31 May 2014

Facing a lion and Blueberry upside down cake

Have you ever feared something so great that all the blood rushed from your head and the breath left your lungs? 


I don't mean fear like if you're caught in an armed hold up or running from a hungry lion. I mean what others could judge as being unfathomable fear: the fear of public speaking, the fear of driving a car, the fear of great heights or the fear of tiny spiders. 

Do you think our brain knows the difference between the fear of running for your life from a lion or running from a spider? Ask a person paralysed by spiders, who is unable to utter a single word or move a muscle while that spider is 'hunting' them down. Do they think their fear is any less than the person paralysed by a would be lion attack? Fear is fear after all, is it not?

This week I have been going through my own unfathomable fear, and it's caused me to lash out at those very people trying to help me. It's also left me in a dark pit of despair and shaken me to my very core.

What could this great fear be?

My doctor says I need to go back to work.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? But to me, hearing those words sent me into fight or flight. First, I fought those attacking words with my own attacking words on why I'm not ready to go into a workplace after an almost 12 month hiatus. Then I went into flight response and simply became mute while my doctor talked to me about the importance of this next step in my recovery process. I responded with no eye contact and no words. What could I say, after all?

For all my brain knew someone could have been threatening my life. Our brains are smart, but they aren't that smart to work out the variances in fear. My brain was telling me this woman was threatening my life. How was I to work when my concentration can't even get through a page in a book? How was I to fit into a workplace for a whole day when spending a few hours with dear loved ones exhausts me? What work am I going to do? I can't do what I've been doing for the last 16 years because it's too stressful. Where do I go? What do I do? How do I do it? How will I cope? The lion had caught me and I was awaiting the final death blow.

It's been a few days now since this experience. Slowly I'm coming back out of my darkness. Slowly the fear is ebbing away. Slowly.

You see very little rational thinking can be done when you're in a state of fear. Does this excuse my behaviour? No, I don't think it does. What it does mean is I have to learn more tools to control that fear. I have to work with my support team by admitting I'm scared and that we need to work on some coping strategies. Most of all I need to not let this lion beat me, but to learn to run with it instead.

Today I'm dusting myself off and getting my apron back on. It's my dear old uni friend's birthday and she deserves the very biggest of smiles from me PLUS a birthday cake. A blueberry upside down cake should do the trick for a very upside down kind of week.

Blueberry upside down cake
Adapted from Thibeault's Table


Blueberry upside down cake


Ingredients
60g melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups blueberries (fresh or Frozen)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
125g butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla or vanilla bean paste
1 1/3 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
3/4 cup milk

Method
In a 20cm diameter round cake tin, combine melted butter and brown sugar. Spread evenly on bottom of tin. Spread blueberries evenly over top. Sprinkle with lemon juice.

Cream butter and sugar, beating until light. Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix together flour, baking powder, and cinnamon if using. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk to creamed mixture. Spread batter evenly over blueberry layer.

Bake in 180°C oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes in pan, then turn out onto large flat plate.

21 May 2014

Babysitting and a hearty chicken & quinoa stew

Brisbane is slowly heading into winter. Slowly. I love winter and the reason is twofold. One, I don't have to wade my way through the humidity with clothes sticking to areas of my body that they were never meant to meet. And two, I get to enjoy making - and eating - delicious slow cooked stews and other warm, comforting, not necessarily meant for everyday consumption, food. How can you not like winter in Brisbane?

This change in temperature has prompted me to make my sister's family a hearty chicken and quinoa stew. Simple, healthy and comforting.

So why does my adorable sister and her family get this? For the last few days I've had to move in with them due to my parents having a mini break up at Noosa. So why does this 36 year old need to be babysat by her sister? Basically we all decided, my psychiatrist included, that I tend to go to very dark places when on my own. So, here enters wonderful family and friends who agree to take me in while I find my feet again, and while my poor parents have a break.

The one thing I can do as a thank you is cook a meal. My sister and brother-in-law are flat out with work and looking after their three wonderful daughters, who are 8, 5 and 2. A meal cooked for them all is one less job they need to complete, right? Also, those girls mean everything to me so I'm extremely happy to be with them and helping out (although only in a small way). And the excitement in those girls eyes when I came with my suitcase was quite simply priceless.

This dish is for all you busy people out there. It's so simple and super tasty. Even if you aren't a cook this one is worth a try.

Hearty chicken and quinoa stew

Hearty chicken and quinoa stew
Adapted from Cookin' Canuck
Serves 8

Ingredients
1kg chicken breast
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
4 cups (500ml) chicken stock
400g can diced tomato
700g butternut pumpkin, cubed
1 cup uncooked quinoa, washed
1 tbsp dried mixed herbs
1/2 cup firmly packed, roughly chopped olives
400g can cannellini beans
400g can butter beans
salt and pepper
1/4 cup chopped parsley, leave some for garnish
lemon wedges to serve

Method
Gently fry the onions and garlic together until translucent. Add in the chicken, stock, tomatoes, pumpkin, quinoa and mixed herbs. Bring to the boil and simmer until chicken is cooked through.

Remove chicken and shred. Add back into the stew. Add olives and beans, cook for a further 10 minutes. Turn heat off, add chopped parsley.

Serve with a wedge of lemon and parsley on top.

You don't get much easier than that.

15 May 2014

A mindful life with a zucchini, seeds and lemon salad


Since falling ill I've been learning – at times very slowly – how to be mindful. 



Have you heard of mindfulness?

Basically it’s about being in the present moment. You're not thinking about the future, you're not thinking about the past, you're purely focusing on the here and now.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

But in today’s madhouse of a society I’m sure you will agree, it’s pretty darn hard to be in the present when you're constantly worrying about work, paying bills, exercising, running after kids, keeping up with social engagements, having meaningful relationships, paying off the mortgage, attending events and keeping up the appearance you have all the aforementioned goals ticked off.

Do you do any of this? I’m somewhat of a genius at keeping up appearances (maybe that’s why I find the British TV show so hilarious…although my keeping up appearances is a wee bit different). If you don’t find yourself doing these things you can stop reading now. You are perfect. For the rest of us less than perfect individuals it can be hard. And you don’t need to be classified with a mental illness to find life challenging to keep up with. But if you let this fast-paced crazy world get on top of you, mental health issues may be yours, they may be mild, but they may be yours to confront none-the-less.

For this reason I implore you to start a little mindfulness of your own. Start with five minutes a day. All you need to do is sit in your favourite chair (or any chair) with your favourite beverage in hand. First, think about how the chair feels. Is it hard or soft? Warm or cold? Can you rest back in the chair or do you need to remain firmly upright? Now bring your beverage to your nose, slowly smell, and tell yourself what it smells like. Be descriptive. If it’s coffee does it smell strong? Does it have nutty aromas? Does it make your taste buds dance? Take a sip of your beverage. Feel the liquid in your mouth, maybe even swish it around and be aware of the sensation it's making in your mouth. When you swallow feel it travel down your throat and into your stomach. Take note on if it’s a warm feeling or a cool feeling that's flowing through you.

Such a simple activity and yet did you find this one simple mouthful more enjoyable and pleasurable having taken the time to notice it?

Why don't we slow down and smell those roses we always mention as a cliche? It’s such a simple and free way to get so much more enjoyment out of life. Let me be a lesson to you if you think you're ‘too busy’. The Universe may just come and bite you on the backside as it did me.

So please STOP and take some time out for YOU because YOU’RE worth it (isn’t that an ad?).

Following is a great simple salad recipe to get you working on your mindfulness. Cooking for me is a great way to live in the moment.

My family and I enjoyed this salad with chicken on mother's day, but I think it would also go brilliant with a lovely piece of fish, don't you?

Zucchini salad with seeds and a mint and lemon dressing
(photo SRKitchen)

Zucchini salad with seeds and a mint and lemon dressing

Adapted from Gourmet Traveller, February 2014 Edition

Serves 4

Ingredients

5 small green zucchini
2 tbsp mixed toasted sunflower, pine nuts and pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

Dressing

1 cup firmly packed mint leaves
125 ml (1/2 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
juice of 1 lemon and finely grated lemon

Method

Slice zucchini into a bowl using a mandolin or a vegetable peeler, season with sea salt and stand until zucchini softens (about 2 mins). Drain well and pat dry with absorbent paper, then return to a dry bowl

For mint and lemon dressing, finely chop the garlic and mint. add to olive oil, lemon juice and lemon rind. Mix until combined. Season to taste. (Remember you had salt on the zucchini so watch how much salt you use. You can always add more to the combined salad). Pour over the zucchini and toss to coat.

Transfer zucchini to a platter, scatter with seeds and serve.

09 May 2014

My world as I know it


It’s been a long time since writing and a long time since cooking. You know how it is, the longer you don’t do something the easier it is to just…well…not do it. 


You see my wee world kind of imploded. Nothing went untouched. The husband, the dogs, the house, the job and the health all went KABOOM.

This is where I’ll give myself credit, when I do something I really do it properly. It’s the perfectionist in me. Or maybe it was the Universe telling me I was supposed to be on a different path.

Either way today I’m living back with my parents – at the age of 36 this seems sad – I have only my one dog with me, which breaks my heart, I have to tick that dreaded ‘separated’ box on forms, and to add insult to injury, I have to deal with Centrelink (welfare).

In regards to Centrelink I feel lucky to live in a country that provides people like me a bit of a leg up when times are tough. But do they have to make you feel like all you are out to do is rort their system? A system I’ve never been on before and I’m on now for the simple fact that I’m unwell.

The upside to this sewer of an experience is the people that rally around you. At times I’ve been left breathless with the love my friends and family have shown me. Even though some people don’t understand my illness, they are still ‘there’ for me in whatever capacity they know how. And for that I feel like the stars shine brightly upon me.

I’ve spoken before about my illness here, but in July last year I was finally hospitalised. During this two-month stay my doctor did some further testing on me and found I have bipolar II. What does this mean? It means I get the polar opposite of emotions between severe depression and hypomania. My hypomanic state comes across as being really enthusiastic, happy, productive, I take more risks than normal and try to do too many things. “But this sounds like most people”, I hear you say. It does need to be coupled with depression. Basically I can’t have a ‘high’ period without it being followed by a ‘low’ period.

Another recent stint in hospital, some more medication changes and an impressive medical team supporting me, the fog is starting to lift. I’m now working on reconnecting with my old loves, such as cooking, reading, crocheting and living. Have you ever not wanted to live? It is a very dark and lonely place misunderstood by many as being a selfish means to an end. I assure you the thought is not selfish. The thought comes from suffering so much internal pain that your very being is aching. This for me at least, has gone on for years. Years of unseeable, untouchable, unprovable pain.

Today there’s a sliver of hope in the world for me. Hope that maybe life doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Hope that I don’t have to wake up and fear the day before me. Hope because this dreaded illness has not killed me, but made me just a little bit stronger. And hope that this bipolar II will become more friend than foe.



If you or someone you know needs mental health help in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14, Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36, or Salvo Care Line 1300 36 36 22.