baking mental health

A year and a half ago, I did not know how to bake. I also did not know that I had something called borderline personality disorder. (I thought it was just—just!—depression.) Now, I bake at least once or twice a week, often on the day when I have therapy. These facts are narratively convenient, but they’re also true: I got into baking because I needed something solid to hold onto as, with the help of a therapist and a therapy group, I learned how to identify and dismantle the patterns of behavior that I’d normalized for years. Relationships began in idealization and ended in horror, gripped by fears of abandonment; late-night shopping and eating sprees; solar flares of fury that took over me. A fundamental sense that no matter what I did, I couldn’t find what it was that I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be. 

The National Institute of Mental Health defines borderline personality disorder as “an illness marked by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behavior.” People with borderline tend to live, feel, and think in extremes, unable to self-regulate. Everything is terrible or wonderful, and the constant push-pull between those poles leaves little room to develop a coherent sense of self. Think of it like an actor with too many scripts and about a minute to switch between them all—eventually, the emotional intensity becomes unbearable. But it’s all the actor knows how to do, so they do it. So they keep doing it.

A few months after I started treatment, I fell in love with somebody. Isn’t that how it always starts? It wasn’t even supposed to be a date: I thought we were just getting coffee, just talking. Instead, we talked for seven hours straight, looping around the neighborhood as night fell, then climbing the hill to a local high school to see across the city. I remember sitting on a ledge, him standing in front of me, pacing back and forth as we talked. Three weeks later, we got breakfast at a diner (a proper one: grease and syrup everywhere); afterwards, on the sidewalk outside the diner, he kissed me outside under the October sun. 

He loved food the same way his love made me feel: like the world is always offering something new. He treated recipes as starting points, not finish lines. When we first started dating, he became his own sport commentator, announcing the latest play: “Just threw together this batch,” he’d text me, sending a picture of the cookies he’d pulled out of the oven, still steaming on the square rack. “Cardamom, cinnamon, all the warm spices.” In response, I’d send heart-eye emojis, then huddle with my pride-stained envy: He made it—improvisation, confidence—look easy. I wanted to be proud of something I could do, too. 

Although I loved cooking, I’d always avoided baking, thinking that some people cooked and others baked. I also avoided it because I was terrified that if I baked, it would erase my independence within our relationship, or signal that I’d become domesticated, rather than domestic. It was easy for me to admire my boyfriend’s baking, because it’s what we’re told men don’t do: How radical! But if I did it, I’d be—or so I told myself—doing what we’re told women do. Bake. Provide. Nurture. Women—we’re told so many things about each other. How many of them are actually true?

Stubborn to the core, I pushed away this unruly chorus in my head and started baking, using recipes that promised ease and little investment of time: quick breads (no yeast!), sandwich loaves (one tin!), anything with SIMPLE in its title. But I soon found that I liked the process and wanted more of it: kneading dough from a shaggy mess into a smooth moon, rubbing cubes of butter into flour like I was touching somebody’s fingertips with mine. I also loved the precision of it all—how a recipe could hinge on a quarter teaspoon of baking powder. How everything worked together, even if it weren’t immediately apparent to me how it could. Baking requires patience, a quality that I lack; it’s also a quality deeply necessary to healing, a quality that runs in the wild with faith: If you do this and that, and wait, and wait some more, then do this and that again, you’ll make something. In baking, anything can transform. Things change, things are changing. It just takes time. 

In a movie, this would be the montage moment: I would whip between sets with a jazzy-yet-empowering pop song in the background as I discovered the powers of bread, love, and myself. In real life, I got cystic acne and watched a lot of Nigella Lawson’s Christmas specials. In those specials, she glides through her kitchen, invincible, not because she’s in ‘a woman’s place,’ but because she’s happy. She’s invincible because she loves what she’s doing. Nigella Lawson was the first woman I saw take genuine pleasure in food, both in its creation and consumption. 

The title of her second book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, brought together all my fears about baking and loving a man and loving baking: I wanted to love what I love without it being a referendum on my feminism or my ambition. But Lawson’s title was not intended as a decree; in the book’s introduction, she wrote, “I neither want to confine you to kitchen quarters nor even suggest that it might be desirable.” In 2019, on the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication, the New York Times ran an interview with her and the headline “Nigella Lawson Was Never Just a Domestic Goddess.” As if she’d set out to be one, as if that’s what she’d wanted all along. The title was a joke.

I was scared of doing to myself what I’d originally missed about Domestic Goddess: falling into the trap of believing my first impression. How many times in my own life have men taken my irony seriously, my humor sincerely? Too many. In the New York Times interview, Lawson pushed against the criticism that bloomed around Domestic Goddess: “I also think it’s profoundly anti-feminist to disparage something because it has traditionally been in the female arena.” Loving something, or someone, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to lose yourself. I’m still learning that. I suspect I will always be learning that.

The montage moment in a movie ends because the heroine is done transforming. She has been made anew, or whole, or something important to the narrative but impossible in real life. That’s interesting. But it’s also familiar: before and after, with little room in between. Writing for The Guardian in 2015, Nigella Lawson explained the freedom that baking gave her: “Learning to bake didn’t seem to me to be about acquiring a skill, so much as realising I could be liberated from the constraints of who I thought I was, and what I thought I could do. And there is something transformational in baking: when you make a stew, you can tell from the raw ingredients what it will become; it always seems a miracle that mixing eggs, sugar, butter and flour becomes a cake.” In the dictionary, transformation has many different meanings, and you can find one of them at home, in your kitchen, watching and waiting on something you made to rise.

Words: Sarah Cooke

Artwork: Sophie Parsons