Reactions

This time last year, existing in a limbo between a breast cancer diagnosis and a lumpectomy, I decided to deep-clean my kitchen cupboards.

This is not normal behaviour. Writers will tell you that they’ll frequently do anything rather than put pen to paper and I’m no different. But in my case procrastination doesn’t usually involve extreme housework.

The limbo however, wasn’t simply about time, it was about mental state. Reeling from my mother nearly dying five months earlier and from the impact of coronavirus, my own cancer diagnosis pushed my mind a little closer towards the fairyland than it normally is. Mondays to Fridays weren’t so bad. I was never furloughed, so my day job – never entirely sane in the best of circumstances – kept my brain occupied during the week. But at weekends, I found that only cooking and cleaning stopped my anxiety from spiralling.

I felt slightly unhinged.

British English has many expressions for being not quite right: ‘she has a screw loose’, ‘she’s losing her marbles’, ‘she’s off her trolley’.

I suppose they make a sort of sense.

Doors off their hinges, machines with loose screws or missing ball-bearings, trams coming off their rails won’t work and might collapse at the slightest push.

Distracting myself with things that I had to concentrate on but which didn’t involve really thinking, was my way of not pushing and therefore not collapsing.

However on that day, not really thinking wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Instead of using the shop-bought chemical sprays, I decided to make a ‘natural’ cleanser using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. I looked up directions on the internet (which can never be wrong – right?) and found a ‘recipe’ for a solution good enough to clean a car engine. My kitchen wasn’t that bad I hasten to add, but I decided to follow the instructions anyway.

Now while science was not my strong point at school, I’m not entirely clueless. I understand about reactions. It’s fundamental to cookery, which is a science in itself and which I’m good at. I also made enough volcanos using bicarb and vinegar with my children when they were small to know what to expect when you combine them. I even have a boiled fruit cake recipe which has a fascinating and satisfying moment of eruption as the bicarb is added (see below). So I should have known better than to follow instructions which said ‘simply put the ingredients in a clean bottle and put the lid on’.

DO NOT TRY THIS 😳

It may be as well that the bottle I used was plastic and it’s definitely as well that I stepped back otherwise I might have been blinded.

Within two seconds, the chemical reaction within forced froth out under the bottle cap. One more second and the bottom of the bottle split with a loud bang. Milliseconds after that, the cap flew off and foam exploded everywhere, chiefly upwards, to some extent into all four corners of our reasonably sized kitchen-diner but largely over me.

My husband walked into the kitchen to find me wiping froth off my face and out of my hair as if I’d been in a custard pie fight and asked unnecessarily ‘Has something happened?’.

This failed experiment ought to have made me re-engage my brain but I carried on in a similar vein for a little longer, two weekends later accidentally emptying an entire bottle of paprika (which had its own loose lid) all over the floor and nearly crying about something which was probably out of date and cost less than £2 to replace.

It wasn’t until after the operation and I was back at work trying to normalise myself, that a colleague arranged a video meeting ostensibly to talk about our increasingly frustrating project but then saying ‘forget all this, you’re not ok are you?’

And after a pause, I said ‘No. I’m not.’

An hour later, I came off the call, wiped my eyes, emailed my line-manager, rang the doctor and dug out the information which the breast cancer nurses had given me with a local helpline on. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and mild depression.

I’m fortunate that my employer has a robust mental health policies and very fortunate in my line-manager who couldn’t have been more supportive. I was allowed to work part-time for a few weeks while I underwent radiotherapy, had some counselling and slowly put my hinges back on, screwed down the screws, found the marbles and got the tram back on the tracks.

It’s hard to know whether the way I felt was to do with the cancer or because it had been discovered during a pandemic or was caused by the pandemic itself. I had friends and family willing to listen but I was worried about burdening them with my troubles when the whole thing was traumatising them too. Talking to them about normal things instead was a lifeline and I couldn’t have managed without them.

But as the counsellor said, the combination of emotional ingredients in my life had created a perfect storm, and I needed to talk to a total stranger whose feelings I didn’t need to worry about, to get my thoughts into perspective.

And what brought things under some sort of control was actually the beginning of the process: taking that first step by admitting ‘I am not ok.’ 

If you recognise any of this – please please do the same. (Helpline links below.)

Now, while I have my first post surgery mammogram coming up, I’m feeling positive. Things aren’t combining in the same way to cause the same kind of reaction. And while the chief lasting effect of last year’s extreme anxiety seems to include struggling to make a plot make sense in a first draft when I’m writing, I am ok.

A year later, there is still a patch on the ceiling of my kitchen which is whiter than the rest. Until it’s redone, I shall periodically look up and remember the moment when the lid came off.

And I can laugh about it, imagining my paternal grandfather (a laboratory chemist) wondering what happened to his genes and my paternal grandmother (who didn’t understand science but was a wonderful cook) knowing exactly what happened to hers.

And in honour of that, alongside the pictures from last year, here’s a picture of the aforementioned boiled fruit cake which I made this afternoon. I dug out the recipe after 40 years and cooked it to see if it was as fun and as nice as I recalled. (It was.) It’s not my gran’s recipe, but it’s a much better – or at least safer – use of bicarbonate of soda than an explosive cleaning solution. (Video of what happens when you add the bicarbonate of soda and also the recipe below the photographs if you’re interested.)

Here I am adding the bicarbonate of soda to the boiled fruit cake mixture while it’s still hot. Don’t panic – this is exactly what is supposed to happen!

Mrs T’s Boiled Fruit Cake

(Around 1981, the original recipe was given to me in ounces but metric and also cup/stick conversions are below – however I have only cooked it in imperial! – I hadn’t cooked this for years so wasn’t sure how it would turn out. The mixture seemed quite stiff when I put it into the cake tin but it rose well and is surprisingly light while still rich. I think it would go nicely with cream.)

INGREDIENTS

10 fluid ounces milk

4 ounces butter or margarine

6 ounces sugar (I used demerara)

10 ounces dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

10-12 ounces self-raising flour (I found 10 plenty)

1 egg

METHOD

  1. Place milk, butter, sugar, fruit and mixed spice in a saucepan and boil for 10 minutes (stir occasionally to stop it from catching on the bottom of the pan).
  2. Remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda while the mixture is still hot.
  3. Leave to cool. (I put it in a bowl to speed this up.)
  4. When the fruit mixture cold, add flour and egg.
  5. Place in a lined cake tin and cook for 1½ hours in a moderate oven (175℃/350℉/gas mark 4)

METRIC CONVERSION (I haven’t tested this but it should be right)

285 ml milk

113 g butter or margarine

170 g sugar (I used Demerara)

284 g dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

284-340 g self-raising flour (I found 284g plenty)

1 egg

CUP/STICK CONVERSION (I haven’t tested this either)

1¼ cups milk

1 stick butter or margarine

¾ cup sugar 

1½ cups dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2¾ – 1⅓ cups self-raising flour

1 egg

Words and photographs copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Here are some UK helpline links. If you have links from other countries which could help your fellow compatriot, let me know and I’ll add them.

https://www.mind.org.uk

https://breastcancernow.org

4 thoughts on “Reactions

  1. Thank you. It seems important to share with people that it’s ok not to feel ok and that things can get better. It’s not easy to discuss but if it helps someone then that’s wonderful.

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  2. Great post, Paula. I know how depression feels like and there’s nothing wrong with taking meds (I do) or seeing a therapist (I do too). I’m just glad you had someone to make you realize what was going on. My wake up call was when I went on a writing retreat that should have been so much fun and I did nothing but cry the whole weekend. That following Monday I called the doctor. I hope your mammogram goes well. I’ll be thinking of you. And that cake looks like so much fun to prepare (says this science crazed person) and even more fun to eat. Hugs.

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    1. thank you! Yes. Admitting that I’d reached the end of my own resources was a key moment. The cake was half gone within an hour of coming out of the oven! It’s not my best, but I do have two young men in the house who can never get enough cake.

      Liked by 1 person

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