This post is all about my belief in the potential benefits of slowing down and engaging in something absorbingly creative. Over the next few paragraphs I’ll be delving into what exactly this means, specifically exploring the symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, and how engaging in creative pursuits has been shown to make a difference.
The Depressed Mind
One of the most important things I gained from depression was enlightenment. To be clear: I did not sit beneath a tree for seven days until nirvana overcame me (see Buddhism). What did happen was that gradually I learned that I was not my thoughts. Which is especially useful if your thoughts have become your worst enemy somewhere along the line: chiming in to cheer on and strengthen the merest whiff of self-defeat, replacing optimistic ambition with resigned lethargy and – at its worst – total numbness. Suffice it to say that simply trying can sometimes be enough to kickstart a small shift in perception. Basically, if you rarely leave the house and remain curled in a ball telling yourself you’re not good enough, you end up believing it and – keen problem-solver that the human brain is – it’ll search through the memory database for evidence of this conclusion, reminding you of each and every other time you’ve felt low, or sad, or stupid. (It’s efficient like that.)
If you’re really unlucky, you might find yourself on a fast-track to catastrophising: predicting the worst outcome of any and every event. Watch out for thoughts such as ‘I’ll never get this done’, ‘That person frowning obviously hates me’, or ‘I always get this wrong’. The negative thoughts can spin out of control, with anticipated future ‘failures’ encouraging a sense of futility and leaving you less able to overcome current obstacles. Once you’re able to recognise these patterns, it becomes easier to avoid the quicksand by choosing to react differently, and taking a different path.
The Anxious Mind
Anxiety can propel you into a prolonged ‘fight or flight’ response state of high alert. This is the standard biological response to a threatening situation, and has ensured the survival of human beings versus lions and other dangerous items since the dawn of man. Less helpful when you’re just trying to buy a loaf of bread and your mind is convinced that the short drive to the corner shop is a minefield of potential hazards. What if something terrible happens on the way? What if they’re run out of all the bread I like? The car might break down. I wouldn’t have any bread and I couldn’t get to work the next day. What if I can’t afford the repairs? How would I make cheese sandwiches? What if I lose my job? etc. You get the idea.
The dictionary definition of the word ‘anxiety’ may also be helpful here: ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’. It’s precisely this uncertainty that the mind in red alert, DEFCON 1 mode hones in on; losing your job following an unsuccessful bread shopping trip would be remarkably unfortunate, but it could happen. Any number of unwanted things may happen. Worrying about all of them in advance isn’t going to help. But don’t take my word for it when there’s a Winnie the Pooh quote that nails it:
‘Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’
‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
Heard of the recent craze for adult colouring-in books? They were everywhere at the end of 2015, widely praised in the media for their ability to help adults ‘de-stress and self-express’. Some of the books even label themselves as ‘art therapy’, making quite the claim on the cover, e.g. ‘Colour Yourself Calm: A Mindfulness Colouring Book‘. Trying not to sound overly ‘new age’ here, but the gateway to a different way of thinking was opened for me through mindfulness, so I can kinda roll with the idea behind these books. (I have one, and it can be a great little distraction of an evening if I need to ‘zone out’.)
Fairly popular now thanks to the Headspace app, yoga and Ruby Wax among others, mindfulness is simply the conscious decision to live mindfully, or indeed, the mindful decision to live consciously. Don’t get me wrong, my own personal initial scepticism was relatively high in relation to sitting still and breathing as a mental health aid. Liiiiike, I’ve been breathing all along guys, come on. I was genuinely surprised when I was first led in a session of mindfulness as part of a course of CBT. Just closing my eyes and breathing for a long enough period can promote genuine stillness. WHO KNEW? I felt surprisingly relaxed when I opened my eyes.
What still astounds me now is this capacity for surprise in terms of the power of the mind. I realise now that it would never have occurred to me to slow down, because I didn’t realise the truly frantic speed at which my mind was racing away with itself.
Choosing to break the cycle
What I found especially helpful as part of the Mindfulness course I then followed was the various suggested ‘habit releasers’. It’s all well and good reading about all the ways to feel better but generally this is no more effective than watching someone else jog in order to get fit. However, if you start making (even tiny) changes, the brain then has some new material to work with, interpret and learn from. Examples of habit releasers include:
- Choosing to walk or drive a different route to work/the shops/anywhere. Especially if you’re walking: look up. Try to pay attention to your new surroundings. How is it different to what you’d normally see and notice?
- Pick a date and time to go to the cinema without looking up what’s on beforehand. Choose a film to watch there and then.
- Always sit in the same seat or area of the room for meetings? Try the other side of the table, or sit next to somebody different.
- Give cheese and mango chutney a whirl in your sarnies. The pickle won’t be offended, I promise.
- Here’s a good one: commit a random act of kindness. Take a homemade cake round to your neighbour’s; send a handwritten letter to an old friend; leave a note inside a book you’ve enjoyed then leave the book somewhere communal at work or on the bus. See how the time-old technique of giving without expecting to receive works out for you!
The idea of the 8-week course is that doing these activities, along with daily meditation practice (i.e. breathing), means that you’ll start to notice a gradual shift in perception. The best bit is realising out of nowhere that your mind has stopped chattering away at you for a few minutes, or even seconds. Personally, I’ve found running particularly helpful. Any activity that you engage in mindfully essentially redirects the chattering mind to gaining, maintaining or improving a skill. Enter baking!
My passion for and dedication to baking has, over time, brought me ridiculous amounts of pleasure and a new set of skills, and with these, increased confidence and a willingness to mix things up a bit, try new recipes and come up with my own. I can get completely lost in a particularly involved recipe, something I consider a bit of a challenge, or absorb myself totally in making sugarpaste flowers look as realistic (and tasty) as I can. It’s not hugely surprising to me now to think of my initially random “sort of smash and grasp urge to regain a sliver of independence, choice, and control” moment that was deciding to make a Christmas cake slap bang in the middle of a post-break-up chasm as an intuitive form of expressive therapy. These are any forms of therapy that emphasise and encourage the creative process rather than the final product.
- Art therapy has been used with patients suffering from schizophrenia in adult in-patient centres in Britain.
- Creative therapies use areas such as art and drama to increase self-awareness, develop social skills, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.
- Being able to express yourself without being judgmental can break through some of the negativity of depression.
- Creating art gives you a product you can see and learn from.
What I’ve learnt
I’ve come a long way since I made my first ever Christmas cake and felt extremely proud of myself. So I thought I’d round off with a quick reminder of the things I’ve learnt in the last few years.
- If you decide to do something, and put in enough time, effort and patience, it’s entirely likely that you’ll achieve it.
- Even if you don’t quite get there, you’ll have struck out on your own path, maybe even dislodged the stones of some other skill or passion you didn’t know you had that starts an avalanche of creativity.
- I went from ‘I couldn’t run for a bus’ to the Royal Parks half marathon (and survived).
- Having my own place totally rocks. I’m basically a fully-functioning adult with my own playground.
- I went from ‘Oh no, everyone else does the kitchen stuff’ to making wedding cakes. (Pretty good ones, too.)
- It’s important to look after your mental self as well as your physical self.
- I believe in myself.
What about you?
I’d recommend writing a similar list to anyone – it’s fun and gave me a wee boost! I’d also love to hear about all your creative pursuits/hopes/dreams – mindful or not 🙂
It’s #TimetoTalk about OCD, peeps. Why? Well, for a start, Time to Talk Day took place earlier this month: a day of awareness-raising coordinated by Time to Change – an anti-stigma campaign run by the leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. The aim is to get as many people as possible across England talking about mental health. Hot on the heels of this year’s Time to Talk Day came the current In The Mind season of programmes across the BBC, which started on 15th February. So I’m technically late with my post on the subject, but deliberately so, as anytime is a Good Time to Talk. I’ve honed in on OCD in particular as I believe it’s one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions.
So thanks for clicking this far. Sorry about the title; I don’t mean to sound grumpy but, well, this is something that in turn can baffle and exasperate me. But first of all – a quick recap: what is OCD?
- OCD is characterised by the presence of either obsessions or compulsions, but commonly both.
- The symptoms can cause significant functional impairment and/or distress to sufferers.
- An obsession is defined as an unwanted intrusive thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters the person’s mind.
- Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that the person feels driven to perform.
- They may experience anxiety that does not diminish until the behaviour is completed.
- A compulsion can either be overt and observable by others, such as checking that a door is locked, or a covert mental act that cannot be observed, such as repeating a certain phrase in one’s mind (definition courtesy of the National Institute for Health).
Current estimates say that 12 in every 1000 people in the UK suffer from the disorder, equating to around 750,000 people. That’s a lot of people shouting at the TV every time Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners comes on. Take a look at OCD-UK’s website to read the charity’s response when this programme was first broadcast in 2013. Prompting comments such as the following on social media is not exactly helpful, in their opinion and mine: “I’d like to have OCD; it would give me the kick up the ass to tidy up my house when I get up.“
I’m not on a one-woman crusade against this programme in particular, nor Channel 4. I just genuinely struggle to understand how a potentially devastating illness can be seemingly easily reduced to a maddeningly false stereotype. The comment above lays bare a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the disorder, painting the effects of its symptoms as helpful, when in reality they can be devastating. Any actual cleaning completed as part of someone’s compulsive ritual is a side effect of actions the sufferer gains no pleasure from performing; the crucial difference being that if the activity were indeed pleasurable, and performed voluntarily, a diagnosis of OCD would be highly unlikely. These are erroneous beliefs that a simple Google search could easily remedy.
Or maybe I can understand how this happens. Unfortunately, one of the key features of the disorder is Knowing Damn Well that it is silly or even dangerous; it’s a horrible, shaming, brutal self-awareness that compels you to engage in compulsive rituals as a means of dispelling unwanted intrusive thoughts whilst remaining perfectly aware that they probably won’t quell your anxiety. But it’s incredibly difficult to stop. Pitching yourself against the awesome power of your own brain feels like a losing battle. Because what if something awful happened, and it was all your fault? That ‘what if’ can circle the anxious mind like an all-too-familiar predator.
The obsessions and compulsions can vary hugely between individuals. One Ethiopian schoolgirl felt compelled to eat the mud bricks making up a wall of her house. However, it is true that compulsive washing is common, so I can understand how this has become a fairly well known trait of the disorder. Perceived ‘cleanliness’ is an important part of understanding OCD; plain horror in the face of unwanted and persistent intrusive thoughts can fuel an all-encompassing desire to ‘clean’ oneself, which can lead to elaborate rituals. It might help at this point to spare a thought for Lady Macbeth.
Doctor: What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands.
Gentlewoman: It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands: I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.
Ever spent fifteen minutes washing your hands? That’s going well beyond a dedication to hygiene; that’s a broken, repetitive loop. Evidenced by the observers’ reactions.
Lady Macbeth: Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
Nobody piped up at this point with the observation that perhaps if we all engaged in some brutal murdering, our hands would ‘sweeten’ up nicely. In fact, they’d likely be red raw, and references in modern day culture highlight the unusual nature of the character’s behaviour, not to mention her eventual fate of being driven to madness and suicide. Which definitely isn’t funny. Right?
It’s easier to focus on extensive cleaning because the initial impulse is understandable. The missing link in people’s understanding of the illness is the compulsion to keep washing, because the usual confirmation that ‘ok, you’re probably clean now’ doesn’t come easily. (See earlier reference to the unfortunate Lady Macbeth.) And this faulty ‘off switch’ can apply to whatever you’re doing, e.g. checking a light switch, making sure you’ve turned the gas off, even down to the way you walk down the street (avoiding cracks in the pavement, or repeating certain numbers, words or phrases in your head as you go).
Applying the description ‘a little bit OCD’ to a person who simply likes cleaning is misleading. To be honest, the additional time it can take someone engaged in compulsive rituals to actually clean something means you’re far more likely to see one shiny mug buffed to perfection than you are a spotless kitchen in the home of an OCD sufferer. And sometimes, hearing references to being ‘a bit OCD’ in everyday life can be extremely jarring to a full-time sufferer, acting as a reminder that they can’t flip that off switch, no matter how much they long to.
So let’s at the very least readjust our perspective on the phrase ‘a little bit OCD’. I hope that taking a little time to understand what’s involved for sufferers will help. I don’t believe that people mean to offend, but sometimes they do.
I think it’s worth noting that The Guardian newspaper’s style guide now specifically bans using ‘schizophrenia’ in anything other than a medical context:
schizophrenia, schizophrenic should be used only in a medical context, never to mean in two minds, contradictory, or erratic, which is wrong, as well as offensive to people diagnosed with this illness; schizophrenic is an adjective, not a noun. After many years we have largely eradicated misuse of this term, although as recently as 2010 a columnist contrived to accuse the Conservatives of “untreatable ideological schizophrenia”.
One day I hope that the severity of OCD will be understood and defended in the same way.
The mental health charity Mind have a range of resources on OCD freely available on their website, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. There are tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
If you think you might have OCD, or you’ve already been diagnosed and want to check in on your symptoms, try answering these questions to rate yourself on the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale.
I can highly recommend The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam. Having suffered from OCD for twenty years, this book is a fusion of science, history and personal memoir in which he explores the weird thoughts that exist within every mind, and how they drive millions of us towards obsessions and compulsions. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the disorder.
I’m genuinely not sure what’s happened to the last five years, but somehow, my adorable nephew is now five entire years old. Which meant my biggest birthday cake challenge to date! Old enough to be very much the star of his own birthday show, complete with artistic input on the menu. By which I mean, he knew around a year ago that he’d like a “minion cake please, Auntie Sez!”
The good news being of course that the phonetically exuberant, banana-obsessed creatures are basically everywhere. I did not expect to be short of creative inspiration. Name any object available for purchase and it’s very feasible that you can buy a minionised version of it somewhere. I am also now, thanks to James, on first name terms with your four central minion characters: Bob, Dave, Kevin and Stuart. (I regularly confuse the last two – one is tall and the other squat and for some reason my brain refuses to associate this distinction with the relevant names.) Bob is my favourite because he has two eyes, goggles and is bald. Dave is basically Bob but with hair. ANYhoo, I digress.
Cake-wise, I decided to bring Dave to life in all his cakey, follicle-filled glory. Having researched my quantities relative to my chosen tin size (8 eggs, ladies and gentleman), I sourced the image below from Google to use as a guide. And I was pretty pleased with the results! (Though, in what is fast becoming a theme for Maison Hart bakes, he did end up limbless. Well, he has legs. Who needs feet, eh?)
Dave is one of my proudest moments. Genuinely. He actually looks like Dave, for a start. Most importantly, my nephew absolutely loved him. Plus he was relatively easy to create, and I spent a nice few therapeutic hours in the kitchen last Saturday – a great way to decompress after my first week in a new job. (Yes, I took leftovers in, in a shameless attempt to ingratiate myself with new colleagues. Ahem.)
Once the cake had cooled I was able to, initially, just lightly score the main outlines directly onto the sponge, and then to cut out the shape of his head at the top and his legs at the bottom. I then lathered the shaped sponge in chocolate buttercream – both as a filling and all over the top and sides – and rolled out a sizeable hunk of yellow icing.
I’m including photos from various icing stages below because, well, because a seemingly ‘naked’ minion is fairly chucklesome, let’s be honest.
This last photo is also worth laughing at because you can make out my giant hand print, caused by my inelegant attempts to persuade the cake onto an icing surface. I was able to smooth away most of the marks, and/or cover them with other body parts. (Cake smoothing tools are widely available online; I use one very similar to the Easyflow Smoother/Polisher.)
Cue the rest of Dave’s costume…
All the coloured icing you see in this cake is ready-to-roll pre-coloured icing (I bought these particular colours in Sainsbury’s). The buttons are simply small balls of black icing pushed down and then stuck on with a dab of buttercream. And now for the face…
That’s better! I can confirm that Dave definitely has brown eyes. Google said so. Fortunately I had some brown icing leftover from various reindeer escapades in the past. To make the goggles silver, I cut out the black circular rims separately, and put them on kitchen towel to spray with edible silver glitter.
For the finishing touches, I lightly sliced in a mouth (smiling), and forced some liquorice twists onto cocktail sticks to insert in the top of the head as hair (three on either side of the parting). Et voilà!
He tasted pretty good too 🙂
Soooo I tried to get slightly more creative this year… and though the finished effort wasn’t exactly perfectly polished, I did manage three separate ‘constructions’ of which I remain reasonably proud!
The eagle-eyed amongst you will note that the original sketch design featured male and female hats. But I mean, really, sugarpaste snowmen’s heads are simply not built for hatwear. I say ‘snowmen’ though the original design was for a loved-up snowboy and snowgirl. It’s surprisingly tricky to convey gender through the medium of inanimate, icing-based facial expressions. Or hats. I did wonder about making little heart shapes for her buttons (belonging to that essential snowperson item: an invisible coat) but I reasoned that this was perhaps taking gender stereotyping Too Far, and left them as they are to be freely interpreted. They’re both smiling anyhow, despite not having any arms. I fully intended to fashion said limbs from vanilla pod casings but this particular detail became lost (basically once the glitter came out, the design flew out of the window).
Techniques… (I use the term loosely)
The scarves are strawberry laces plaited together, and the eyes and mouth simply dotted on using black writing icing (available from supermarkets with a decent-sized baking aisle). The noses are chocolate carrots, also from the supermarket – the sort of thing you might usually lob on a carrot cake. These were my nephew’s favourite bit; indeed the only part he ate, what with 4 year-olds not being too hot on alcoholic fruit as a general rule.
The tree is star-shaped layers of green ready-to-roll icing cut using two different sizes of cookie cutter, topped with a jelly bean and liberally sprinkled with edible green glitter. I secured the jelly bean and various other extremities (see snowpeople) using edible glue (I got mine in hobbycraft but Lakeland also do this).
Finally, the icy lake is merely ready-to-roll dark blue icing cut into a vague lake shape and dusted with edible glitter (I’ve bought plenty from cakecraftshop.co.uk). Ridiculously simple but god I love some liberal glitterage. I then just ice-wrote a black line around the edge. (Yes, I’m taking ‘writing icing’ and making a simple past tense construction out of it; don’t fight it.)
I’m already considering snow animals for next year…
Picture the scene: it’s the end of October, 2011. I’m living between parents and on sofas, out of suitcases, boxes and assorted IKEA bags. Commuting to my job in London, which somehow seems to have become the only constant in a fractured, post-break-up world.
Mind state: raw.
Baking skills: average.
Cake decorating skills: non-existent.
So… Christmas cake?
Earlier that year I had received my first issue of the excellent BBC Good Food magazine, having pleaded with various relatives for a subscription-shaped birthday gift. I ADORE leafing through the glossy pages of all the glorious seasonal recipes and foodie facts, hints and tips. It was truly a happy day for me when the latest edition hit the doormat and the next day’s train commute would be that little bit more exciting for all the foodie daydreaming I could indulge in. (Note: this is still very much the case today.)
Up to this point however, I had never truly taken advantage of the monthly recipe compendium and, you know, actually cooked much. Ahem. I had tinkered with cupcake concoctions over the last few months, frolicked with edible glitter, luxuriated in buttercream – that sort of thing. I’d always considered myself more of a baker (a provider of desserts, an exuder of sweetness) – largely as my Mum, Dad and sister are all such brilliant cooks that frankly the other courses were basically taken care of.
And then, the pre-Christmas issue landed. And it was a Thing of Loveliness. It was just cheese and canapés and fizz and mince pies and meat just falling off bones on every page AND MARY BERRY. The many-splendoured-cardigan wearer herself, smiling kindly above a Victorian Christmas cake recipe. Because, if you’re going to really crack on with this Actual Baking Malarkey, it’s totally wise and sensible to start with the British Behemoth of Baking, to make what is essentially the festive centrepiece of the Christmas dinner table. Oh, and the time between actually baking it and eating it is literally WEEKS, so gawd only knows what could have happened to it in the interval. This is before you wrap it all up in marzipan and royal icing and wait anxiously to see whether the first slice induces brandy poisoning in anyone within inhaling distance. Despite all this, I just knew I HAD to do it. Now, trying to put my finger on exactly how I made that decision, I believe it was a small revolutionary cry, though it seemed deafening at the time. A sort of smash and grasp urge to regain a sliver of independence, choice, and control. Coming up against practical difficulties, e.g. the inability to roll the fricking icing any thinner, and deciding to just try harder: roll it up into a ball again, knead it a bit, start over. I must have done this five times that first year. And I also shouted a lot. Quite possibly poured myself some mulled wine. But I did it! I covered the darn cake, and covered up the – ahem – knobbly bits with some bright, festive tinsel. Behold, a crisp, clean white slate! (Metaphor Alert.) Now what? Quick rummage through topmost boxes and AHA – 101 cookie cutters. Keep it simple – red and green royal icing. DONE!
Crucially, tinsel does not mend broken relationships. This undeniable fact can lead to feelings of General Helplessness following a break-up. So I guess instead of turning inward and running through all the things I wasn’t able to do, I made a subconscious decision to ruddy well make something completely new, totally from scratch, and to do it properly. I say ‘subconscious’ as this by no means marked the start of a clear linear trajectory in which I baked myself happily ever after; it sort of doesn’t work like that. But I’d inadvertently kick-started something within myself: a bit of faith, a sprinkling of motivation to improve a skill. Not to mention an annual promise to produce a cake.
I already happened to love Christmas, although the sheer joy I glean from designing festive accoutrements came as a bit of a surprise. I certainly don’t practice my sugarpasting skills all year round, but give it a whirl and you can actually knock out a not-half-bad-looking Santa (albeit faceless and somewhat tipsy). And the happy faces and contented munching sounds of anyone you serve it to is its own rather lovely – and wholly satisfying – reward.
You can see all my festive offerings to date in the Christmas cake gallery – enjoy!
Originally posted May 2014.
Exciting times this month chez Maison Hart! On Saturday 10th May I had the total pleasure and honour of baking 48 personalised cupcakes for the wedding of the lovely Beth and Adam. Having never baked for such an occasion before (eek!), cue much experimentation and multiple tasting sessions!
The happy couple went for half vanilla flavour, and half rosewater and pistachio. Both were topped with flavoured buttercream sprinkled with edible glitter, with homemade peach sugarpaste roses nestling in the pink buttercream, and alternate sugarpaste hearts labelled with the letters ‘A’ and ‘B’ protruding from the blue topping – see below for the results.
For the roses, I followed Mich Turner’s handy tutorial as guidance: see below. Don’t be put off by the subtitle promising ‘Cake Decorating Perfection’; frankly, if you go into this expecting GBBO-levels of quality you may be disappointed. As I have learned, you really do just have to start from where you are.
I was originally inspired into thinking I could actually produce something vaguely flower-like after taking a sugarpaste modelling one-off class through Groupon. This was in fact two of the most frustrating hours of my life, as I struggled to come to terms with being a total beginner surrounded by experts (well, two other people, one of whom was the teacher. The small group only intensified my feelings of inadequacy). I felt fat-fingered and utterly out of my depth, but I did somehow manage to stifle my vanity and was incredibly proud of what I eventually took home with me. Although, frankly, TWO HOURS for a single flower. No wonder bakers and modellers are moving into teaching others; the time vs money ratio on wedding cakes must be challenging to say the least!
It was just lovely to be involved in my friends’ big day, and to present them with such a personal gift. A lot of love went into those cupcakes…I hope it shows.
* Cake pun stolen directly from my Dad’s Father of the Bride speech at my sister’s wedding