There was a time when, for Ella Risbridger, the world had become overwhelming. Sounds were too loud, colours were too bright, everyone moved too fast. One night she found herself lying on her kitchen floor, wondering if she would ever get up - and it was the thought of a chicken, of roasting it, and of eating it, that got her to her feet and made her want to be alive. Ella, who suffered a severe anxiety disorder, translated her thoughts into a new cookbook, Midnight Chicken, which she also dubs 'an annotated list of things worth living for - a manifesto of moments worth living for - a cookbook to make you fall in love with the world again.' To celebrate the release of her new book, Ella has written about her experience for GLAMOUR...
"The day after my 21st birthday, I decided to kill myself.
"It’s hard for me now to explain exactly why. My life, as far as I remember it, should have been lovely. My family were (and are) fantastic. My friends were delightful. I was madly in love with a handsome man who adored me; I was on the kind of university course I’d dreamed of; and I had a flat full of books. But mental illness doesn’t work like that. It never works like that.
"I was suffering at the time from a severe anxiety disorder. I had been for a while, I think: I had panic attacks most days. Some weeks I couldn’t leave the house. Some weeks I couldn’t get out of bed. I found talking to people almost impossible. I was so frightened, all the time. Everything was totally overwhelming. Everything was entirely too much. It had all spiralled radically out of control, and I was so scared it seemed like there was no way out.
"It’s hard for me to write about this now; it feels like those dark, dark days belonged to somebody else. But it’s important- because it was the start of a new life for me. It was the reason I started cooking. It was the reason I wrote a blog, and then- as of January 2019- my book. It was the turning point.
"I didn’t kill myself. I gave it a go, but something in me wanted to live- and my boyfriend wanted me to live, too. My memories of this time are hazy: I think the mind sometimes has a trick of blurring out times in your life that were intolerably hard.
"What I know for sure, however, is that at some point in the immediate and messy aftermath of trying to die, I started thinking about cooking. I wasn’t a very good cook. I hadn’t ever really cooked at all. But I started thinking about cooking, all the same. I think, now, that it was like a puzzle. It was like a kind of sudoku, or a crossword: how would I make this work? How would I do this? How do people make a pie?
"We talked about the pie, my boyfriend and me, in the ambulance. We talked about pie in the waiting room at A&E; in the little side-room where they put people who can’t stop crying. We talked about food, and food we remembered from childhood, and food we’d eaten together. We talked about cooking.
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"And the next day- when we finally got home- we cooked together. We made a roast chicken. And then- for reasons I can’t now remember, if I even knew at the time- I wrote about it. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first step towards getting better. Somehow, cooking was the antidepressant I needed.
"I tried actual antidepressants, but none of them worked very well for me. None of them worked as well as an afternoon carefully weighing out and stirring; of slicing, dicing and chopping; of considering flavours and pairings and whether supper needed a pinch of salt or a squeeze of lemon.
"Some people go to therapy: I went to the supermarket. It was a tiny goal for days I didn’t feel like I could leave the house- just to get to the shops and back. It was very hard, sometimes, but I found something incredibly soothing about running through flavour combinations in my mind; about the neat rows of possibilities with minimal consequences. It felt, I suppose, like a safe way to practice decision making: a safe way to make something happen. It was creative, but with rules. Butter and flour and milk made a white sauce. Celery, onion and carrot diced fine always made a deep, flavourful base for a stew or a pie. You could do whatever you wanted, provided you knew the rules. And if you didn’t know them, you could learn. I watched endless videos; read a hundred cookbooks. When I didn’t know something, I Googled. Better yet, I asked somebody. I found myself talking to people: to my wonderful family, to my friends.
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"I found myself asking people for dinner when I couldn’t leave the house- and we sat, and we ate, and we talked. We talked about how I was doing. We talked about where I was going next. We talked about how we felt- and about what we were eating. We talked about everything. And slowly, things got better.
"I went further afield; talked to more people. Leaving the house became easier. Living became easier.
"It’s been a long time now, since I wanted to kill myself. It’s been years. But I’m still cooking. I cook the way other people run, or do yoga: a daily, meditative practice where I concentrate on something other than myself. And as the windows steam up, and my friends gather round the table, I count myself incredibly lucky.
"It’s for this reason that I write about my experiences with mental illness: I’ve been incredibly lucky. I got better. I am getting better. I’m able to say what helped me - and maybe it will help you, too."
Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger is out now (Bloomsbury, £26)