Coronavirus: “I cut a carrot for the first time, at age 41”

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Alia Akkam is a food and design writer from New York now living in Budapest. Diagnosed with ADHD at age 39, she says the pandemic has forced her to face one of her greatest fears and loves – cooking.

image copyrightAlia Akkam

While others loved the sourdough to ease their pandemic stress, I was grateful that the obligatory time inside forced me, at 41, to cut a carrot for the first time.

Restaurants had always fascinated me. When I lived in New York, I would go out night after night and write about them. I devoured their menus, I listened to their chefs spouting out ingredients. Some nights I was eagerly planning two consecutive dinners with friends, a martini the only transition.

I wish I could have cooked, but for 20 years, it’s something I told myself I couldn’t do. So I didn’t.

In high school, I thought something was wrong with me. I couldn’t hit balls in gym class, didn’t know what to do with a video game joystick and that fueled my shame and frustration. I thought cooking would be just as difficult, so I avoided it.

But in March, when restaurants in Budapest closed, delivering food, in the face of a crisis, seemed an irresponsible way of eating. So this time I went for it.

I had learned a few years ago that my avoidance of cooking was actually a coping strategy.

image copyrightAlia Akkam

In April 2018, a few days before my 39th birthday, I sat across from a psychiatrist. He went through my answers to questions about childhood and poor scores on a motor skills test where I clicked triangles instead of circles. Then he announced that I had ADHD.

I cried when I heard this diagnosis because for years I had suspected it.

ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – affects attention and self-control. Characteristics can include impulsiveness, difficulty multitasking, intensity, distraction, and boredom. But we also have a knack for hyper-concentration so that I can spend hours writing without getting up, which can be wonderfully productive.

It was packing a box that sent me over the edge. I was in consultation on a movie set and my boss asked me to do the task, but I was crippled by this request – where to start? How much bubble wrap to use? My colleagues laughed and I got mad at myself that such a simple task was so confusing. Less than a year later, I went to the ADHD center.

ADHD was little talked about when I was growing up on Long Island in the 1980s. It was a term reserved for disturbing boys who couldn’t sit still during class. That introverted girls with perfect ponytails reading at an advanced level could have been unfathomable.

But if you looked closely, this telltale worry lurked in other ways. I was a dreamer for a day, looking out the window thinking of coffee ice cream or scribbling words on the back of an adverb spreadsheet. I played with my hair. I did everything except listen. The teachers’ words floated in and out of my head like snippets of dreams – I read the textbook and caught up with it later.

This limbo continued after school. The mundane tasks that are mechanical to most people felt overwhelming. It’s hard for people with ADHD to do things they don’t want to do and do things when they are supposed to – taxes were paid a year late, my clothes horse has turned into a closet because I couldn’t bring myself to hang up my clothes.

And I was petrified by the kitchen.

Every time I tried to chop an apple, I found myself looking for a bandage. The knives reminded me of how uncoordinated I am and that time management can be a drag, which is a problem in the kitchen.

image copyrightGetty Images
legendThe Szechenyi Lanchid chain bridge over the Danube in Budapest

When the lock was on the horizon, I was on the tram and saw a woman with two bags of groceries. Wheat tortillas took a peek and I thought how excited she was to come home and make fajitas during the pandemic. I wanted to do the same.

I started by crushing my first obstacle: the grocery store. People with ADHD can easily be overwhelmed by the choice, and while others effortlessly seek out pineapple juice, I remain paralyzed. It comes down to being overwhelmed and afraid to start. What do I really need to buy? How much should I receive?

I persevered and familiarized myself with the aisles and soon, like my fellow mask-clad buyers, only became frustrated when the shelves were cleaned of baking powder.

Baking, in fact, is pretty seamless to me. My wandering ADHD mind prefers precision. My forties reinforced how much I love to stir chocolate pudding and watch brownies go from liquid to solid form.

It was the cooking that tripped me. There are so many variables that confuse me – how exactly do you blanch green beans?

A visual learner, I relied on YouTube videos, watching how to make crispy tofu 10 times in a row – wanted to make sure I had the right technique.

I ripped the spinach by hand and sliced ​​the peppers with a butter knife until I felt comfortable enough to slowly and purposefully dissect that first carrot. A friend suggested that I buy a chain mail glove so that I could cut with confidence in the future.

There were plenty of disheartening mistakes along the way, like the dried white bean quesadilla that no amount of chipotle salsa could recover, and the burnt peanuts that botched a stir-fry. But there was also a fresh basil lasagna devoured in 24 hours and a spicy marinade that I concocted on the fly. I learned how to make chewy rice and, it turns out, I’m good at layering interesting flavors.

image copyrightAlia Akkam

There are many techniques that I need to master before I can consider myself an average cook. When a recipe says it will take an hour to prepare, I assign two. I have invested in enough glasses and bowls to be able to completely lay out the ingredients before cooking begins and I feel a lot less anxious about doing so.

I know that for a lot of people cooking is happy because they get creative, but I need the comfort of a recipe. Going through the steps in my mind ahead of time helps tremendously.

My diagnosis, which was initially a failure, is liberating. There is a freedom to know that my brain is wired differently. I’ve rethought the way I work – by implementing color-coded to-do lists – and I’m giving myself plenty of time to finish things.

And now I have conquered the kitchen.

Once Budapest starts to open up again, I will enjoy seeing friends in restaurants, but these hangouts will be interspersed with my new cooking rituals. I might be going out for lunch, but there will be an Italian pasta salad that chills in the fridge for dinner. Maybe that’s what the balance looks like.

If you have been affected by ADHD, organizations

ADHD Foundation and ADHD action may be able to help you.

For more information on disability, follow BBC Ouch on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to the weekly podcast on BBC Sounds.

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