Cooking with the Big Sad

by Zilla Novikov

Most advice for dealing with depression makes depressed people feel worse.

Fish oil supplements, running, and meditation help some people. Maybe they even help you. But for the rest of us, they deliver a simple message. Your depression is your own damn fault because of your bad lifestyle. If you ate better, exercised more, and changed your negative attitude, you wouldn’t have this problem. 

If you, like we did, look online for depression-friendly recipes, you will find almond-crusted barramundi and walnut-crusted maple salmon, promising Omega-3s to fight brain fog and B vitamins to boost mood. If you happen to be an inland-dwelling vegan, such personal lifestyle tweaks are inaccessible to the point of satire. This is a feature, not a bug. The thing these recipes have in common is that the cost of ingredients, difficulty of preparation, and incompatibility with numerous dietary restrictions mean they are inaccessible to most mentally ill people. If only you would do this, they promise, and then it becomes your fault because you do not, and so you must not really want to be well.

If capitalism is driving your employer to exploit you and the rich to destroy the planet, the solution is not to do Pilates about it. No amount of chia seeds are going to fix how you feel. You need some empathy and some survival strategies. Surviving means you have to eat, even if you don’t want to, even if there’s no food in the world worth the effort of lifting a spoon to your mouth. 

Many of us also have stigmas and taboos when it comes to food. Maybe someone has told you to avoid “bad” foods, or questioned if you really needed a second cookie. Maybe for you, the concept of eating is complicated by feelings of guilt or shame. But judgment doesn’t help. It’s better to eat than not, and we are not the sum of our worst days.

My depression is not my fault. My brain chemistry is fucked and I need medication to function. I tried lifestyle changes for years, delaying as long as I could before I acknowledged what felt like a moral failing. Before I accepted my inability to will myself cured. Diet advice gave me one more thing to try before taking that step. But crushed flax seeds weren’t what I needed. What I needed was a hug, and guidance to get through day by day until I was ready to admit my truth.

Depression cooking for me is low-effort, cheap, easy foods, with minimal ingredients that I probably already have in the house. It’s carb- and spice-heavy. It’s eating popcorn out of a bag or boiling instant noodles. It’s food that’s tasty enough to be appealing even when the thought of eating seems exhausting.

Of course, this isn’t the same for everyone! Some people have to avoid carbs or gluten, others find high levels of spice challenging at the best of times. Contrary to the advice you’ll find online and in diet books, there’s no silver bullet for our problems, individually or societally. But we can do our best to make things better for each other as a community. 

Collective change starts at a local level, and for us, dealing with the social problem of depression begins with acts of mutual aid. Whether it’s reminding folks that they’re not alone or sharing the coping strategies that have worked for us and our friends, we’re here with each other as we battle not just the Big Sad, but the environmental, political, and economic context that enables it at its worst.

a comic about two millennials sharing the cookbook and looking after each other in a broken world

I wrote a rant (see above) but I also—with my community—wrote a cookbook to share our coping strategies. The Sad Bastard Cookbook is funny, realistic, and kind. Also the e-book is free. We gotcha.

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