Baking to better.

“Out of love I made you a cake.I bake almost every week, at least once. It’s not uncommon for me to show up at Liesel’s work (the rock climbing wall) with a piece of cake – not because I’m just a fabulous person but because I’ve baked and someone has to eat it. So I’ll put a piece of cake (because that’s usually what it is) on one of our few precious paper plates left over from a baby shower, grab a fork, and head over to the fitness center.

As I hand my ID to the desk attendant to scan in, I often feel the need to explain myself, wearing street clothes and holding one or more plates sugary goods: I’m not here to work out. I’m here to deliver food to the working class of America. I just baked, and I can’t eat it all. Here, you have a cookie bar, too. Don’t you love me now? Okay, please don’t judge me for not working out today.

Last fall I hit as close to rock bottom as I’ve ever been in realizing I was both depressed and full of anxiety. As a result, I went through more flour and sugar than ever before. I may have set records. Around Thanksgiving time, I baked 16 loaves of pumpkin bread and gave them to every apartment on my floor – and then some. You don’t even want to know how many eggs and cans of pumpkin that took and how many times I washed my limited number of loaf pans.

We ate hardly any frozen pizza last year. I cooked and cooked and cooked, trying to communicate through food. I love you, my roommate. I know I’m a bear to live with right now, but I don’t know how not to be. I can barely handle myself. Have some garlic. It will get better. Ohhh, let me sauté that for you. 

It wasn’t even just about trying to prove that I wasn’t a horrible person – just a nice person going through a horrible time. I needed a way to cope, something through which to escape all the feelings I was having to deal with in and out of counseling. I needed to make something, to have control over something, to have something to show for my day. And actually, people are starting to say that baking is an effective treatment for depressed people.

The Wall Street Journal says, “Psychologists say cooking and baking are pursuits that fit a type of therapy known as behavioral activation. The goal is to alleviate depression by boosting positive activity, increasing goal-oriented behavior and curbing procrastination and passivity.”


It’s proven.

Passivity. That’s kind of the opposite thing most people think of when they think of depressed people. You picture extreme sadness, don’t you? Weeping? That commercial where the woman has a heavy bathrobe she can’t take off – until she takes their particular anti-depressant? I pictured that before I became one of the number. “Depressed” is such a good word for it though, because basically, when I was in my darkest times, I felt like a pressed down version of myself, like I’d been deflated and put in a tiny Tupperware. It was hard to breathe, hard to do anything, and worst of all, I didn’t want to breathe or do anything.

But then there was the kitchen.

I didn’t realize until recently what a sanctuary it has become for me – even the mountains of dishes when I’m done with the actual creation. The satisfaction of watching my efforts – sometimes even deviating from recipes or cooking norms – become something edible and many times even tasty must be healing.

I don’t have any data to back that up. I don’t have statistics or dates when I started to feel better as a direct result of baking, but all I know is I didn’t feel like myself. But as I baked and cooked (and went to counseling and took medication and started talking about my emotions instead of bottling them up quite so much and journaled and sought out the company of people who would understand), I felt progressively more like myself. And I feel most like myself in the kitchen or at the table.

What a gift that not all therapy has to be electric shock or lobotomies. What a treasure that food can heal. I’m betting Jesus had something to do with that.


Anchored in bad weather.

So, I’m a little frustrated right now. Partly with myself for  neglecting to blog from October 22nd til now, partly with myself for not just doing it, and partly with technology for deleting the blog post that I just wrote without even asking me.

Maybe this is Jesus’ way of steering me in a different direction. No, Ashley, no one needs to hear about what you’ve been doing instead of blogging. They don’t need to know who you were for Halloween or what you ate for breakfast this morning.

I’m sure there was something on my mind this week. Actually, I can remember being in the thick of busyness at multiple times this week then thinking something profound – hey, I should blog about that – then forgetting before I could get to a writing implement.

There must have been something going on between brain synapses. Join me in a moment of silence for all the potential brilliance/thoughtfulness/humor lost because I’m forgetful.

I could have thought up the idea for the next great American novel, but because I’m too busy to pay attention, I won’t write it.

Yesterday was about the yuckiest day you could possibly imagine. Sleet, rain, snow, and hail, paired with bone-chilling wind and gloomy skies. It doesn’t get much worse, especially if you have places to go and people to see on those days. It was dark and unmotivating and scummy.

And today. Oh, today. Today is chilly but bright and clear. The clouds are quickly clearing out to make way for the blue, and the sunshine is pouring onto my couch.

The weather is so often a picture of the human soul. I’ve been thinking about where I was at this point last year and how far God has brought me out of it today. This time last year, I had just starting taking my antidepressants and had gone through a week of intense, unwarranted anxiety. It was part of the process of getting used to the medication.

This year, I’m juggling two part-time jobs, an internship, a social, life, sleep, and my classes, and I’m capable of handling it. I’ve come out of five months on my own in a foreign country, where God kept pushing light into my life, into a world of bright shiny things and unicorns and glitter and wonderful, fuzzy feelings….

Did you catch the hyperbolic sarcasm there?

I’m tempted to make the comparison of darkness into light. God has brought day into my night. And I suppose, in a way, He has. My heart is lighter, my thoughts are clearer, my life makes more sense. But I think a more apt metaphor uses the weather. Storms come through and batter the soul. And sometimes the storms rage on and are followed by more storms. And the storms will come back. We are assured of that. Storms mold us and shape us more permanently than most teaching methods.

I think darkness is static. As a Christian, there are shadows in my life, but because I’m in Christ, there is no part of me without light. Storms are active. There are times when clouds veil the sun and produce shadows and sleet and winds so cold and biting and powerful that you might blow away into the abyss. But you don’t.

(c) Ashley McDonald 2014

So when the winds blow and the storms rage on and we’re pretty sure that our world will never see sunshine and warmth again, we are anchored.

My foolish God.

As often as I try to be open about my struggle (and I use that word because it is a struggle, every single day) with depression and anxiety, I have to say that it’s so hard to come out with it. There’s never really a point where you’re ready to tell the world that your emotional life is messy, that you don’t have control over it sometimes, and that you have woken up every morning for weeks in a row and just cried because there was another day to live through.

That’s not something that ever gets easy to say. And if it does get easy to say, that’s because you’re forgetting how hard it was.

Because I know that I’m far from alone in this, though, I want to speak up. I want people who don’t have depression to have an idea of what it’s like and to know that if you’ve never experienced it, you will not understand, ever. And I want people who do have depression and have experienced it to know that there is no good reason to feel ashamed (I say “no good reason” because obviously, there are plenty of reasons that we feel ashamed. They are real, but depression is not shameful). You are not alone.

In the road to healing, I’ve read a lot of articles written by people with depression, and I’ve noticed this divide between Christians and non-Christians who write. I feel torn sometimes, because sometimes I just want to write like Hyperbole and a Half. She’s so honest, and I can relate to all of the things she says. She’s so blunt, too. Sometimes, I want to say that I feel like ______ (insert word there that Christians don’t use), too because depression feels like an emotional curse word.

Then I read things like “Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be a conduit of hope—an opportunity for the foolishness of God to be displayed in our lives.” from The Gospel Coalition and see that God has a place in all of this. He’s not just a part of my pain; he’s CENTRAL to it. He’s the one who never departs and makes meaning out of it.

I love that phrase, the “foolishness of God.” Because it really is pretty foolish to shower grace and mercy and love and blessings on some person who is going to fail you and disappoint you at least half the time and only listen to you when they feel like it and not obey because they think they know better (stupid people).

How foolish my God is, to love me.

How foolish He has been during the past year. How foolish He is to see my depression and try to tell me that something meaningful will come out of so much pain and so much deadness. God is silly.

It’s foolish to think that someone who can’t bear the thought of getting out of bed in the morning or cries while eating breakfast for no reason or has to deliberately remember how emotional interaction with other human beings works because of the horrible emptiness in her heart or who can’t possibly have anything genuine left at the end of the day to offer her roommate could be someone God wants to reach out to. That’s messy. That’s ugly. That’s icky. That’s not “holy.”

But that’s where we find Jesus. He works in messy. He comes into pain. He says, “Not only do I still love you and want you to be a part of my Kingdom, I want to use you. Like this. And when you start feeling a bit better, it’s going to be even more meaningful. You’re going to have a story, and I’m going to help you tell it.”

How foolish.

How wonderful.

My foolish, wonderful, gracious God wants to use my story of not being able to do my homework because I needed to just cry for a few hours and do something with it. He wants to not just use my story but me, the one who did the crying and hurting and……


I guess we did that, too. We are doing that.

My foolish God.

My foolish, amazing God.

He is the reason that it’s worth it to tell my story and be open about my struggle. He gives meaning to the mess and passion where there was only pain.

Only everything

This morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. The day loomed before me, dark and intimidating. No hyperbole here. The only things I have on my agenda today are ballet class, packing, a bit of reading, a bit of editing, and going to my friend’s apartment to sleepover (because we’re leaving for Budapest early the next morning).

But I might as well have been heading for a big presentation or a scary, confrontational conversation or my own execution for all the enthusiasm I felt about getting up.

I’m trying to be honest about my journey through depression and anxiety, partly because it’s a good way to heal and explore how I’m feeling and partly because there’s so much shame involved with these disorders that I want anyone who has felt this to know they aren’t alone. And that there’s hope.

Some days it’s much easier to get out of bed, and the world seems bright and full of smiley people. But many days, my bed feels like the only safe place. And I’m not just talking about that deep love most college students and other nocturnal folks have for their pillow and blankets. This is a very different feeling, a feeling that once you leave the safety of your bed, anything can happen. Things like conversations loom before you as daunting exercises in social interaction, and the thought of going to a group event or walking outside might as well be walking directly into the line of fire at a shooting range. Or at least, that’s how it feels for me.

These are the days that I have to breathe really deeply. Bryan and Katie Torwalt’s music has been particularly healing for me during this past year. Words like I breathe you in, God, for you are thick all around me and Now nothing is holding me back from you, Redeemer of my soul; now nothing can hold me back from you. Your love will never let me go. Jesus, you make all things new  have breathed life into my soul.

The only stability I’ve found in my life is that Jesus understands me, knows how deeply I feel and exactly what causes those feelings. He is always working for my good, always showing me how to get past those struggles and to live in a healthy relationship with my emotions.

My only peace is when I live in community with God.

My only joy is in seeing the things He’s doing in my life, the ways He’s working, and the beautiful things He’s created in the things and people around me.

My only life is in breathing Him in every time my lungs feel tight with anxiety.

My only security is in His affection and his incredible love for me that never fails or gets tired of reassuring me of who I am to Him.

And that’s not just me. Though I don’t easily find stability, peace, joy, life, and security around me, those things truly only come from God. The best thing to come out of my depression is that I have had to cling to closely to God, the only one capable of truly satisfying those needs. Otherwise, I sink and can’t breathe.

He’s the only thing I need, yet He’s everything I need. Only and every.

Healing and French toast

Some things just stay with you when you change countries. French toast is one of those things for me. So are depression and anxiety.

the orangest egg yolk I've ever seen

the orangest egg yolk I’ve ever seen

goodness in process

goodness in process

golden perfection

golden perfection

During the 7 days I’ve been here, I’ve made French toast three times. Not only does it bring back heartwarming memories of cooking an entire loaf of the stuff every Sunday night with my friends in Chicago, but it’s cheap and tasty. You can put just about anything on it. I’ve been using peanut butter this week because that’s protein, my friends, and because it’s a sweet and salty taste of America.

I tried to put applesauce on it today, but I couldn’t get the jar open for the life of me. Tried all the tactics I could think of, but nothing worked. Applesauce went back on the shelf unopened, and the peanut butter came back out to play.

I’ve been trying for a long time to get my jar of normalcy open again, the jar that always wants to get out of bed in the morning and doesn’t have a hard time breathing or going out of the house or talking to people. I’ve been trying to crank it open for a while now. Actually, this month marks about year since the struggle began. Some days I think I’ve got it almost open – I can practically smell the contents – but it’s not open or perhaps knows how to re-seal itself.

You know how hard it is to open jars sometimes. Sometimes you feel arthritic just because you can’t open the darn jar. Or you feel that maybe you haven’t been doing enough to work out your arm muscles. Something must be wrong with you because you can’t open this jar. But it’s really not your fault.

So you put it back and open an easier jar until you can muster up the strength or tenacity or whatever its going to take to get that jar open. Obviously, you don’t know what it takes, otherwise you’d be chowing on applesauce with your French toast.

So I’m here, in Austria, eating my French toast and healing because healing is a process that begs to be lived. It asks for you to learn and to walk one day at a time. I think, in spite of all my trepidation and fear about being across the globe while I still don’t feel right yet, I think I’m supposed to be here, healing.

I got lost on purpose yesterday, because walking is healing. No reason why. It just is. And each day I have to depend solely on God because I know few other people here and none so well as Him.

There is a time to hurt.

And there is a time to heal.