Creativity and Comfort Food

by Jamie Goldberg

March 2015 

This past summer I spent eight nights in a psychiatric hospital. I was newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder and in the throes of a severe, debilitating, and often hilarious case of mania.

My hospitalization was frightening and surreal, an experience I hope to never repeat. There were only two things that I looked forward to everyday: taking a shower and getting snacks before bed-time. The hospital food was inedible, so snack time, when we were given packaged foods such as chips, cookies, and juice, was precious to me. Those foods brought me comfort like a dear old friend taking my hand and guiding me through a painful and difficult situation.

I’d had that kind of relationship with pre-packaged food before. When I was a child I spent a lot of time in hospitals visiting my mother, who was sick in one form or another for the better part of her life. I found comfort and joy going down into the bowels of the hospital and visiting the vending machines. I actually began looking forward to trips to the hospital. I came to associate candy bars, chips, and sodas with being comforted and nurtured.

A couple of days after my discharge I became obsessed with scrounging up six dollars – which was no small feat at that time – to buy a chocolate muffin and a chai latte at my favorite coffee shop. I needed to write about everything that had happened to me during my eight-night hospital stay, to preserve the memory and never forget where I’d been. Being admitted to a psychiatric hospital was one of the most significant times in my life, and the most traumatic. I took notes every day in the hospital. I didn’t go into too much depth with my note-taking, but I wrote enough to give me an outline to work with when I got out.

I thought that if I had my notes and my comfort food, I would be guaranteed creativity for the day, gaining access to the productive, inspired genius that my sometimes manic mind believes is hidden underneath all the depressive debris floating around inside me.

By the end of my first week out of the hospital I had managed to gather enough change to buy myself a muffin and drink. I settled into a cozy leather chair in front of the fire place at the coffee shop. Now I had my comforts and I could write in a creative and peaceful environment.

Every bite of muffin and sip of tea tasted exquisite, the perfect combination. I devoured my treats, leaned back in my chair, my stomach full, not a single crumb left – and I felt like crap. Sugar always makes me crash and yet I continue to eat it. So there was no way in hell that I was going to pull out my laptop and start writing. The sugar had drained every bit of my mental energy, leaving my mind cloudy and unable to focus.

A few days later, I was faced with the same problem, only I had lowered my expectations. All I needed was three dollars to buy a Vitamin Water and a Snickers Bar. We only had $17.41 in the bank, so spending any amount of money on junk food seemed unreasonable.

When I was manic, I imagine that I must have been pretty exhausting to be around. It was exhausting being me. But as high maintenance and annoying as I might have been, I was a good girl. I didn’t cheat on my husband, order cheap and tacky items from the Home Shopping Network, pledge away our money to PBS so that we could get a cool tote bag, or adopt an orphan from Indonesia, which I had tried with little success several years prior.

I wasn’t manic anymore and I had been good long enough. That evening I was going to attend my first bipolar support group and I needed the promise of a Vitamin Water and Snickers Bar to get me out of the house and on my way to the meeting. Screw creativity. I just really needed the comfort of treats and was willing to bring our bank account down to $14 to assuage the awful feeling of emptiness left behind after mania had its way with me. I wanted something to fill that emptiness, and junk food would fill me, if only temporarily, providing me with a bit of solace.

My husband gave me $8. I was loaded! Now I could also afford to buy a bag of Doritos to eat after group. I no longer had a reason to skip the group, and more importantly I no longer had a reason not to write when I returned home that night. Cash would help me purchase my muse, would help me buy a few moments of creativity and safety.

After the meeting, as I sat in my car ravenously eating my Doritos, I felt a twinge of disgust. My inner critic said that if I ate a whole bag of Doritos, a food that would leave my fingers a shameful yellow-orange for the next several hours, I was a loser. A normal person, a responsible person, a person with a shred of self-respect wouldn’t consume a Snickers Bar, a bag of Doritos and a Vitamin Water and call that dinner. But I couldn’t stop shoving the Doritos into my mouth. I didn’t taste them anymore. I had a goal, and my goal was to finish the bag. I hated myself.

In that moment of self-hatred a new voice rose inside me, my bipolar voice. That voice reminded me that there is a large file in a mental hospital, not ten miles from my home, which states that I, Jamie Goldberg, have “severe recurrent bipolar disorder.” It has been well documented that I have literally gone insane, and it could happen again.

I was in the depressive phase of the illness, a place of hopelessness, devoid of pleasure, and I had officially gone mad, so go for it and eat the damn Doritos, every one of them. To hell with what a normal person would or wouldn’t do in that moment.

With this new awareness, a playful and carefree energy washed through me, unraveling the knot of judgment and self-condemnation that was my faithful traveling companion. It wasn’t a lack of snacks, or money to purchase them that kept me from writing, it was that loathsome collection of self-criticisms that thwarted my creativity.

I finished my bag of Doritos, my hands gloriously stained. I was at peace. I had a stomach filled with Doritos, and a mind, at least for the moment, unclouded by self-criticism. I could go home and write from a place of compassion for myself and commitment to my process. That self-acceptance has freed my creative energy to such an extent that I now write every day, after suffering two years of writer’s block. Writing has become my comfort.

Yes, I have imagined that snacks add joy and comfort to my writing process, that they have kept me company when it has become too lonely or unbearable to face pen, paper, and my fragmented mind. But that’s not the truth. I love Doritos, Vitamin Water and Snickers, but what I love even more is coming to accept and appreciate that temporary madness and sweet creativity co-exist in my beautiful and intricate bipolar brain. I don’t need to become a sanitized version of myself to write and live my life. I will always write, because I must write, and no dearth of junk food will ever change that.

Jamie GoldbergComment