I remember standing in the kitchen when I was ten, looking over a scattering of brittle, scrambled-egg-like dollops nestled on aluminum foil. I’d asked myself, “Can you combine the flavour of a banana with the airiness of a mousse and then bake it?” My proto-banana meringues were a disgusting disaster, but to me they were a hit.
Everything outside of cooking didn’t feel nearly as successful or fun. At school I was forever getting into trouble, not for being troublesome but for being late, forgetting my books, my pencil case, and once my entire school bag, which is no mean feat considering my hour-and-a-bit journey each way. My report card always said, “Isabelle is bright but needs to apply herself.”
From the first Potato Waffle I popped into the toaster, cooking was my playground. It never had the whiff of disaster that seemed to follow me around well past my school years. I didn’t consider myself to be an incredible cook by anyone else’s definition; my food wasn’t the most presentable and sometimes too heavy on experimentation, but on the metric of taste, it always passed and that was enough for me. As a teen, barely passing exams, I discovered brown rice. I used it in everything, egg-fried and spicy, on a healthy hummus and avocado plate, and in a weird canned tuna, tomato, and melted cheese concoction. When I went off to university, I missed deadlines and mixed up assignments, but I can remember exactly where I was when I discovered sumac. I loved its citrusy tang and added it to everything I ate, from salad dressings to fried eggs to roasted vegetables.
The feeling of struggling through life like the Anxious Face with Sweat emoji carried on well into adulthood. No matter how hard I worked or tried to get organised, at some point my brain would refuse to co-operate and I would let someone down, often someone I love or respect. I came off as stupid or, worse, careless. Living with that threat hanging over me made me feel hopeless at times, so I’d retreat to my kitchen. I didn’t really have the skills to look after myself emotionally or physically, but cooking was the constant that allowed me to practice self-care. Where colleagues would happily eat cereal or a fried egg on toast for dinner, I instinctively knew that cooking a lentil dal or hot and sour soup would keep me sane.
Last year, at the age of 36, I was diagnosed with ADHD. In the UK, where I live, the NHS defines ADHD as a “behavioural disorder that includes symptoms such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.” The external signs of ADHD can seem like bad personality traits, especially if you’re a woman. Women are expected to remember birthdays, take pride in a tidy house, and generally be thoughtful. The price to pay for being obnoxious or disruptive is often far greater than if you are a man, so some of the more abrasive ADHD symptoms get re-routed and internalised. I might appear attentive and calm, but most of the time I’m trying to hide the hoe-down going on in my brain.
Before being diagnosed with ADHD I berated myself all the time for the things I couldn’t do, like being untidy or disorganised. When you get used to self-censoring, it’s impossible to know what brings you joy. Knowing that it was a brain difference that kept me slipping up meant I could try to forgive myself and start to recognise the things I was good at, like an aubergine parmigiana with layers for days. Looking back now, I see my home-cooked meals were deeply therapeutic, they gave me the chance to stretch my creativity after being in an office all day. Choosing the perfect spices, the relaxation of chopping vegetables and most importantly, the freedom to do things in my neurodivergent way, it was an opportunity to create something that I was truly proud of.
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By Isabelle O’Carroll for bonappetit.com