With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I would love to share a bit of my mental health journey with you and tell you how cake, of all things, has brought me strength, healing, and joy through a 20-year battle with depression and anxiety.
Not my usual recipe post today, but one that feels as near and dear to me as each and every cake I share with you. I sent this message in my weekly email. Your response was so kind and compassionate. My heart is so full and so grateful to you for your understanding and support. I thought a permanent spot on the blog might be a useful place for my story – in that, it might help one more friend.
Cake and My Mental Health
My first encounter with depression was when I was 18 years old. I was in the middle of my senior year of high school when my parents, announced they were separating and my dad was moving out. It was a devastating and shocking time for my siblings and me. We all struggled, as you can imagine. And during that time, I was diagnosed with depressed and later anxiety.
As I tried to find peace and solutions for how I was feeling, my mind felt tangled in chaos and confusion, feelings of inadequacy tormented me when I least expected it, and trying to “just be happy” felt like the most impossible task when I was in the middle of darkness.
Having been diagnosed with depression at the time of my parents divorce, my doctor told me is was probably situational. Okay. I can do situational. I can handle this for a moment. But it proved to be a much longer lasting obstacle that became my shadow of darkness for the next 20 years.
I’ve spent the better part of adult life trying to figure out how to fix myself or at least get better. I’d think I had it figured out for a moment… but nothing worked and I would feel like I failed over and over again.
Many times in my darkest moments, I would cry out to our Heavenly Father and ask to simply just feel Him – hoping that would bring me comfort… but most of the time, I couldn’t. To be frank, I was so disappointed in Him and in myself. I thought I was doing everything He wanted me to do. I was trying so hard. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t see Him or feel Him the way others did?
Fast forward a bit – after I graduated college, I got married, was working and thriving in media consulting and soon after, became a mom. The struggles I faced with my mental health were still very much a part of my life. This trial didn’t just go away because I was trying to have hope and praying for strength and a miracle. I was still very much struggling. Most of the time, silently.
As Westin’s first birthday rounded the corner (he’s now 14!), I wanted to throw him a huge party. We were living in LA at the time. So both Ryan and my parents would be there. (Something to note here… Ryan’s parents are excellent cooks. I was always in awe of them in the kitchen and at mealtime. They definitely took food to the next level.) So as I planned Westin’s party… I decided to make a cake from scratch in hopes to impress Rick and Connie.
I knew nothing about making cakes. Sure I loved to bake cookies and other baked goods, but a homemade cake was another story. I grabbed a Bon Appetit magazine and went to work with my cake pans, mixer and kitchen knife.
The cake, as many of you may have seen on my IG from time to time was a bit of a train wreck as far as how it looked… but it was delicious. Like life changing, I never knew cake could taste so good – delicious.
As I served the cake to our friends and family, I was filled with so much joy as I watched them take bites and enjoy the peanut butter cake layers and chocolate buttercream. And as I cleaned up that day and thought about that cake, I felt happy. I felt inspired. I felt more joy.
I wanted to do it again. I wanted to feel that all again.
And so I did. Any chance I got, I went to the kitchen to teach myself the ins and outs of making cake. There was a lot of trial and error! I’d start a new cake recipe, fail, write my notes of what didn’t work to think through what could work, and I’d try again – eventually I’d nail it.
The kitchen became my happy place – something I thought I had lost from my life. Yes, I was happy as a wife, a mother, a friend, in work and many aspects of my life… but this was different. This joy I felt filled me in a different way. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. I just knew I needed to keep following this good feeling. So I did. I followed it from Santa Monica, to San Francisco, to Utah – teaching myself the ins and outs of baking along the way. During that journey, I started Cake by Courtney and have had some amazing opportunities to grow my business, stretch myself, and learn.
Little by little, I could feel the heaviness of my trials lighten. They didn’t go away, but it was like I had someone helping carry the load. My love of cake, the way I felt when I was in the kitchen and when I shared my passion with others, brought me strength, some healing, and so much joy.
When I think back to baking that first birthday cake for Westin and the joy and serenity I felt, I couldn’t quite explain at the time, but I’ve come to understand since — and it has soothed me and strengthened me in a way only the Divine can. I’ve learned, in the kitchen of all places, that Christ comes to us where we are, when we need him, when we invite him in. Every single day, and especially when the world seems turned upside down, we need to remember that — we need to know that’s possible.
I love this quote from my friend Emily Belle Freeman, “There are times when we hit rock bottom regardless of what we are doing to avoid the dark places. It is true, sometimes the dark places just come. Suddenly you fear your faith isn’t strong enough for this world breaking apart, this struggle against the hurt that has somehow become your life. We long for peace, a way out, a promise, an end in sight, until, unexpectedly, the light finally breaks through, shattering the darkness of the place we think we will never recover from. That light is Jesus. He enters our stories with love, and hope and grace.”
In the last few years, while still working through my challenges, still seeking to find my best self, I found myself with a new doctor and a new set of tests… one that just recently told me… Courtney, you have ADHD… you were misdiagnosed and have been trying to treat depression for 20 years… when in reality, while you have experienced that for 20 years, we need to be treating you for ADHD.
My mind was blown. I threw myself into research and books. What did this mean? What “I knew” (or thought I knew) about ADD was not my characteristics. But whoa… how different it manifests itself in girls and women than it does in most men. And it’s staggering the percentage of girls who have it that don’t even know it.
This is another thing I could spend so long talking about, maybe we save that for another post? But for now, I’ll just say, as I read and researched and talked to a professional… I could not believe the crossover. Last year when I was diving into books and research about women and ADHD, I had to stop and just cry… not because I was mad about doctors getting it wrong for two decades, or sad that this was now part of my life – it’s been there all along… genetically passed to me through my dad most likely… No, I was not crying because I was upset…NOT AT ALL. I broke down in tears of gratitude because I felt so much relief. I had some answers. I had the right medicine. I started to feel different. Like me.
I just turned 40 earlier this month. For more than half my life… I was pleading for Him to fix me, to take my burden that so greatly affected many aspects of my life away…. Even more a moment. He didn’t.
He had something better for me in store… looking back, I absolutely needed all this time to grow personally, as well as spiritually. And while I thought He wasn’t there – He was.
He gifted me a desire to bake a cake, as well as the feeling of joy that accompanied it. I’m pretty sure He knew I’d go back for more and that eventually I’d land right here – right where I need to be, at the time I need to be here.
It’s been over 13 years since that first birthday cake. Westin is now a teenager and Avery is nine years old. Along with Ryan, they’ve been by my side every step of this journey and in the process, the kitchen has become sacred to us. Yes, it’s where I bake, but it’s also where we gather. It’s where we laugh, where we dance, where we throw down food-war challenges, and where we share our highs and lows. It’s where we pray, study scriptures, discuss goals, and talk about God. There’s typically piles of homework on one island and piles of cake scraps on another. At the end of the day, I look around and think of all the goodness that happens in that space, and often it occurs to me: it’s still my happy place — it’s still where I go to feel peace, comfort, and joy. There’s no where else I’d rather be.
I love seeing what the kitchen has become for you. I love hearing your stories about what baking and being in the kitchen mean to you. For some it’s an escape or a place of healing. For others it’s been where you’ve discovered confidence or created connections with your loved ones.
I fell in love with cake — not just because of how it made my taste buds feel, but because of how it made my entire self feel. I fell in love with making cake because I loved the entire process. I loved finding a recipe I was excited about. I loved learning the steps and how the baking process works. I loved the artistic elements of decorating. I loved messing up and figuring out what to do better the next time. I loved how being in the kitchen, trying something new, and being creative made me feel. I loved the connections with people and having something in hand to welcome, console, celebrate, or reward.
Ever since that first cake, I continue to step into the kitchen for those same reasons. I hope to create joy in my own life and in yours… but even more, I hope this cake journey of mine helps you find what you’re searching for on your journey, whatever that may be.
If you are facing any kind of mental health struggles, you are not alone. The world needs you. The world needs the amazing things you have to offer – and I know some days we don’t think we have anything to offer, but I PROMISE YOU, YOU DO! Don’t give up on yourself. Talking to someone and diving into learning something new were two huge life savers for me. I encourage you to do the same. Have hope. Happiness is waiting for you.