of depression and anxiety. I was also starting to grow up to be a workaholic, and having free time was one of my most illogical fears. Now, with no stress about studies, exams and university applications, I had this huge chunk of free time, and with nothing to keep me busy, my anxiety became uncontrollable. I had too much time to think, and my thoughts were a continuous nightmare.
I tried doing stuff to keep me engaged throughout the day—painting, reading, watching shows—but I quickly got over all of them. They’d help me shut down my mind for a little while, but once I wrapped up, it would switch on again. I was trying to ignore the fact that my mental health was sliding down a slope, and when things got more turbulent, I couldn’t manage myself. Even worse, I was trying to deal with this in silence, all by myself. I was very distant from my family, whom I was living with uncomfortably, and had cut off most of my friends because of how difficult communication was for me. It was suffocating. I was a 19-year-old flight risk with no one to talk to and nothing to do to help myself.
Baking Was My Accidental Salvation
I started baking as a hobby without really intending to. I had always been fascinated with it growing up, watching my mother bake cakes and brownies. I had already aced my chocolate cake, which my friends absolutely adored. But when I had the inspiration to expand my repertoire, I didn’t know it was going to be the one thing that would pull me out of the ocean I’d been drowning in.
It was a simple process, really. Almost every week, I gave myself a challenge, like trying out a new banana bread recipe or experimenting with lemon cakes. I looked up different recipes on YouTube or other sites and figured out the best one for me. I’d jot it down in a little notepad and then head to my kitchen, ready to brave the oven amidst the July heat.
I didn’t like having anyone else around when I was baking. I always went to the kitchen when it was empty, and soon enough, my family understood that they had to steer clear of the kitchen while I was in there. It was just me and my notebook and a mind that became surprisingly calm once I started. It was a cathartic process: gathering the baking soda and powder in their small bottles, the flour and cocoa in their large bags, cracking an egg, adding the sugar and beating them together with a hand whisk until they became a frothy, soft, pale yellow mixture. I always knew intuitively when to stop.
What I loved about baking was that I couldn’t afford to shut down my mind and work robotically as I did with other things. I didn’t turn on my music because this silence was more soothing than it was alarming. Most of the time when I was alone, the silence was too overwhelming for me, so I resorted to listening to music. But in the kitchen, I fidgeted with excitement, going back and forth from my recipe to measuring just the right amount of ingredients. I was constantly in contact with my thoughts, and because I couldn’t let them go into self-destruct mode, I was forced to arrange them. My mind played tiny episodes of my life, like an argument I recently had or a family discussion that made me really nervous, and I went over them calmly, gently reassuring myself that I was going to be okay. My “flight-risk” thoughts alternated with comfortingly mundane thoughts like, “OK, what goes into the bowl next?”
I Got Way More Out of Baking Than Just the Cakes
I found a comfort zone where I wasn’t terrified of thinking about the things that made me anxious or scared or worried. I could sort my feelings out and address them one by one. And pretty soon, I realized I could think about them without having it completely wreck me. In the peaceful atmosphere of my quiet kitchen, I could finally listen to myself without creating a mess of things. Dealing with my emotions began to seem less impossible.
After the wet ingredients, I would whisk in my flour and forget to whisk my cocoa, so the batter would end up having lumps of it. I learned why we add salt to our cakes. I also learned why we always use granulated sugar. That was obviously after a few cakes turned out not-so-perfect.
Prepping the pan was my least favorite part, and still is. But it was an important step to get to a perfect cake. So even though I absolutely hated putting parchment in pans with removable bottoms, I made sure I did the job perfectly because my goal needed me to do every step as well as I could.
When it was time for the pan to go in the oven, it was a proper test of my self-control. When you’ve done your part and you have to trust the final stage to something else, it’s very difficult to not lose yourself to stress. Sure it was just a cake, but for me, it was a lot of other things too. It was something I was creating, something that I would own and be responsible for. I needed to know that I was in control because if I wasn’t, it meant that things could go in ways I could do nothing about. But frankly, that was already the state of my life: I wasn’t in control, but I was too uncomfortable to acknowledge it.
I Learned a Lot About Myself in the Kitchen
When my cake was in the oven, I knew I had to wait a certain time before I could open it and check on the progress. I couldn’t worry about it because that would literally do nothing except get me anxious over something out of my control. I had to trust the process, having done my part, and just hope that everything turned out great.
And for the most part, it did. And when it didn’t—like the first five times I tried baking chocolate chip cookies—I never felt disheartened, and I never decided to give up on it. This was something new for me, just knowing, without ever thinking about it, that I had to try again. I’d go onto the internet, watch a few more tutorials, figure out where I might have done something wrong and then get back at it again. I cemented it in my head that I would not give up.
When I’d create something new, I’d share it with my family, and that eased my transition back into communication with people. Spending that much time in proper contact with myself was probably the best thing that I gained from baking because it helped me see that I was the only one who could help myself when things got rough. When I think about that time now, I can see how many of my personal life rules came from my experience with baking. It’s amazing how a cookie can teach you to bet on yourself, trust your gut and not give up.