Coronavirus: 'I cut a carrot for the first time, aged 41'

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Alia Akkam is a food and design writer from New York who now lives in Budapest. Diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 39, she says the pandemic forced her to confront one of her greatest fears and loves - cooking.

Alia AkkamImage source, Alia Akkam

While others fawned over sourdough to alleviate their pandemic stress, I was grateful that the mandatory time indoors had forced me, aged 41, to cut-up a carrot for the first time.

Restaurants had always fascinated me. When I lived in New York, I went out night after night and wrote about them. I devoured their menus, I listened to their chefs gush about ingredients. Some evenings I greedily planned two back-to-back dinners with friends, a martini the only transition.

I wished that I could cook, but for 20 years it's something I told myself I couldn't do. So I didn't.

In high school, I thought there was something wrong with me. I couldn't hit balls in gym class, I didn't know what to do with a video game joystick and that fed my shame and frustration. I thought cooking would be just as challenging, so I avoided it.

But in March, when Budapest's restaurants closed, food delivery, in the face of a crisis, seemed an irresponsible way of feeding oneself. So this time, I went for it.

I had learned a few years ago that my kitchen avoidance was actually a coping strategy.

Image source, Alia Akkam

In April 2018, days before my 39th birthday, I sat across from a psychiatrist. He reviewed my responses to questions about childhood and the poor results of a motor-skills test where I clicked on triangles instead of circles. Then, he announced I had ADHD.

I cried when I heard this diagnosis because for years I had suspected it.

ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - affects attention and self-control. Characteristics can include impulsivity, struggles with multi-tasking, intensity, distraction and boredom. But we also have a knack for hyper-focus so I can spend hours writing without getting up which can be wonderfully productive.

It was packing a box that sent me over the edge. I was consulting on a film set and my boss asked me to do the task, but I was paralysed by this request - where to start? How much bubble wrap to use? My colleagues laughed and I got angry at myself that such a simple task was so baffling. Less than a year later I went to the ADHD Centre.

Little was mentioned of ADHD when I was growing up on Long Island in the 1980s. It was a term reserved for those trouble-making boys who couldn't sit still during lessons. That introverted girls with perfect ponytails reading at an advanced level could have it was unfathomable.

But if one looked closer, that tell-tale restlessness lurked in other ways. I was a day-dreamer, staring out the window thinking of coffee ice cream, or scribbling lyrics on the back of an adverb worksheet. I played with my hair. I did anything but listen. Teachers' words floated in and out of my head like excerpts of dreams - I would read the textbook and catch up later.

This limbo continued after school. Mundane tasks that are mechanical for most people felt insurmountable. It's hard for people with ADHD to do things they don't want to do and to do things when they are supposed to - taxes were paid a year late, my drying rack morphed into a closet because I couldn't bring myself to hang up my clothes.

And, I was petrified of cooking.

Any time I tried to chop an apple, I was left reaching for a band aid. Knives reminded me just how severely uncoordinated I am and time management can be a drag, which is a problem in the kitchen.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Szechenyi Lanchid Chain Bridge over the River Danube in Budapest

When lockdown was on the horizon, I was on the tram and saw a woman with two bags of groceries. Wheat tortilla wraps peeked out and I thought how lovely that she was going home and making fajitas during the pandemic. I wanted to do the same.

I began with crushing my first obstacle: the grocery store. Those with ADHD can easily be overwhelmed by choice, and as others effortlessly reach for pineapple juice, I stand there paralysed. It goes back to being overwhelmed and the fear of getting started. What do I actually need to buy? How much should I get?

I persevered and became familiar with the aisles and soon, like my fellow mask-clad shoppers, I only grew frustrated when shelves were wiped clean of baking powder.

Baking, as it happens, is pretty seamless for me. My wandering ADHD mind prefers the precision of it. Quarantine reinforced how much I relish stirring chocolate pudding and observing brownies heave their way from liquid to solid form.

It was cooking that tripped me up. There are so many variables that confound me - how exactly does one blanch green beans?

A visual learner, I relied on YouTube videos, watching how to make crispy tofu 10 times in a row - I wanted to ensure that I got the technique right.

I tore spinach by hand and cut peppers with a butter knife until I felt comfortable enough to slowly and deliberately dissect that first carrot. A friend suggested I buy a chainmail glove so that I can cut with confidence in the future.

There were many discouraging mistakes along the way, like the dried-out white bean quesadilla no amount of chipotle salsa could salvage, and the burnt peanuts that botched a stir fry. But there was also a fresh basil lasagne devoured in 24 hours and a zesty marinade I concocted on the fly. I learned how to make fluffy rice and, it turns out, I'm good at layering interesting flavours.

Image source, Alia Akkam

There are numerous techniques I need to nail before I can consider myself an average cook. When a recipe says it will take an hour to prepare, I allot two. I have invested in enough glasses and bowls so that I can fully lay-out the ingredients before the cooking begins and I feel so much less anxious doing this.

I know that for many people cooking is joyful because they get to be creative but I need the comfort of a recipe. Going through the steps in my mind beforehand helps tremendously.

My diagnosis, which first felt like failure, is liberating. There is a freedom in knowing that my brain is wired differently. I overhauled the way I work - implementing colour coded to-do lists - and allow myself ample time to finish things.

And now I have conquered the kitchen.

Once Budapest begins to open up again I shall enjoy seeing friends at restaurants, but those hangout sessions will be interspersed with my newfound cooking rituals. I may go out for lunch, but there will be an Italian pasta salad chilling in the fridge for dinner. Maybe this is what balance looks like.

If you have been affected by ADHD the organisations ADHD Foundation and ADHD Action may be able to help.

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