Cooking is part of my therapy: Ian's story
From a fit, healthy, and confident husband and dad to being unable to walk or function, chronic pain and mental ill-health very nearly overwhelmed Ian. But, thanks to the incredible support of his family and a reignited passion for cooking, he’s found the recipe for resilience
I had never heard of fibromyalgia, nor thought that anxiety and depression would ever take hold of me, but that is exactly what has happened.
In the early 2000s, I was very active, playing sports, and travelling a lot overseas with my work. I couldn’t see it at the time, but it was obvious that things had started to decline. I was always tired, and feeling unwell far too much of the time, month after month. After investigations by medical professionals, I was diagnosed with coeliac disease. The symptoms seemed to make sense, so I started to make the necessary changes to my diet.
For a while it did seem that things were getting better, until around 2012 or 2013 when this horrendous pain started underneath my rib cage. Initially the pain stayed relatively isolated, but then it spread all over my body, which was physically debilitating. The widespread chronic pain started to affect my mental health too, as I didn’t know what was wrong or why. I was having panic and anxiety attacks out of the blue at work, often in the most difficult of circumstances.
It took years to be finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia, anxiety, and depression. Although it was a relief to get a diagnosis, I was still being passed around for individually focused ‘treatment’ – from injections to scans, steroids, nerve blocks, alongside bowel and stomach medications galore, CBT, and acupuncture. Sadly, nothing was working, and I was slowly spiralling until I eventually broke. I had to give up the work I had done for the previous 25 years, and was really frightened as it seemed that there was no way out.
My incredible wife and family were doing absolutely everything to keep some sense of normality with two young daughters. I was, though, totally unreliable, missing Christmases, birthdays, and school events. The continuous flare-ups and widespread pain was unbearable, and both mentally and physically exhausting.
Fibromyalgia is more common in women, and there are many different variants, but the impact on physical and mental health is significant both for the person suffering and for their family and friends. It is an invisible illness that needs a lot more awareness and recognition.
In 2018, I was referred to the NHS Centre for Pain Services in Bath. I had never heard of them, and was deeply sceptical that they could help. However, this was and is the single most important point in mine and my family’s story.
After a detailed assessment, in April 2019 I started on a four-week residential programme. Here they took a broken man, actually undid me some more, before piece by piece helping me to understand and accept what was going on in my body and my mind. This was a eureka moment! No, not a magical cure, but a toolkit to help me better manage my chronic pain and mental health. I started to look up and forwards with genuine hope for the first time in 10 years.
So, where to start? I always had a passion for cooking from watching my late mum create amazing food over the years. My fires were low but not quite out, and I wanted to try again.
Initially, it didn’t go well. I couldn’t freestyle so I needed recipe books, but while I was suffering with pain, fatigue, and anxiety, they seemed to be putting blockages in my way, making me feel I couldn’t do it, or it would be a disaster. Too many words, too many glossy pictures of amazing dishes, too many complications, too many ways to fail.
My family encouraged me to unpick what wasn’t working, and see if I could redo things in a way that would, so it would still work despite my brain fog, fatigue, pain, and anxiety.
I got very frustrated, I have to admit, and there were ups and a lot of downs, but eventually I hit on a formula that worked. I thought I can’t be alone here – other people must be feeling the same. Maybe I could write a cookbook to help people want to cook and get as much joy and pride in it as I did?
I had loads of recipes built up over the years, so set about adapting them to my new formulae. My wife encouraged me to self-publish, and Cookfulness was born! I focused on taking out those barriers caused by chronic pain and mental health conditions and, instead, using as many positive stepping stones as I needed myself. This isn’t all about food, and starts with visualising my family around the dinner table, eating my food, all laughing and joking and, most importantly, I am there with them! This positive imagery is so important for me in whatever I am doing.
An important principle is: no matter what you produce, it’s right. You can adapt ingredients and utensils to suit your abilities each day, using the freezer, pre-chopped, or pastes to help. Plus, I set everything out up front for each recipe, including all of the tools and utensils you will need, so there are no surprises.
Another consideration I had was that standard ‘prep time’ and ‘cooking times’ are great, but only when you’re having a good day. I created the extra ‘give yourself time’ to allow you the chance to take a step back on days when your energy reserves are running low. It all helps with planning, particularly for those with chronic illnesses.
My passion for cooking was reignited! I set out saying that if I could help one person to have a better quality of life, then I’d have succeeded. I am now dedicating my energy to helping as many people as I can to get that little spark, that first feeling of self-worth and belief that they really can try things. The effect on your mental health is massive, which, in turn, impacts physical health, too. Good thoughts feed good thoughts, and start to clear a bit of a path through all the negativity.
Throughout the past 15 years or so I have learned an awful lot, including how powerful the mind is. Feeding it bit by bit with some hope, pride, and joy can never be underestimated.
I have learned to manage my daily life more positively despite the ongoing chronic pain and unpredictable flare-ups, celebrating the small things and enjoying family life. I’ve learned that I am capable of a lot more than I ever thought, from talking on the radio, to doing live cooking demos at virtual festivals – so never close yourself off to trying something new.
I have learned that you actually are never, ever alone. I have found a whole new community of incredible people who are suffering, and are just trying to get a slice of life.
Finally, I have learned that, in life, it’s not about the final outcome, the final dish, it is about how you get there, what went wrong, what made you laugh, and what made you cry. Break it down to every little step, celebrating each and every one, mistakes and all. It is so powerful!
‘Cookfulness’ is available on all major platforms in e-book and paperback, with part of the proceeds being donated to the NHS Centre for Pain Services in Bath.
To connect with a counsellor, or learn more about managing your mental wellbeing when you experience chronic pain, visit counselling-directory.org.uk