There is a loaf of bread cooling on my worktop. Not just any bread. Sourdough bread that I baked. I used my own starter, and my trusty, ancient Kitchenaid, and a wonderful recipe from my friend’s dad. I exercised patience and I proofed it (twice!) and I baked it and now it’s here, making the whole flat smell amazing.
This sounds, on the surface, like showing off. Like smug. Like I’ve got my shit together. Like I’ve got time to bake; flour in the cupboard. Like I’m organised and domesticated and thriving in lockdown, all that good Instagram-able bread-related stuff.
What it really means is that I finally found the energy to feed my sourdough starter for the first time in weeks. And I only managed that by promising myself no pressure about baking: just feed the starter. Come on, I said to myself – quite literally, I said this out loud, this is what lockdown has done to me – you can do this one thing. Because I haven’t really felt like doing anything this week.
I have in fact done a lot of things because I have small humans (and myself) to feed and clothe and take care of, and work to do etc. But it’s been an uphill struggle.
I know I’m not alone in this, in feeling the hardness of what should be easy – just hang out with your kids! Enjoy the time together! Make the most of the downtime! As if it’s as simple as that.
I have the sourdough bread recipe pinned with novelty magnets to the side of the fridge and it’s been taunting me every time I’m in the kitchen, which is a lot these days. Look at what you should be doing, it says. Making bread for your family. Wholesome, simple, carefree stuff. Not shouting, not worrying. Not arguing about screentime while spending all your own spare hours with a screen glued to your face, caught in an endless loop of news cycles and memes.
I keep wanting to write something about lockdown, about mental health. But what can I say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times in a million different ways? What can I write that could possibly do justice to what is going on, both globally and locally and publicly and also in the quiet moments when you’re alone – really alone, despite never being actually alone – and the enormity of it all hits you like a tonne of bricks. And it is so, so heavy.
The only thing I seem to be thriving at in lockdown is finding new and inventive ways to criticise myself: everyone else has their shit together, why don’t I?
This post isn’t just about bread (although carbs are the official food group of lockdown). It’s about trauma rearing its ugly head because of, like, everything being upside down; and about how you manage that alongside everything else. It’s about experiencing anxiety manifesting itself in new and unusual ways, and about never quite finding your footing because you’re constantly comparing yourself to everyone else’s highlights reel.
Because one day you might feel great and ‘productive’ and share something nice online about your activities; and the next you are still in your dressing gown at 5pm and the only thing you’ve done all day is slide your thumb across the greasy screen of your phone, lost in that aforementioned loop of news cycles and memes. You scroll until you just can’t take any more, but then you move position so the blood can flow back to your hand, and then you carry on scrolling.
Here’s where I insert the bit about all of this being normal. About doing whatever you need to do to cope, to survive. Here’s where I remind you that it’s ok if thriving isn’t even on your radar.
Here’s where I suggest remembering to drink water. Maybe change your underwear even if you’re still wearing the same clothes. Take whatever baby steps you can toward steering yourself safely through this. For me that was feeding the starter and being very clear that I absolutely didn’t have to do anything else after that. Once that was done, I felt more able to do the other steps that followed. I tidied the kitchen. Made dough. Put my phone down for a few hours and focused on the recipe instead of the world that I cannot change or control.
The human brain is weird (and yours will have its own equally weird weirdnesses), but for me clearing the first hurdle is the hardest part.
So yes, today there’s a sourdough loaf cooling in my kitchen. But it’s not smug. It’s not magic or a sign of worthiness or success. It’s part of a daily choice to choose myself, even when my inner critic loudly tells me I’m not worth choosing.
This bread the result of cumulative baby steps that a week ago I definitely didn’t think I would be able to take, but it’s here because I fed the starter with no pressure. Today I will eat the resulting carb-y goodness. And tomorrow I will try – not even my best, I will just try – and know that whatever I can muster is enough.
Clearly I don’t have all the answers about how you manage your mental health ‘properly’ through all of this. I only know that there is no right or wrong way to do life at the moment. Clean pants are a bonus. Handmade bread is a big bonus. But store-bought is more than fine. Most days no bread is fine, too. There are other carbs just waiting to comfort you.
And. And. Even if I don’t feed the starter or use the sourdough recipe for another week or month, it’ll still be there waiting for me when the worst of this is over. Because one day it will be over, and in the new normal that follows I can only hope we won’t be measuring success in Instagram-able carbs.
(And then when it is all over and the shops reopen, I’ll probably mostly go back to getting my sourdough fix from the clever baker down the road who knows what he’s doing cos he makes bread for a living, and isn’t trying to learn how to make sourdough while working from home and educating his children and living through the biggest crises of a lifetime while being really hard on himself about it. Perhaps that’s a reminder I should add to the recipe on the fridge for the next time I feel the self-criticism creeping in.)