personal essay

I Was Diagnosed with OCD, and Baking Sourdough Is Helping Me Deal with It

updated May 15, 2020
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“Imagine your brain is like a field of wheat,” my therapist said to me last fall. “Imagine you’ve been walking the same path through this field your whole life, each time you responded to a specific fear, and now the wheat underneath you has flattened, and it’s not growing back.”

I closed my eyes. Earlier in 2019, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD — a chronic mental disorder defined by intrusive, repeated thoughts, or obsessions, and the compulsions undertaken to mitigate those thoughts. While the label was new, I’d felt its symptoms my entire life. For me, OCD looks like the arrival of an obsessive thought — my therapist calls these “stories” — which usually feature something terrible happening to me or someone I love, and being trapped by that story repeating for hours. When it’s really bad, or a trigger is especially intense, the stories make it impossible to focus on anything other than my brain’s bad messaging.

I stood beside my therapist in the wheat field, and my mind’s eye looked down at my “feet,” taking in the barren pathway I’d worn down. “Now imagine that each time you have an intrusive thought,” she said, “you took a new path instead. What could you grow back here, over time?”

I thought about her advice later that November day as I stood — excited, not anxious — in front of a different sort of wheat field: my kitchen pantry, overflowing with bags of flour. AP and bread flour, white and rye and sprouted wheat and spelt, flour from Target, and flour milled from a local bakery, all amassed in an experimental collection that I began in order to heed the suggestions of various online sourdough forums. 

I’ve been baking bread since I was young, braiding and egg-washing challah with my mother and sisters for Shabbat on most Friday nights of my childhood. About a year ago, though, I’d started to become a Sourdough Person, joining many others in the sourdough-obsessed zeitgeist over the past decade — the folks filling social media with crumb shots and hyper-lapsed videos of their activated starters, folks watching Michael Pollan make three-day sourdough on Netflix and vowing to give it a try in their own home kitchens, a Tartine cookbook (or The Kitchn guide!) tucked under their arms. In the past month, the sourdough community’s numbers have grown ever higher in quarantine, too: an unscientific poll of my own Instagram feed suggests that over half of my previously non-baking friends are giving sourdough a try during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sourdough baking, more so than most home-baking practices, requires vigilance and precision. There is little room for relaxing the guidelines of a recipe or the prescriptive borders of a time window, because the yeast — those airborne babies I’m growing over my fridge in a 100% hydration rye-flour-and-water goop — won’t thrive if the conditions aren’t just right. Developing a successful dough requires ritualized, perfectionistic dedication. To get my early loaves just right, I spent hours on those bread-baking online forums and Instagram accounts, pondering my hydration ratios and proofing times. I obsessed over cookbooks and bags of flour in the supermarket. I obsessed about the temperature in my apartment, whether or not my digital scale was accurate enough, over what strains of yeast and bacteria the starter could catch, or not, in the air. 

Sourdough baking, more so than most home-baking practices, requires vigilance and precision.

Enacting control over this process feels calming — but as many folks with OCD will tell you, not all relief from obsession is safe, no matter how it makes you feel; sometimes, it can arise in the wearing-down of those same worn pathways via the development of new unhealthy compulsions. And that day standing in front of my pantry, I asked myself if I’d baked myself into an unhealthy habit. For me, as someone with OCD, is a baking practice as controlling as sourdough bread a wise choice? Had this new pastime become pathological?

These are really complicated questions to answer for folks with OCD like me — and I rely on professionals to help with the answers. What I’ve learned as I’ve sat with my own obsessions and compulsions, both at home and in therapy, is that not all the rituals my brain warms to are harmful. Some may not only be safe, but nourishing as well: like the baking of bread, like the painstaking, obsessive process of writing. 

 In comparison with my other obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, which serve no purpose beyond “alerting” me to all the dangers lurking in my everyday life and trying to quiet them, baking — and writing — thrive at close attention. They bring me joy when I study them and practice them — they’re skills to hone, life practices to cultivate. Their progress is linear — I can climb alongside my joy to new achievements and milestones.

In contrast, OCD can feel more like being trapped on a spinning teacup ride at the fair: instead of excitement, or forward motion, the compulsions I use to respond to my fearful obsessive thoughts exhaust me, and before therapy, I couldn’t stop using them at all. This looks different for everyone with OCD, but for me, compulsions typically appear as constant information-seeking and reassurance-seeking: that is, looking for proof that the terrible thing that might happen to me won’t happen, a craving for control in an uncontrollable world. This feedback loop flattens my joy instead of lengthening it; wheat stalks smashed under a heavy tread. 

What I’ve learned as I’ve sat with my own obsessions and compulsions, both at home and in therapy, is that not all the rituals my brain warms to are harmful.

The sourdough obsession has grown into something incredible, and literally nourishing: loaf after loaf of bread. Really, really tasty bread, too, bread that surprises me each time it swells in the oven. I’ve made boules, batards, water-based loaves, whey-based, rye-started, wheat-started (though my flour collection has since waned dramatically in my quarantine) — all pulled gently from a beloved Dutch oven onto my kitchen counter and (nearly always) torn open before cool to eat, apologies to my fellow forum purists. My spouse and I have dragged the craggy, airy slices through marinara, draped them with cheddar, and covered them with peanut butter; before the pandemic, I lived to bring them to friends’ houses for dinner parties — and I will admit that I’ve eaten, once, a whole loaf myself, standing over the sink to catch the crumbs. 

When I open the Dutch oven’s lid and see, each time, that the loaf I calculated and tended has risen beautifully — that I somehow conjured the same food from nothing but air, water, and wheat that home bakers have been conjuring for centuries? Instead of the frustrating alienation that OCD usually produces in me, especially as my triggers have escalated during the pandemic, I feel connected to a community who cares as much as I care to get this one specific, ancient process right — and this connection feeds me, especially as we all must stay apart from one other, at least a little bit longer. It provides me a new path to walk in my brain and companions to walk alongside me. It gives me somewhere safe to rest my mind.