The Long Winter
All about the time I attempted to bake 106 different kinds of Martha Stewart holiday cookies in two months. People laughed and said I was crazy. Well, I was crazy.
I had been staring at a wall of frozen pizzas for 15 minutes. Freschetta, DiGiorno, Red Baron, Tombstone. I didn't even want pizza. I looked pathetic, in slippers and an oversized Dance Hall Crashers hoodie that I almost never wear in public because, as a rock writer, I don't like to flaunt my undying love for uncool mid-'90s ska bands. But I didn't care. It was almost 1:00 a.m., and I had been at the Ballard Safeway for 45 minutes and only had three oranges in my basket to show for it. And I knew I wasn't going to eat those oranges, so I had no idea why I was carrying them around except maybe to make it look like I did eventually plan on buying something.
This was two years ago, the first week of November, and a familiar depression had sunk in. I was doing just enough to get by every day without setting off any alarms among friends and coworkers. I was already suffering from a broken heart and a bruised sense of self-worth, and it all became magnified by the same cloud of uncontrollable sadness that had been making regular visits in my life since I was about 13. I was familiar enough with my history to recognize what was happening, but like always, I was unable to stop it.
I don't know why I find comfort in grocery stores at times like this, but I do and I always have. I've spent hours under the fluorescent lights at QFC, Haggen, sometimes even Target. Safeway is my favorite because it's open 24 hours and by 1:00 a.m., no one is really around to ask me if I need help finding anything because, let's face it, I don't want to find anything.
The pizza started to bore me, so I walked past the festive displays of candy canes, nutcracker-shaped Snickers bars, and Christmas-colored M&M's. I slowly wandered up and down the aisles, I did a few slow laps around the bakery, and I thought about getting an apple fritter. I drifted over to the magazines and looked at the new Rolling Stone and Spin, unimpressed as usual, save for the Chuck Klosterman column Spin never should've discontinued, and then began to hate myself for still not looking anything like every woman on every cover of every other magazine. Then hated myself even more for believing I wanted to.
And then I picked up a copy of Martha Stewart's Holiday Cookies magazine because the snowflake-shaped gingerbread cookie on the cover was pretty.
There was nothing in this magazine that made me feel like crap. It wasn't packed with ass-kissing interviews or pompous music reviews that I disagreed with, and it didn't have a bunch of beautiful women wearing clothes more expensive than I'd ever be able to afford, not that I would fit in them if I could. This magazine was full of possibility, tasty possibility. It had 106 cookie recipes in it. For two weeks I hadn't known what to do with myself, was hanging out in grocery stores alone, for Christ's sake, and now, in my hands, Martha Stewart was presenting me with exactly 106 things I could do. So I bought the oranges and the magazine and left.
By the time I got home, I'd decided I was going to make every single cookie in that fucking magazine. I was going to wrap Chocolate Malt Sandwiches in cellophane bags and tie them off with candy-cane-striped string just like on page 15. Then I was going to ship carefully organized tins of crunchy Pecan Logs and Lime Meltaways to my friends in Oregon and California as shown on page 11. This was going to be the best holiday season ever. I wasn't going to spend one more minute thinking about how un-fucking-happy I was. I was gonna make cookies.
I stayed up for hours reading through and earmarking the most intriguing recipes, the ones I wanted to try first—Coconut Cream–Filled Macaroons; Lemon–Poppy Seed Crisps; Rosemary Butter Cookies; Raspberry Cream Sandwiches; Pear, Pistachio, and Ginger Blondies.
When I told two friends the next day my idea of making all 106, they laughed and promised me $10 each if I did it by the end of the year. It was November 7. Dude, I could totally do that.
I started simple with Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and Double Chocolate Coconut Cookies. After two trips to the store and a few hours with my usually neglected KitchenAid stand mixer, my house smelled amazing and I felt really calm for the first time in a long while. I didn't even care that I had already blown my $20 worth of possible profit to get supplies, because I had done something with my day. I had tangible evidence—ooey gooey chocolaty goodness—to prove I wasn't a complete waste of a human being.
Over the next few days, I made some decent Cakey Chocolate Chip Cookies, simple and sugary Honey Lace Cookies, chewy Pistachio Lemon Drops, and flavorful Iced Oatmeal Applesauce Cookies. I tried to make the über-sweet Coconut Bars on page 28, but the mixture never set. It was good on ice cream, though.
I kept baking through November and into December. I brought dozens and dozens of cookies to the office and my coworkers at The Stranger wrote about them on Slog. When I brought in the really fantastic Coconut Cream–Filled Macaroons, Amy Kate Horn and Annie Wagner swooned. They fought over the last one, and then Annie dropped it on the floor during the struggle and they both screamed. Tim Keck and Dan Savage made requests of what I should make next. Almost every day at least one person would ask me what number I was up to and if I still honestly intended to go through with finishing all of them. Yes, I really did.
At one point—knowing I had been spending hundreds of dollars on flour, sugar, eggs, butter, various extracts, nuts, dried fruits, fancy chocolate, coconut, parchment paper, and whatever else Miss Stewart demanded—my coworkers secretly took up a collection and presented me with an envelope full of cash to help offset the costs. The gesture almost made me cry. Then again, at that point, a lot of things almost made me cry.
It was the first time I sincerely felt like I wasn't the loner of The Stranger's office. I started as an intern in 2000 and, at 20, was younger than everyone else. I got along with everyone, but despite having been around for over five years by then, I never really felt like I fit in. I don't drink. I've never done a single illegal drug in my life. I didn't live on Capitol Hill nor did I ever want to live on Capitol Hill. I had only been to the Cha Cha once, for 30 seconds, and all the red lights made me anxious. And I was really, really tired of talking about the monorail.
I felt like the nerdy college dropout hack who stumbled into my position by accident and everyone just put up with me because it would be more trouble to replace me than just let me stay. But Martha Stewart's cookies gave us a bond. It gave them a reason to talk to me and me a reason to talk back. It also gave them a completely wrong impression.
So far as I could tell, the cookie project led my friends and coworkers to believe I was this bubbly, energetic, blond ball of fun who just really loves Christmas and baking and making people smile. They probably pictured me going home, blasting "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" while rolling out a batch of Stained Glass Trees (tree-shaped sugar cookies with melted hard candy in the center) or Prune Rugelach.
With crumbs stuck to his lips, my dad told me I should write a book about my adventure or, better yet, open a bakery. My sister told me I should be a guest on Martha Stewart's talk show—or at the very least The Ellen DeGeneres Show. But mostly people laughed, then shoved another cookie in their mouth, then said I was crazy. And you know, they were right, I was crazy, but not for attempting to bake 106 different kinds of Martha Stewart holiday cookies in two months. Between the crying fits, 2:00 a.m. telephone calls that ended in screaming matches, the constant rearrangement of the furniture in my apartment, and the very quiet wish that I would just die, baking those cookies was the sanest thing I did that entire winter. Those cookies saved my life.
By 2004, almost 10 percent of Americans over the age of 18 had some kind of mood disorder, from mild depression to major depression to bipolar disorder, according to a National Institute of Mental Health study. And that doesn't even account for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that often occurs in the winter months, due to smaller amounts of daylight. SAD causes oversleeping and/or sleeplessness, fatigue, sugar and carbohydrate cravings that usually lead to weight gain, sadness, decreased sexual drive, and a bunch of other stuff that makes you want to die. SAD thrives in the cold, damp, gray climate of the Pacific Northwest.
Suicide was the eighth cause of death in Washington State in 2005 according to the Department of Health's website. That doesn't sound impressive until you realize that means over 800 people killed themselves in 2005, which amounts to roughly 2.2 people killing themselves in this state every day. The Aurora Bridge, a bridge I drive across almost every day to avoid the traffic on Denny, is the second most popular suicide bridge in the nation. I probably don't have to tell you how Kurt Cobain died. No one in the Pacific Northwest should ever be shocked that they're depressed; they should be thankful they're surviving it.
But my situation wasn't seasonal, although it is always worst in January.
I wasn't diagnosed with depression until I was 19 years old, but I remember battling serious and long-lasting mood swings all through junior high and high school, and I have the bad poetry to prove it. I was a textbook case: I had low self-esteem, I lost interest in all my favorite activities, I drifted away from my familiar circle of friends. I neglected to think much of it because I thought, as did my parents, that it was normal high-school/hormonal stuff. Teenagers aren't supposed to be happy. I was miserable, so I was normal.
Unlike me, my best childhood friend, Lacey, was happy and popular. We couldn't have been more different, but we were friends starting at about 3 or 4 years old. She was the editor of the school newspaper, part of the student council, and a varsity basketball player. I... was not. She was hilarious and gorgeous. I... was sometimes funny. In high school, I always looked forward to journalism class where we'd torture our classmates by taking over the CD player on production days and blasting Fleetwood Mac's "Big Love" just so we could obnoxiously sing the "Ooh! Ah! Ooh! Ah!" ending at the top of our lungs.
Lacey always told me I could be a big asset to a newspaper someday since I could write and shoot photos, and I decided to find out if she was right. I graduated in June 1998 and immediately started taking photography and English classes that summer at Everett Community College. Things were going well—I was running almost every day, I loved school for the first time ever, I met a few new friends, I continued to enjoy my job as an after-school activities director at a daycare center in Lake Stevens, and I had a crush on a boy at work who seemed to think I was pretty cute and funny. I finally felt happy, like I had a shot at having a stable future.
One night in January, two weeks after New Year's, Lacey was driving home from basketball practice. Just a few miles away, her mom was at home doing dishes when she heard a helicopter overhead. She called Lacey on her cell phone and a paramedic answered. Lacey had stopped on State Route 9 to make a left turn—the intersection didn't have a light—when the teenage driver of a pickup truck, changing a CD, rear-ended her going about 60 miles an hour.
Lacey was wearing her seatbelt, but the impact of the crash caused her brain to smash against her skull. It immediately swelled up, blocking blood flow, and she was already unconscious by the time the ambulances arrived. At Harborview, they cut a hole in her skull to reduce the pressure on her brain. They gave her a tracheotomy, put her on a ventilator, and didn't expect her to last more than 24 hours. So far as they could tell, there was no activity in her brain and life support was the only reason she was alive.
But as Lacey kept hanging on, so did I—to the hope that she'd wake up and be okay. She made it beyond the initial 24 hours and in a couple days she was taken off the ventilator. She exceeded all the doctors' expectations... up to a point. Long story short (even writing this now makes me want to scream), Lacey's still alive, but she isn't really awake. And she never will be. She'll have been in a catatonic state for nine years come this January, and she'll be that way for the rest of her life.
My life went on. Sort of. I wasn't able to focus on much and my grades showed it. I stopped running. I'd visit Lacey at whatever recovery facility they'd moved her to, but the visits got increasingly difficult the longer things went on. I went back and forth between feeling strong and ready to move on to being riddled with guilt and exploding with anger if I didn't like the way someone said hello to me. It didn't take long for people to start drifting away. I have no idea what those months were like for my friends and family because I was too selfish to care.
I turned 19 that spring and moved out of my parents' house and into a small one-bedroom house in Granite Falls. The house was on my grandma's property, and since she was going to be doing a lot of traveling over the summer, I agreed to (she let me) take care of the property while she was gone.
Because that's a good idea, right? Putting a girl with severe depression in the middle of nowhere in a small, empty house should solve the problem no sweat! Except not. I would listen to talk radio and saved voice mails just to hear someone else's voice. I'd skip classes because I didn't feel like driving all the way to school, I eventually quit my job, and I ended up going broke soon thereafter. It was a terrible idea.
I moved back home, feeling even worse than before, and my mom finally convinced me that I should get some help—she called and made an appointment with my doctor.
After filling out a little questionnaire of about 15 questions—shit like "Are you comfortable being in the room with attractive members of the opposite sex?" "Do you cry for no reason?" and "Have you recently gained or lost weight?" (no, yes, yes)—my doctor declared me depressed and gave me a prescription for Paxil.
It was the first time I had ever taken an antidepressant and I thought it was going to fix everything; they made it sound like it was going to fix everything, and I couldn't wait to be happy again.
A couple weeks into my pill popping, I decided that I hated it.
I hated the side effects (headaches, drowsiness, nausea), and I hated having to take a pill when I woke up every morning because it reminded me that I wasn't okay on my own. I'm one of those stubborn, independent types, and it felt like I had a dirty little secret. If anyone found out, they'd think I was crazy. Besides, I still wasn't convinced that there was something honestly wrong with me. If I could just stop being a big dumb baby, I'd be okay.
Therapy didn't help. My therapist was nice enough, but she specialized in working with younger children. She just looked at me with sad eyes and said stuff like, "That must be really hard for you." No shit. My weekly appointment was always after her lunch hour, and something about knowing that she ate Cheetos (and had bits of orange in her braces to prove it) undermined any advice she had to give, so I quit going.
And that's how the cycle started—the in and out of therapy, the on and off of antidepressants. It's a game I've played for the past nine years. And I've learned that, like it or not, depression is real and I have it and it's never going to really go away. I've been on Paxil, Zoloft, I think Wellbutrin, Paxil again, and a couple others.
I wasn't on anything during the winter of 2005, the Cookie Winter. There was a lot going on—that spring my great-grandmother died just a couple days before I reluctantly turned 25. And I finally ended a relationship that I never should've let start in the first place because the dude had a girlfriend. (Yeah, I'm a ho.) My plan to bury my feelings in excess freelance work backfired, leaving me burnt out and overworked and late on a lot of deadlines.
I really should've started taking something. I'm sure things would've been different that winter if I had.
To make Martha Stewart's Rocky Ledge Bars, you whisk together 2¼ cups flour, 2¼ teaspoons baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. In another bowl, you use a wooden spoon to cream together 1 stick of softened, unsalted butter with 1½ cups dark brown sugar. You add 3 large eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and once it's mixed, stir in the flour mixture. To that, you add ½ cup of each: mini marshmallows, semisweet-chocolate chunks, white-chocolate chunks, butterscotch chips, and coarsely chopped soft caramel chews. You pour the batter into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan lined with parchment paper and greased with butter, then scatter another ½ cup (each) of the mini marshmallows, semisweet chocolate, white chocolate, butterscotch chips, and caramel chunks on top. Bake this for about 35 minutes in a 350 degree oven. The bars are done when the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
I was making Rocky Ledge Bars a few days into my project and was naively starting to believe I was getting better. Maybe I wasn't depressed after all. Maybe I'd just had a little bit of a bummer streak. Maybe I was starting to perk up. While the Rocky Ledge Bars baked—they come out as amazingly dense brownies packed with stuff—I thought about taking a plate of them to Todd, my neighbor down the hall.
I didn't know Todd, really. He lived in apartment #1, he was my age, he was a musician, and one time his roommate Andy knocked on my door and asked me if I was the music writer at The Stranger. Sometimes Todd sat on our front stoop with his laptop, drinking a 40. Even though we had a few mutual friends, I never officially met him except for the one morning, just a couple weeks before I made the Rocky Ledge Bars, when he knocked on my door and tried to help me find my cat after he saw the "Lost Kitty" fliers I had hung up on the hallway bulletin board. Baba eventually came home on his own, but I still meant to tell Todd thanks.
Like a coward, I never took those Rocky Ledge Bars to him. "What if he's vegan?" I thought. I took them to work and Dan Savage ate most of them instead.
On November 17, I was on to Apple Currant Cookies so I stopped at the store on the way home and got a box of currants, a bag of apples, a jar of apple butter, and a jug of apple cider.
It was dark by the time I got home. The row of big trees in front of my apartment building was lit up with emergency lights. There was a mess of police cars and ambulances scattered on the street and down the alley. I couldn't tell if they were there for my building or the one next door. When I reached to unlock my building's front door, two paramedics came out. "Excuse me," one said. I had no idea what was going on.
In the hallway, I saw the door to apartment #1 was cracked open. I saw Todd's radiator. I knew I really didn't want to see any more. I quickly tried to make my way to my apartment.
Before I got there, the building manager's fiancé pulled me aside.
"Todd killed himself," he said. "I guess his friends found him."
He'd hung himself. Todd and I lived in basement apartments. There are pipes across the ceiling you could hang yourself from. I unlocked my door, closed it behind me, and started crying—but, honestly, my tears had very little to do with Todd. How does it happen? You're just sitting in your apartment and you look up at the pipes and then you just decide you can't live anymore? You just hit a point where the depression becomes stronger than you? What would happen if I got to that point? Would I be able to stop it? Was I already there and I just didn't know it? Did Todd know it? I could never hang myself, and I don't have a gun. Would it be pills? Would it hurt? My mom and dad would be really mad at me. My sister would be pissed. Would I leave a note? What would it say? Did Todd leave a note? I really didn't want to die, I was scared shitless that I was about to die, but was I going to have a choice? Did Todd feel like he had a choice?
I headed toward the kitchen with the focus of a junkie looking for a fix. All day I'd been thinking about these Apple Currant Cookies and Todd deciding to tie a rope or a cord or a wire or whatever around his neck wasn't going to stop me.
For the next half hour or so, I could hear the shuffling of strangers' footsteps going in and out of the building. While I sliced rings of Granny Smith apples to set on top of the unbaked globs of sticky dough, I heard whispers in the hallway about "the body" and not letting the wheel of the gurney get caught on a step. I heard the building door open and close one last time, then I heard the beeping of the last ambulance backing out of the alley. And then it was silent.
I ended up giving those cookies to Jonah Bergman, the bassist in Schoolyard Heroes. He said they weren't as good as the Iced Applesauce Oatmeal Cookies.
The weekend following Todd's death was the weekend before Thanksgiving. Some guy—I'm guessing he was Todd's father—spent that whole Saturday sitting in the passenger seat of his dead son's orange Volkswagen Bug parked in the small lot behind the building. I couldn't not see him every time I looked outside. He was there all day, just sitting there, probably crying. It was hard to tell through the steamy windows.
For most of the day I entertained the idea of taking Todd's dad cookies, although I knew I'd never go through with it. What would I say? "Hi, your son just killed himself and I'm sorry about that but these Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing are really incredible. Happy Thanksgiving."
I stayed inside and tried not to look out the window while baking and thinking. Todd was obviously unhappy, and so was I—we were both part of America's 10 percent. I thought about how fucked up that was while chopping up bricks of overpriced milk chocolate for Double Chocolate Cookies that were, by the way, more trouble than they were worth. I thought about what Todd had that I didn't, or what I had that he didn't, and I listened to the Velvet Teen's saddest song over and over again:
It'll be your comfort that you're always alone
They never cared about you anyway
They never cared/they never care so much
As when you've lost your ways
Fire and brimstone where they lay me
Heaven help us for a way to get out of here.
I wondered if Todd knew that song. I wondered if the Rocky Ledge Bars would've made any difference. Maybe they would have. In Dan Savage's words, they were "really fucking good."
"I find that when you have a real interest in life and a curious life, that sleep is not the most important thing."
It was 2:00 a.m. and I was back at the Ballard Safeway, but this time I wasn't mindlessly gazing into a wall of frozen pizza; this time I had a reason to be there. Since I would be making Fruit and Nut Cookies, I needed dried apricots, dates, pistachios, shredded coconut, and macadamia nuts (I ran out of both when I made Coconut Macadamia Shortcake). I thought of Martha Stewart the entire time—should I get the store-brand coconut, or the organic brand that costs almost $2 more? Should I get the imitation vanilla extract or the real stuff? And if I get the real stuff, should I get the real stuff that's only a few bucks, or should I get that kind on the top shelf that's $15 a bottle? What Would Martha Do?
Before starting this (admittedly absurd) project, I never really thought about Martha Stewart, but now I was thinking of her every single day. She had been in and out of jail and she had a new show she filmed in front of a live audience in an attempt to reinvent herself as a "people person." She was trying to break away from that whole heartless-robot-with-exquisite-taste thing she had been working for most of her life, and in interviews she kept reassuring concerned journalists that she really has never felt better despite the fact she just spent almost a year in jail and under house arrest. She was saying what I wanted to be able to say, but she seemed to mean it. She was everything I wanted to be—confident, fearless, creative, the kind of person who made plans and stuck to them. And rich. I've always wanted to be rich.
But I'd never be any of that. My life was a mess. I didn't pay my bills, I didn't clean my house, I didn't do the laundry, I never returned phone calls or e-mails, I was staying up until at least 3:00 a.m. every night just to bake shit I didn't even like, like Ginger Cheesecake Bars, and for what? I hate ginger!
I realized right then that the cookies weren't a good thing—they weren't keeping me from being depressed; they were keeping me from dealing with my depression. And as the January 1 deadline neared, my fear of not finishing intensified and I'd started to panic. I'd started thinking there was going to be some kind of negative repercussion for not completing the 106th cookie. Everyone was counting on me to do it. How could I live with myself if I never crossed Rum Balls off the list?
I was never going to finish, I was never going to be okay, not even the happiest thing in the world like cookies could save me, and for the past month and a half I'd been fooling myself into thinking otherwise. And what did I have to show for all my hard work? Nothing. It had all been eaten.
I stopped making cookies for about a week. That same week I decided to get help. I went to the walk-in clinic in Everett and got a prescription for Paxil. I decided to give it another shot. I also made an appointment to meet with a new therapist, who was actually really great—she never had Cheetos in her braces. She didn't even have braces. (Shout out to Dr. Sandall!) The week after Christmas, I decided to make some more cookies, this time knowing I wasn't going to meet my goal. I just missed seeing everyone smile when I showed up with homemade treats. I ended up making 80 of the 106, and unlike Todd and the 800+ others, I survived the winter.
There was some more wavering last year, some more on-again/off-again bullshit, but I recovered like I always do and now I'm on a newer medication called Celexa. It's pink. Cute. The side effects are pretty mild compared to Paxil and Zoloft and I've been on it for eight months now. I feel better than I have felt in a long time. And yeah, I still love baking cookies. The other day I made Pumpkin Cookies with Chocolate Chips and Raisins. I just don't do it as though my life depends on it. And that's a good thing.