Cooking Class, Voices In My Head

I need to talk about the cooking class. It seemed like such a simple thing to do, register for a cooking class. Ten minutes away in a nearby town, it was close by and convenient. I registered about ten days ahead of time, put it in my phone calendar, and let it slip into my unconscious mind.

I kept reminding my self during the day on Thursday so I would not forget, because on some level, I had an inkling that going to this event has some sort of significance, but I was ignoring all of it. I did not want to sabotage myself, even though I didn’t know what I would be sabotaging.

I made sure I got there in plenty of time. Even though the instructions said that you could not come into the house early, I did not want to be late. It was located in the instructor’s home, and because they were doing prep work up until the last few minutes of the start of the class, they did not want anyone coming in until six o’clock.

So, I arrived early, and as I turned the last corner to the location, I heard something under my car. It sounded like a branch of a tree got stuck under the car as I turned the corner. So I tried backing up and then went forward again to see if I could dislodge it, but it still made noise. I got out to look underneath.

It was a branch that had lodged itself vertically just between the right front wheel well and the body of the car. I had to get on my knees, reach underneath, and try to pull it out. It was not very thin, about a half inch in diameter, and required some force to try pulling it down to get it out, but it was long and reached the ground and so there wasn’t any room to pull it down since it was touching the ground already.

All sorts of waves of foreboding were starting to creep in to my mind, along with “geez, you can’t even get here without something going wrong…loser”. I was doing my best to quiet that voice. I figured if I broke the stick or branch, I would then be able to dislodge it. So that is what I did. In the process, I pinched the web space between my thumb and index finger making one of those blood clot spots, which happens when you pinch your skin. But, I got the stick out, or most of it anyway, so it wasn’t scraping on the ground anymore.

I got back in my car, brushed off my pants, cleaned off my hands and blotted the spot on my hand that got pinched. The negative voice in my head was chuckling, but the positive voice was saying good job. I still had a good ten minutes to wait, so I sat in the car and listened to music, and closed my eyes and tried to relax. I tried to quiet the negative voice, so far I was doing okay, trying to breathe and not think, just float in meditation.

A little earlier, before driving here I was asking myself, do I look okay, how are my clothes, my hair, my breath…I flossed and rinsed with toothpaste. Oh, my god, remind me why I am going to this, and why am I worried about my appearance? Oh, I am actually going out to be with people, strangers, not a grief support group. Real people…lol, like my grief support is not real people.

Okay, they are real, but they are a narrow, specific, subgroup of people, all in a similar situation. I am going out into the fire of the general population. Completely unknown. Oh shit. That’s what my brain started to do. That’s why I was trying not to think about this the last ten days. Some part of my brain was protecting me. I had to thank myself for waiting until now to start this anxiety, or else I would have cancelled or forgot about it until it was half over and sabotaged it in some way.

Let’s get real. I have not had to socialize like this since before I met my wife Emilee. That was eighteen years ago. But here I was, trying to breathe and keep the terror at bay, and focus on the one reason I was here tonight.

Okay, more than one, but one was a good place, no, an excellent place to start. I was here to have fun. First and foremost, I was here to have fun. Not to meet anyone, not to meet a woman, not for any reason other than to get out, interact, and have fun. Back up, just to have fun. If I start thinking interaction, that crazy, negative, anxious, afraid voice is going to start.

So, I got out of the car and walked to the door and rang the bell. One of the assistants, Jamie, came to the door after a minute and said they were still preparing and would let me (us) know when we could come in, and that they should be ready in about five more minutes.

Okay, so, I sat down on the steps and waited, thinking that I was beginning to feel awkward already. But, within a minute or so, several other people came up the broken bluestone walkway, and I told them they weren’t ready for us yet inside. There was some friendly chatter, and for the moment I stopped feeling so awkward.

Then it was time to go inside. So we filed in, were told where to lay bags or jackets, and where the bathroom was located, and that we should all wash our hands at the pantry sink, where there was also water or sparkling citrus seltzer if anyone was thirsty, and where the cooking aprons were. We gathered around the large island, were asked to sign the sign-in book, and then our instructor, Heidi, began.

She said she had a very eventful, hectic day, not the least of which was that the catfish that they had purchased, just didn’t look or smell right to them, and so she had to go get a substitute fish, tilapia.

The method of cooking would be the same, so you could apply this recipe to quite a variety of fish. Which is what I had thought when I signed up. I don’t really like catfish, or didn’t think I did, but I figured I could apply the recipe to other kinds of fish. So just sign up for the class. I did. I was here.

Heidi wanted to start by having each of us state our name, where we lived, what we did for work or not, our leanings towards cooking or not, types of food we liked, and anything else significant related to food, or why we came tonight. I was trying to stay focused on what each person was saying, and not think about what I was going to say. Just let it happen. Stop rehearsing. Be spontaneous. Oh s**t…lol…here we go. My turn.

Name and town I live in, that was easy. I have been through all sorts of diets. Vegan, vegetarian, currently still don’t eat red meat, but eat poultry and fish. Why am I here? Well my wife, Emilee, of 16 years, wouldn’t really let me in the kitchen when she was cooking. To help clean up, yes, but rarely to help cook.

And then Heidi said something about that, and I said something about not making too much fun at Emilee’s expense because she passed away a few months ago, and I started to lose it, looking out at Heidi from tears in my eyes, working on keeping myself together to continue talking, hoping the tears didn’t start dripping down my face. It was only three months ago that Emilee had died.

See, this is what I meant about being out with the general public, real people, not just people who are grieving. Yes, but isn’t it just a little refreshing to hear all this diversity of peoples’ lives? You go, you positive voice you. Keep going. We (and it feels like a “we”, not just a “me”, a “we”, with all those voices in my head) are hanging in there.

I finished speaking, and the woman next to me touched me on the arm, and I felt accepted. Oh, my god, I felt accepted. This awkward, socially isolated person, me, felt accepted and included in the group. WOW, another baby step and another positive.

And it got better. Heidi said we could participate as much or as little as we wanted, and before I knew it, someone passed me the butter and asked me to measure six tablespoons, and I was getting my hands dirty.

I think I said something about multitasking in the kitchen and how my brain likes to do one task at a time, and we were working on three different recipes, starting off with the ingredients for one of them, but also doing some prep for the second.

There was friendly conversation, and attending to the tasks at hand, and it was becoming a shared project with different people and different personalities, and we were helping each other, and giving each other encouragement, and after a while I was just being myself.

Throwing out puns…okay the assistant, Jamie, she started it. She told about all the thyme puns. So I chimed in with four or five that came to mind (thyme waits for no one, no thyme like the present, and so on), and I was starting to feel more at ease, less self-conscious about worrying if I was the awkward nerd, and just beginning to enjoy the moment. Huge.

That was just sooooo huge. I was being an interesting, involved, accepted person, not an unemployed, grieving widower. I was breathing. And the air smelled of spices, and cooking food, and life.

I was just involved in the moment and no longer concerned about HOW I was doing. No major mistakes were made in the cooking, we finally got to sit and eat after about two to two and a half hours. I even did okay with the level of spice in the food. I tend to not eat any spice, and the chowder had just a touch of heat, and the fried tilapia had a little more (a light coating of tabasco before getting breaded), but with a little forehead and top of my head sweating, it was all good.

I walked out, conversing with a gentleman who said things will change with time, and I just politely shook my head and said I know, and thank you, and when I got to my car, I gave myself a very proud “atta boy”. I really felt myself complimenting myself, and no negatives.

I heard the negative voice ever so softly say, oh, but I didn’t meet anyone. And the positive voice countered with, I came to have fun, and have fun and be myself is what I did. It may not sound like much to someone not in the process of grieving, but for me it was such a confidence booster.

I did it. I made it through a real, authentic social situation, with total strangers, and I not only survived, but I had fun. I enjoyed just being around other people, hearing their stories, what jobs they have, a little slice of their lives, different personalities, different ages from early twenties, to early seventies.

I did not make a fool of myself, I was not a failure, and I managed to keep my negative voice pretty quiet for the most part. I know it is there because at one time, when I was twelve, it was protecting me. And I can thank it for keeping me safe when I needed it. But I like the volume on the positive voice.

When my dad suddenly died when I was twelve, I think a part of me unconsciously decided that since life was so unpredictable and so uncontrollable, in other words, I had no control over what happened……..that I started to act and behave as if it didn’t matter what I did. I am talking about in life. What kind of work, what did I want to do in life.

I think a part of me, like I said this was not conscious for the most part, a part of me felt no matter what I did, it wasn’t going to work out anyway, so whatever I would start, I would lose the passion, lose the drive to follow through and persevere. Because, deep, deep inside of me I felt it was all for nothing.

Instead of thinking, okay, I could die tomorrow but I want to live with all I have got for today, use whatever talents I have and do something positive with them, make a difference in other people’s hearts, touch them (yeah, cliché, reach out and touch someone), instead of that positive voice, I embodied the cautious, scared, anxious voice of it doesn’t matter, so why feel passionate about anything?

Full of doubt and loss of my idol in my life, my dad, I allowed fear, indecision, and criticism of myself for even feeling that way, to influence my life choices and decisions. I never really wanted to deal with “adult” decisions, the heavy questions.

Now, this is all ironic. Because, as a child, I got so sick of my parents telling me what I could or couldn’t do, I couldn’t wait to grow up, literally, couldn’t wait until the day when I could decide that if I wanted to buy something, I could. I didn’t need someone else’s approval for anything, a toy, what food I ate, what I did with my day to day life.

And yet when I got to be an adult and had to make choices, I had trouble. Choices such as what college to go to, what major in college, what job after college or to go to graduate school or not and for what area of concentration, what job to take, to marry or not, and whom to marry, and to stay or get divorced, and to remarry or not, how to run my business(es), or not run my businesses, and how to make my second marriage work or not. For the most part, I would bury my head in the sand.

To this day, I still shy away from the adult responsibilities, and conflict. I still get this feeling of being overwhelmed, that it will all go away if I ignore it long enough. I am starting to realize it doesn’t go away. Unmade decisions linger and fester after a while.

They affect my life anyway, even when I decide to not decide. And then things are even more out of control and are fulfilling that unwritten, unconscious thought that life and everything is so unpredictable, so why bother deciding? Of course, I have taken some of the three P’s from Martin Seligman, a psychologist. Personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

Personalization, or the belief that we are at fault, that I had something, somehow, to do with my father dying. It is different from responsibility, taking responsibility, which is a good thing. But personalization is learning the lesson that everything that happens to us happens because of us, because of something I did or did not do.

I have allowed that traumatic event to take on pervasiveness, where it invades and touches ALL parts of my life. Everything, everything is in a state of decay or dying, everything is breaking down, everything will ultimately fail, including me. Pervasiveness is like a cancer. Let it stay long enough and it takes over everything.

I have let it take on permanence, thinking it will be that way forever. Sadness, grief, failing, not trying, all of it…will last forever. I am stuck like a hamster running the wheel in its cage. Wow, that is depressing. Yet, Emilee’s dying has opened me up again, with an opportunity to step off the wheel, to venture outside the cage, to look at how I processed grief when a child, and how I can learn something different now.

I wish someone could have taught me this when I was younger. Especially after my dad died. I had a therapist when I was in graduate school for, of course, what else, counseling. I made some progress with him, and years later he was helpful in encouraging me to go back to school for my physical therapy degree. But, I managed to not really do all I could with that as well, and let things fall by the wayside. But, the positive voice is telling me that was a significant accomplishment, even if I could have done more.

I have work to do still. Maybe the work is really just beginning. But I am willing to challenge and confront the negative voice that still believes it is helping, like it did when I was twelve years old.

There are days when I feel overwhelmed, but I am confident that those feelings will pass and I will feel the energy of being more positive, that I will act in spite of feeling afraid and paralyzed by having to make decisions. I can tone down the voice of being afraid that says I will make the “wrong” decision, so don’t make any decision. I can instead, listen to the positive voice saying make an informed decision, do the best you can. If you make a mistake, it is okay, learn from it.

I am, in short and long, a work in progress. A living, breathing, struggling, work in progress.

Anyone else out there have voices in THEIR head??

Neal Klein
Life After Emilee, on the loss of my wife to pancreatic cancer. I’m not accepting comments right now but please feel free to get in touch via my Contact page.