RUOK? Mental health in the year of COVID-19

RUOK? Day is a cause close to my heart (this post I wrote a few years ago is still one of the most viewed on my blog), and this year it’s going to be more important than ever. I never struggle to ask if people are doing ok, but I still struggle to answer honestly when I’m asked. If I knew my friends were struggling with mental illness, having thoughts about ending their own lives, having a hard time coping day to day with even the most mundane tasks like doing their grocery shopping or hanging up the laundry, I’d do whatever I could to help. But for some reason, I don’t feel deserving of the same help and support in return. That’s how depression and anxiety get you; they make you feel you are not worthy.

Compounding my silence even more now is the fact that I now have a son; if I spoke out about just how badly I’m struggling, people might think I’m a bad mother. Then I catastrophise: what if people don’t trust me with him? What if they think I don’t love him? What if someone tries to take him away from me? I should just keep quiet, because no good can come from me being honest about the deep dark hole I find myself in from time to time. Postnatal depression and anxiety is horrific. So is regular depression and anxiety. And eating disorders. And personality and mood disorders. All mental illness is a terrible thing. It robs you of your sense of self, your passions and hobbies, your relationships, your will to get up and make the most of the day; sometimes it even robs you of your life.

So today, let’s not just do the token RUOK? sms to everyone, and let’s not send the token “yeah, doing great!” in response. If you are having a hard time, that’s ok. Let’s normalise the fact that mental illness is a real and dangerous thing. Let’s not sweep it under the rug. Let’s stop telling people to just try and stay positive, or that we’re all in the same COVID-19 boat, just because these dark feelings are uncomfortable and difficult to talk about. Imagine if that was the last thing you said to someone you loved before they took their own life. Let’s try to just be empathetic and kind today. If you don’t know what to say, a simple “I’m really sorry you’re going through this, I love you and I’m here for you” can go a very long way. And if you’re having a hard time right now and struggling with the isolation and loneliness inherent in both mental illness and COVID-19, here are some things that might help both you and the people around you…

 

Send some love out into the world to the ones you know who maybe aren’t doing OK:

1. Send postcards to your friends.
Postcards aren’t just for when you’re on holidays, and think about how awesome it feels to check the mail and find something other than bills in there! This isn’t a sponsored post, but I really love Red Bubble for fun postcards – there is literally something for everyone on there, and writing a postcard is a lot more manageable that writing a full letter when you’re struggling to know what to say.

2. Write a letter to a stranger.
If you find yourself with a bit more time and mental energy, think about joining in on the Connected AU Letterbox Project. It’s easy for most of us to just send a text or have a family Zoom session, but there are a lot of Australians who either don’t have the access or ability to use technology to keep connected. This project is a way for those of us with an extra 10 minutes to remind those Aussies that they’re not alone. Writing a letter too hard? Maybe send a copy of your favourite recipe, a drawing, or some photos you’ve taken.

3. Send a regular weekly or fortnightly or even monthly “check in” text to friends you know might be having a hard time.
You know the friends I’m talking about. The one with kids at home who’s struggling to keep them entertained. The one working in a higher risk environment. The one who owns a small business and doesn’t know if it will survive this. The one with family overseas or with elderly parents they can’t see. And it doesn’t need to be an essay. You can literally just sent a text that says “hey, just checking in to see how you’re doing :)” Sometimes all we need is to know someone is thinking of us.

4. Cook up a bit of extra food when you make dinner, or an extra big batch of cookies…
… and drop it off to a neighbour. If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll have noticed that I love exploring the ways that food connects us, and right now, that connection might save someone. Even a little plate of choc chip cookies and a kind note on your neighbour’s front doopstep might make the world of difference.

5. If you have loved ones further away, send food anyway!
We live in the time of UberEats and MenuLog – there are also a HEAP of amazing small hospitality businesses who are cooking up delicious meals and delivering them. If you suspect a friend is really struggling to keep up, having one less meal to cook can be a huge help, so if you’re in the financial position to help by sending them dinner one night, that can be something quick and easy you can do for them!

Do something for yourself when you’re the one feeling not so OK:

1. Turn off the news and turn on some mindless TV for a mental break.
First up, take a breather. I know how tempting it is to stay tuned for every update. I also know how bad it is to read nothing but pandemic updates all day, every day. Sometimes even reading a good book can be too mentally taxing right now, sometimes you just need to watch something on TV that requires no thinking – now’s the time to get addicted to Top Chef, Making It, The Amazing Race and Bluey. And that’s ok – you don’t have to be productive all the time!

2. Use technology work for you instead of against you.
If you’re going to have a mindless scroll, mindlessly scroll through stuff that isn’t going to make you feel worse! Here are a few Instagram favourites to make you smile and support your mental wellbeing:
@selfcareisforeveryone
@charliemackesy
@wawawiwacomics
@theblurtfoundation
@thehappynewspaper

3. Create something.
There’s a good reason art therapy is used in the treatment of many mental illnesses. You don’t need to be good at creative pursuits to benefit from them – write a few lines a day in a journal. Draw your breakfast every morning. Listen to your favourite music while you’re doing the laundry. If you’re a bit more ambitious, try a new creative hobby – lino printing, water colour painting, hand sewing, knitting, learning a language or a musical instrument… it can be a very cathartic experience, not to mention a really nice distraction from the sadness to create something beautiful.

4. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling.
A friend posted something on Instagram the other day that got me really good – it was along the lines of comparison being not only the thief of joy, but the thief of grief, too. If you’re having a hard time, that’s ok. You don’t have to buck up and get over it; you’re allowed to feel sad and hurt. You also don’t have to buy into all of your painful thoughts and feelings – this is where mindfulness comes in. There is obviously a LOT of information out there on mindfulness which I’m sure you can easily Google, but one of the easiest ways you can start is to just notice your thoughts and feelings, and to let them pass without judging them.

For example, if you’re feeling anxious, instead of getting really worked up about it and catastrophising, you might just say to yourself “hmm.. I’m noticing that I’m feeling a bit anxious right now. That’s making my stomach feel really tight and uncomfortable. I’m going to take a few slow breaths and count to 5 on each inhale and 5 on each exhale, and focus just on that counting instead of the anxiety, just for 30 seconds.” After you’re done with that breathing and counting, you might decide you don’t want to go back to the anxious feeling, or you might decide you want to poke around and work out why you’re feeling that way. Either way, it’s good to take a quick step back before these feelings get really overwhelming.

5. Reach out for help.
You don’t have to seek out help in person. It doesn’t need to be with family or friends if you’re not comfortable confiding in them yet. It doesn’t need to be a super formal thing. We live in the technology age, and that makes help more accessible than ever, so use that to your advantage.

Beyond Blue
Phone support service: 1800 512 348
Web chat support service: https://cmwssonline.beyondblue.org.au/#/chat/start
Online community forum: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/online-forums/staying-well/coping-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak

Lifeline 
Phone support service: 13 11 14
Web chat support service from 7pm – midnight: https://www.lifeline.org.au/crisis-chat/
SMS support service from 6pm – midnight: 0477 13 11 14

SANE
Phone support service: 1800 18 7263
Web chat support service from Monday to Friday 10am – 10pm: https://www.sane.org/services/help-centre#
Online community forum: https://saneforums.org/?_ga=2.9719285.116053902.1597979668-381352914.1597979668

More options for support can be found at https://mhaustralia.org/need-help

Cook this: Weet-Bix Slice

Fun facts about Weet-Bix:

1. Australian children use them to learn the points of a compass. Never Eat Soggy Weet-Bix. How does anyone else learn that??

2. They’re basically just little bricks of shredded wheat. I think most countries have their own version. They are not very exciting on their own.

3. I flat out refused to eat them for breakfast as a kid (see point 1 – I don’t like soggy cereal) unless dad smeared them with Nutella or strawberry jam and I ate them like crackers. Very dry, flavourless crackers. The only other exception was mum’s Weet-Bix slice.

4. Mum makes a few bloody good versions of a Weet-Bix slice – this is the one I like best.

Ingredients:
– 3 Weet-Bix, crushed
– 1 cup desiccated coconut
– finely grated zest of half a lemon
– 1/2 cup castor sugar
– 160g butter, melted
– 1 tsp vanilla extract

– 1 cup icing sugar
– juice of 1 lemon
– other half of the lemon’s zest

 

Method:

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C and line a 12 inch square tin with non-stick baking paper.

2. Combine the crushed Weet-Bix, coconut, lemon zest and sugar in a large bowl.

3. Pour in the butter and vanilla, mix to combine.

4. Get the mixture into the tin and press it down firmly with your hands. Bake 15 minutes or until set. When it comes out of the oven, leave it in the tin while you make the icing.

5. Combine the icing sugar, lemon juice and zest, mix it up and add more icing sugar if it’s too runny/more lemon juice if too dry.

6. After the slice has had a chance to cool for 5 minutes, pour the icing on top and spread it over evenly. Let the slice cool completely in the tin, the take it out, slice into squares
and enjoy!

 

Crunchy Weet-Bix slice > soggy Weet-Bix any day of the week.

How to spend a day in Reykjavik, Iceland

We hired a car for our week in Iceland, but when we arrived in Reykjavik, it was parked out the front of our Airbnb and promptly forgotten about until it was time to head back to the airport. We found Reykjavik to be a pretty easy city to walk around, even in the cold of winter. And despite the shorter daylight hours, you can actually pack quite a bit in to a sunny winter’s day while you’re there.

I’m clearly not a Reykjavik local (and I’m sure a they would have some different ideas on how to spend a day in their city), so this is my visitor’s version of how to spend a day there to take in as much of the city’s mixed bag of offerings as you can.

 

1. Get up early and start walking towards the Harpa Conference & Concert Center. Actually, you don’t have to get up that earlywe were there mid-November and this was about 7:30am. You’re not going to see inside the building or anything, it’s just really beautiful in the morning darkness on your way to your second stop.

 

2. Keep on walking south along the water for about 800 metres to the Sun Voyager. This frequently-photographed sculpture that looks like an old Viking long-ship is next-level spectacular during sunrise. It draws massive crowds during the day, so if you want a chance to have it to yourself, it’s worth the early wake up.

 

3. Double back and follow the main road around to the left at the Concert Center, taking you on a kilometre walk to Lake Tjörnin. If you’ve thought ahead and brought a KeepCup full of tea or coffee with you, this is a nice stop to make. If you’ve brought along some bread, too, even better – the birds here loooove a feed.

 

4. Opposite the west side of the lake at the corner of Suðurgata & Kirkjugarðsstígur, you’ll find the Hólavallagarður Cemetery. I love a cemetery visit when I’m travelling, and I’ve been to a lot of them now, but this will always stand out for me. After you’ve been driving around Iceland for a week, you notice that there actually aren’t a heap of trees there; they seem to be hoarding them all at this cemetery. In winter, when the graves are covered in moss and snow, and the light is a little darker and there’s no one around, it’s a pretty unique experience.

 

5. Start walking north again back towards the Concert Center and make your way to Kolaportið Market. Because no day out is complete without a trip to a local flea market, especially in Iceland where everything is generally incredibly expensive!

 

6. You’ve gotta be getting hungry by now, so take a lunch break at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for the best hot dog you’ve ever eaten. Literally the BEST hot dog. You’ve ever. Eaten. EVER.

 

7. A kilometer and a half walk south-east along Skólavörðustígur Street will take you through the city centre, where you’ll be able to check out some of the street art scattered around the city.

 

8. If you’re game, head to one of the many tattoo studios in the city for a more permanent souvenir from your time in Iceland. I had this beauty done by Martin at the now closed Sweet Hell Tattoo Studio, which is a shame because it’s one of the better studios I’ve been tattooed in. If you’re intrigued but unsure, I’ve written a guide to getting tattooed on your travels which might help.

 

9. No visit to Reykjavik would be complete without seeing the city’s main landmark, Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s towering Lutheran church. Even if you’re not much into architecture or religion, you can’t not be left a little in awe of this building and the way it pops up at the end of a main street, like it’s just waiting there to welcome you in. And if you’re happy to join to line with the other tourists, I her the view from the observation tower up top is pretty spectacular.

 

10. It’s time for afternoon tea, now. Head about 500 metres along Vitastígur, and you’ll hit Te & Kaffi. Warm up, caffeinate, get some sugary treats (I highly recommend the choc chip cookies) into you, and get ready to head back out into the cold for one last trek before you call it a day.

 

11. Your last stop is just under 2 kilometres away, north-west, back towards and past the Concert Center. You’re ending your day at the Saga Museum. You can dress up as a Viking in the foyer area before grabbing your headphones and following an audio guide through the museum, watching on as life-sized (and sometimes disturbingly life-like) figures play out scenes from Iceland’s history. It’s a little tacky, a little silly, but it’s also a pretty good history lesson.

 

 

Cook this: Cheeseburger pasta

Yes, you read the post title correctly; no, it’s not a typo. Cheeseburger pasta. As in, pasta that magically tastes like a cheeseburger.

I was not aware this was a thing until a few weeks ago when a friend said she was making it for dinner, and given how much I love a good cheeseburger, I obviously had to give it a go. I had low expectations because I didn’t want to be disappointed, but I can happily say that I ended up with a huge bowl of pasta that tasted exactly like a good old cheesy… amazing!

I asked my (admittedly few) Instagram followers if they’d be interested in seeing the recipe, and the overwhelming response was “YES!” so here it is, slightly tweaked from the original my friend shared.

 

 

INGREDIENTS (makes 6 serves):
– 500g beef mince
– 1 small brown onion, thinly sliced – or, if you’re fructose intolerant like me, 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
– 400g dry macaroni or other small pasta
– 3 cups beef or vegetable stock
– 400g tin of diced tomatoes
– 3/4 cup ketchup
– 1/3 cup yellow mustard
– 1-2 cups (depending how cheesy you want it) grated cheddar or strong tasty cheese
– diced tomato, red onion, and/or pickles, to serve

 

METHOD:
1. Heat a large, non-stick pot over medium heat and spray with cooking oil. Add the mince and onion, and cook until the onion softens and the beef browns.

2. Add the pasta, stock and tinned tomatoes, give it a good stir and bring to a simmer until the pasta is cooked through (the liquid should be almost completely absorbed by that point).

3. Take the pot off the heat and stir in the ketchup, mustard and cheese, until the cheese is melted through.

4. Serve it up and top with the diced tomato, onion and pickles. Close your eyes and imagine it’s a cheeseburger. It basically is.

Eating the city: Prague, Czech Republic

Let’s take a quick break from all of the doom & gloom, and take a quick trip instead to Prague. I loved Prague, so much more than I expected to, and the food had a lot to do with that. It is by no means health-conscious or particularly good for the body, eaten in large quantities, but it is good for the soul. And when you’re travelling, soul food is never a bad idea.

 

Fried cheese sandwich

Why get it: A brick of cheese, crumbed and deep fried to the perfect shade of golden brown, topped with mayonnaise and thrown into a bread roll. If you know, you know.

We got ours from: 
Wenceslas Square, at a street vendor – there were plenty to choose from.

 

Ham filled potato dumplings

Why get it: I chose this because I didn’t want a slab of meat – it was so good, I went back the next day and ordered it again! It may look very beige-and-brown, but the chunks of smoked ham in the potato dumplings are phenomenal.

We got ours from: U-Medvidku – Na Perštýně 345/5, 100 01 Staré Město (Old Town). Because when Anthony Bourdain recommends a place, we hunt it down like rabbid dogs, and are always richly rewarded!

 

Fancy cakes

Why get it: To break up the meat and potatoes… But also because Prague does surprisingly well in the cake department, if you can find the right place to get them from!

We got ours from: Café Savoy – Vítězná 124/5, Vítězná 5, 150 00 Praha. Yes, this place has become very popular with tourists, but from what we saw, it is also still very popular with locals, and for a good reason.

 

Spaetzle

Why get it: Like gnocchi, but smaller and smothered in butter, cheese and bacon (at least the version we had was).

We got ours from: Christmas markets, accompanied with a neighbouring stall’s mulled wine.

 

Chimney cake

Why get it: A delicious dough cooked to golden brown on a rotisserie, with a whole lot of Nutella smothered on the inside of it and topped with a heavy dusting of sugar. What’s not to love?

We got ours from:
More Christmas markets – they have all the good stuff!