For a writer suffering from depression, overnight oats are self-care in a Ball jar
I’ve never been good at following recipes. Aside from a few scattered attempts, I don’t cook. Nor does my mother. So when she tells me, “Remember to follow your recipe,” she isn’t talking about eggs Benedict. She means follow the recipe I established with the help of a social worker twenty years ago, when I was 15: Eat a healthy breakfast, get a good night’s sleep, go to therapy, and work a reasonable amount without stressing yourself out.
But like I said, I’ve never been good at following recipes.
I don’t sleep enough. I take on too much work. Recently, I moved 3,000 miles west from one city with a high cost of living to another city with a high cost of living. I live alone. I have debt. I enjoy my work but the math gets ugly and the hours are long. I have neither the money nor the time for a sufficient amount of therapy. For someone with a lifelong struggle with agoraphobia and sometimes-suicidal depression, that’s not ideal.
And at 35, I’m single by choice for the first time in two decades. I’m not running after anyone. I’m not running from anyone. I’m not running at all. I’m walking, slowly and deliberately, and I’m not sure of the destination.
This journey is strange and illuminating. I can’t ignore my flaws and issues by focusing on someone else’s flaws and issues. I can’t make my victories someone else’s victories, or vice versa.
I chose loneliness.
I cry a lot more. I get angry a lot more. I stand up for myself a lot more. I go to AlAnon. I’ve pruned away some rotten friendships to make room for the new, fresh ones I hope grow in their place. It isn’t a wildly dramatic thing. There are just some people with whom I don’t bother anymore. They offer me nothing. I choose to offer them the same. And so there are places where the vine is bare. If nothing else grows there, the absence of anything is more beautiful than the presence of something false.
More and more, I experience little pockets of genuine happiness, rather than just fleeting pleasure or momentary ego gratification. I also feel gratitude for the time and space to be on my own.
But now that I’m alone, there’s no one to make me breakfast in the morning. And as someone born with the congenital condition known as introversion, that matters a great deal. If social interaction isn’t convenient, I’ll often avoid it to my own detriment.
Lunch is sometimes a business event, lively and stimulating. We’re going over a script, or incubating a new idea for film or television or a book. It’s fun! Somebody writes it off as a work expense, and while we’ve certainly shared a few laughs and made ample eye contact, the meal has largely been a transactional affair. It’s Los Angeles, so someone has consumed kale.
A couple of times a week, dinner is a chance for friendship and gossip and communion in a loud restaurant or bustling bar. It’s a bit more emotionally fulfilling than a business lunch, although perhaps more taxing on the wallet. Again, kale is usually involved.
But breakfast? Breakfast these days is me, myself, and I. Every morning, I’m faced with the prospect of sitting down to a meal with somebody I don’t always adore. (Though I am told this sometimes applies to marriages.)
There is a powerful urge to just sleep through it.
But breakfast is part of my aforementioned life recipe. And if I continue to screw up the rest of the recipe by taking on too much work in a too-expensive city on too little sleep, I may as well get one thing right.
Breakfast is tricky. When I’m depressed, stressed, sad, scared, or a combination of all of these, the act of getting out of bed in the morning and making eggs, bacon, toast, and fruit salad is not exactly top of the agenda. It’s not bottom of the agenda, either. It’s not even on the agenda. Is there an agenda? When I’m depressed I’d rather just sleep until I waste away, sans agenda.
And sure, I could get up and pour a bowl of cold cereal. But even when the cereal is fancy, organic, and whole-grain, it spikes a sugary high that leads to a mid-morning crash.
I recently discovered a marvelous solution. It’s not particularly sexy, and it’s often documented on twee blogs as a precious little photo opportunity. But for me, it’s become a vital component of a healthier, happier life. I speak, of course, of overnight oats.
When enduring a day with depression feels like a Sisyphean task, waking up to a ready-made nutritious, delicious breakfast is an absolute miracle. And in the case of overnight oats, that miracle comes in a mason jar.
Play all the acoustic alt-country you want (or not), wear a handmade apron you bought off Etsy (or don’t), but for goodness’ sake, if you’re strapped for time or cash or emotional energy, make yourself some overnight oats.
There are recipes out there for overnight oats. I ignore them.
Every night before I go to sleep, I throw some steel-cut, rolled, or fill-in-the-blank-not-super-refined-and-bad-for-you oats into a mason jar. Then I pour in some almond milk and add cinnamon. If I’m feeling wild, I spoon in honey or raw sugar. I might add fruit. I might not. I may throw in some Greek yogurt. I mix it all up, screw the lid on the jar, shake it vigorously, and then put it in the fridge. Just a few hours later, I’ve got a lovely breakfast that gives me an initial kick of fuel followed by a slow-but-steady release of energy throughout the morning.
I like overnight oats so much that I actually look forward to waking up and eating them. Sometimes I wake from a bad dream and I’m sad or scared and I don’t want to get out of bed. Then I remember I’ve got a treat waiting for me in the fridge, and I feel a bit better.
There are other important ways in which I could engage in self-care. I could finally go to the doctor for an annual physical. I could finally stick to an exercise schedule. I could finally grow my own vegetables. And I will do these things, eventually.
But right now, I make overnight oats at night. Right now, I get up and I eat them every morning.
Right now, that’s enough.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and author of the books Real Artists Have Day Jobs, DC Trip, Great, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom, a book based on her critically acclaimed solo show about panic attacks and agoraphobia.