The photos at the end of this post may seem ordinary. But they’re anything but.
I generally use the diagnostic label Bipolar Disorder and ADD to describe my condition. But diagnoses in the mental health business are anything but precise.
In my case, there’s a component that I generally call just ‘scrambled thinking’.
It’s very hard to describe. I generally use metaphor to explain it to myself and to help me to understand it so that I can learn ways to cope with it more effectively. But, in general, just ‘scrambled thinking’ works.
In technical terms, it has to do with the so-called ‘executive functions’. This is the stuff that happens in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, behind your forehead. It’s where you plan, think things through, prioritize, sort, sequence, organize. All that stuff.
Most people take for granted that that stuff just works. But, if you’ve experienced it when it doesn’t, you know that it wreaks havoc with everything you try to do.
I think one experience that most people have had that might make it a little more familiar is what happens when you lose a lot of sleep. Have you ever missed a nights sleep because you were cramming for an exam, preparing for an important presentation at work or because you were caring for a sick baby? You know that foggy, groggy, fuzzy-headed feeling of just not being able to think clearly? Imagine it being that way ALL THE TIME! That’s my life, more or less.
But, since I started using Ritalin over six months ago now, this has gradually improved. It’s far from a cure. It’s not even entirely manageable. But it’s improving.
So, back to the kitchen …
I like to cook. First, because I love good food. Despite the depression, which takes the joy out of most things, I can still enjoy good food. Second, we’re poor. So, to get good food on our budget, we have to make it ourselves. Third, It’s in the vein of being creative, inventive, building things, in a way, that’s always been rewarding for me.
Finally, it’s been a benchmark for how well my mind is working. How well my executive functions are working.
I suppose that for people with normal functioning brains, cooking may seem straightforward. But, for me it’s very, very difficult.
In the past, it’s been a very chaotic process. Even simple recipes were almost impossible and very stressful to cook. Recipes are generally just a linear sequence of steps. Think making pancakes. One bowl. Dry ingredients. Wet ingredients. Mix. Drop some on a hot plate and cook. That should be easy to follow, right? But, before I could master pancakes, I had to read and reread the recipe over and over again to understand the sequence.
Eventually, I got an App for my iPad called Paprika. With that I can record and edit recipes in a way that I can understand them. I have to carefully sequence and word them and break them up into steps that I can understand. This helps a lot. But, Paprika also allows me to search the Internet for recipes and download them into the App. The recipes on sites like allrecipes.com are formatted in such a way that Paprika sucks the list of ingredients and the instructions and even the picture in and creates an easily editable recipe. Often, the recipes are confusing to me. But, I can study them and edit them so that I can understand them and follow them better.
But, it’s still really difficult. These limitations create a lot of extra mental ‘overhead’ that consumes energy and creates stress that detracts from the rewards of the experience.
I suppose one way to think about it is that I have enormous difficulty seeing The Big Picture of a process like cooking a meal. I can hold the individual steps in my mind, sort of, but only one at a time. It’s extremely difficult to put them in sequence mentally. In fact, I get confused very easily and forget steps or get them out of order. I have to constantly refer back to the recipe even for things I’ve done many times.
Pancakes are relatively easy to cook now since I’ve done them so many times and it is a very simple linear process. But, many recipes are not linear. One of my favorite meals to cook is Chicken Marsala. It involves a frying pan and a sauté pan and slicing chicken and coating it in a flour/spice mixture and slicing mushrooms and spring onions and doing it in several parallel streams. It took many, many iterations to get this one down. But, even though I’ve also cooked this one many times, each time, I have to sit down ahead of time and carefully review the recipe first. And it’s still difficult to do. But, the results are generally worth it.
The other problem I have is that I can’t see the process from beginning to end. Only the first step. Then I might remember the next step and then the next. But, generally, I have to refer back to the recipe to keep track of things.
The upshot is that generally cooking is process of carefully reviewing the recipe as best I can and kind of vaguely understanding it and then just diving in and it just kind of chaotically more or less happens and may or may not turn out. I often feel like I’m flying blind. It often feels like, regardless of how many times I’ve cooked a particular meal, I’m doing it for the first time. It’s very frustrating.
The same applies to every other mental task I try to do, which is everything. I have to carefully think through almost everything I do, no matter how simple and frequently, it feels like the first time all over again.
So, here’s where the pictures come in. Over the years, at various times, I’ve had the strange experience that all at once it’s as if some kind of neurological switch has been flipped and something just starts working.
Last week, I was going to make good old American hamburgers. It’s something I’ve done many times and it’s always been the chaotic process I’ve described above. But strangely and unexpectedly it was different this time. What you see in the photos is how I laid out everything ahead of time before I started doing anything. It’s probably hard for you to understand, but up until this event, this was literally, neurologically impossible.
I didn’t even consciously intend to do it this way. It just kind of happened, as if it was just natural, which, I guess, for most people it is. I laid out the mixing bowl with the burger, the spices, the soy sauce and liquid smoke that would go into the burgers. I laid out the mushrooms that would be sautéed, the tomatoes to be sliced, the cheese to be sliced, the tools I would use and the bowls they would go in so that we could load up our burgers at the table according to individual taste. I even laid out a container for the organic waste. I got the grill down and even the flipper that I would use. And I put the sauté pan on the stove with the butter and wooden spoon. The fridge shows the pink lemonade in the white pitcher, already prepared for the occasion. You see the bowl and towel next to the deep fryer, ready to make the fries. Not shown is that the table is already set, including condiments, ready to use. That last is something that, prior to this, I would consistently forget to do until the last minute when everything was ready to be served. Interestingly, there’s an onion on the cutting board with one end cut off already. I almost dove into dicing it in the usual chaotic, out of order way I’ve always done. But, I recognised it and checked myself until everything else was ready.
I was able to look over the scene and verify that everything was ready and see in my mind the whole process, from beginning to end, more or less. A kind of calm came over me to replace the kind of almost panicked anxiety I would usually feel when undertaking something like this.
Then I pulled the trigger and everything went off without a hitch.
It was a magical experience.
That doesn’t mean that it will be like this from now on. I know from experience that this will come and go. What it does mean is that this is a new high-water mark and a clear indicator that things are improving and hopefully, as time goes on, this will become the norm, not the exception, and I’ll have access to this kind of clear thinking in other areas as well.