The Depressed Cake Shop at Suzzle

greyscale_topviewI promised a more in-depth post earlier this week on this subject, so here we are. Honestly?  I’ve been putting it off to an extent, because I want to do it justice and also, perhaps, because I don’t necessarily want to have to tell the story as often as I may have to if all my lovely regular customers ask me – not unreasonably – “why here, why you?” As you’ve probably gathered, I have personal reasons for being involved in this project. Just because I’m prepared to speak up, doesn’t make it less painful, but if I remain silent I perpetuate the problem of people not talking about mental health. So here goes. This won’t necessarily make for light reading: consider this a ‘trigger’ warning, if triggers are something you have to watch for.

greyscale_cake, greyscale cake with grey ombre icing

The Depressed Cake Shop is the idea of Miss Cakehead. When it comes to charity cake pop-ups, she’s got form: I first met her at the London Cakes for Japan pop-up, then at the Geek Cake Shop, and the formula works. Keep it short and – pretty much of necessity – sweet and, most important of all, make sure your theme or concept is strong, while leaving room for creativity.

So: short (3 days for the London shop) and sweet (cakes, biscuits, macarons, I could go on …) and a theme which has been strong enough to raise eyebrows, as all of the cakes will be grey on the outside. Yes, of course we know that not everyone’s experience of depression in particular, or mental illness in general, can be characterised by the colour grey. But we wanted to make an impact, and the one thing you can guarantee is that grey cakes turn heads.

Grey is good for a number of reasons. It works for those who feel their mental health issues have leached all colour out of their lives. It works for those for whom a latent mental health problem is ever lurking in the shadows, waiting to catch them unawares and drag them under again. It works because most of us naturally try to avoid the ‘nutter on the bus’, even though they’re just another human being. And it will work because one of the first things anyone says on seeing a grey cake is “why is that cake grey?”, and this gives people an opening to discuss mental health as an issue, instead of sweeping it back into the shadows.

For a lot of us involved in this project, mental illness and baking are linked: a lot of us turn to baking when we’re feeling low. Some of us even started baking because they were ill and needed something simple as a focus. And there is genuinely something very therapeutic about baking. I have, for years, turned to my kitchen and cooked, savoury or sweet, because I get some relief in the creation of something that, in and of itself, is goodness, love, nurture – sometimes even beauty – when all I feel I am is ugliness, pain and a drain on all around me. And being part of this project has made me realise I’m not alone in this. Being one of some 800+ people involved in Depressed Cake Shops all around the world is somehow simultaneously wonderful, humbling, sad and inspiring.

As a group, we’ve had some mixed reactions to the concept – some comments on this Guardian article seem to have missed the point, for example – and I felt obliged to respond. To quote my comment (as meelzebub):

The target audience for this pop-up is the public at large, not specifically those affected by mental illness, although they’re naturally also welcome. The point of The Depressed Cake Shop is that there is still massive stigma encountered by the mentally ill, and it’s mostly discussed as something that happens to other people. Some of us lose jobs even for admitting there’s a problem. Some people never seek help because they’re afraid to admit to a weakness. Some of us learn to shut up because if we once admit it to someone, or if a suicide attempt is leaked to ‘friends’ and family by someone well-meaning, we have to endure the pity – even if intended as sympathy – of others, some of whom genuinely care and want to help, others who are secretly hoping you’ll freak in front of them so they can partake of the drama they imagine associated with a melt-down, and still others who are terrified that what you’ve got might be catching.

And even so, I’m hiding behind ‘some of us’. Yes, I lost a job for telling my boss I had been prescribed anti-depressants and needed to cut my working hours to something closer to 60, instead of 75. I’ve had to face a family party comprised mostly of people I’d never met (my boyfriend’s aunt’s birthday, IIRC), who knew I’d tried to kill myself a couple of weeks previously. It’s one hell of a first impression, and it endured for years. Small wonder those of us with ‘issues’ hesitate to open up and talk about them.

Getting treatment has not always been easy, but I have a good support network who have helped me fight for what was needed, and in particular a husband who has been tireless in trying to get to the bottom of things. 15 years and a lot of pain later, and we finally have a diagnosis. I have borderline personality disorder. Frankly, it explains a lot.

But I’m in danger of straying from my point. Cooking and baking have, on occasion, very literally saved my life, giving me an outlet for emotions I couldn’t handle. Most importantly, it gave me a way of translating something enormously negative into something positive. The lovely Emmeline, one of our customers in the shop, has said that she likes our food because it’s clear that it’s made with love. She’s right, but perhaps more so than she knew.

Hence another part of my comment in the Grauniad:

If these pop-ups – there will be several across the country – tell only one person who was feeling desperate that there is help, and that it’s OK to need it, and gives them the means to access it, or gives them the courage to speak up so someone else can help them get the treatment they need instead of topping themselves, I would personally consider that a bloody good result. If, as is likely, it gets more people thinking and talking about mental health issues in general, and in its own small way starts normalising them for those touched by the event so depression et al become as acceptable to talk about as, say, arthritis, migraine or the common cold, then that’s also a result that’s worth having, and all of us involved will feel our efforts have been worthwhile.

I’m one of the 1 in 4 that gets mentioned in every campaign about mental health. I’m told I don’t look obviously mentally ill, whatever that may mean, and yet my mental illness has, on occasion, been damn nigh fatal. And I’m one of the lucky ones. This is why Suzzle is hosting the Depressed Cake Shop from 2-4 August this year.  Proceeds will be going to CALM, and to the establishment of a new charity to provide baking therapy.

md.

Coeliac awareness week is coming!

14-20 May 2012 is Coeliac Awareness Week in the UK.  Now, I know, somebody somewhere is always marking something, but since coeliac disease is something that affects me personally, as well as many other people who have yet to be diagnosed, and who could have a much better life if they were, this is one awareness campaign I feel honour bound to support.

If you’re wondering what on earth coeliac disease is, it’s an auto-immune condition that is reckoned to affect some 1% of the population, many of whom remain undiagnosed.  Left untreated, the malabsorption that is the result of coeliac disease can leave sufferers exposed to such nasties as osteoporosis, bowel cancer, etc, as well as fertility problems and, at a more basic level, some pretty unpleasant gastro-intestinal symptoms.  All because of the body’s response to eating or ingesting gluten.

The good and bad news about this, is that there is only one known treatment for coeliac disease at the moment, and that’s a gluten-free diet.  It’s good news, because it’s nice and clear.  It’s bad news because – despite how easy it can be to cater for gluten-free diets – so few places offer a decent selection of gluten-free food, or only offer it with a risk of cross-contamination that negates the good intention of offering gluten-free menu items in the first place.  And yes, cross-contamination is a real problem: I’ve been made ill in the past by a few crumbs lurking in the butter, for example, even though I’ve conscientiously followed a gluten-free diet for years.  It’s also slightly scary – and very frustrating – just how many products seem to contain gluten for no apparent reason, when a simple adjustment could make them safe for more people to eat.

While the quality of foods in the free-from aisle of the supermarket has improved a lot over the last few years, there are still manufacturers who appear to think that we ditched any sense of taste or texture on receipt of our diagnosis.  My carrot cake, for example, has beaten carrot cakes made with wheat flour in open competition, so I know from personal experience that you can make things as good as – or better than – their gluten-containing counterparts, if you try.  But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from some of the offerings out there, which are dry and crumbly and lacking in flavour.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not ungrateful, and I’m glad that these products are available, even the not very nice ones, because it is at least an option when you’re hard pressed to find anything to eat on occasion, and the poor quality can act as a catalyst for others to improve on what’s out there.  It’s a win-win of sorts.  But still.

Gluten-free food can be excellent.  At the risk of shameless self-promotion, ask anyone who has enjoyed a Suzzle cake, most of whom have bought the cakes without knowing they were gluten-free… and then come back and bought more.  It can be done, and without filling the food full of junk like soya flour, palm oil and ingredients known better by their number than their name.  So, for the next week or so, I’ll be using this blog to celebrate some companies who are making or supplying really good, gluten-free food, and making the lives of coeliacs like myself much richer and more enjoyable as a result.

In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about coeliac disease, please do visit the Coeliac UK web site, where you can find information, recipes and support the excellent work the charity does.