Proof that cookies are good for your mental well being
For Tomma Marcincuk, baking was part of the recovery process after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Listen to Tomma’s Story
For 13 years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Tomma Marcincuk was steadfast in her denial. She was convinced the mania and psychosis that had sent her to the hospital on a Baker Act at 22 — “when, in my mind, there was nothing wrong with me” — were a figment of someone else’s imagination. She almost immediately stopped the medications a judge ordered her to take, found stability in spending time with her family and in the kitchen, where baking had always been a therapeutic hobby, and eventually resumed teaching school.
“I was totally in denial about my condition,” says Marcincuk, now 41, who lives in Bradenton, Florida. “As soon as I started feeling better, I stopped taking the meds (though I didn’t tell anyone) and just tried to put mind over matter. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been healed, this won’t be a problem anymore.’”
Not only was the acceptance of her diagnosis hampered by societal stigmas surrounding mental illness, she also found little empathy or understanding in the Christian faith community she relied upon for support. There the reaction was more one of pointing the finger at her for “doing something bad or sinning,” and thus bringing her condition down upon herself.
“There wasn’t any empathy in either realm,” she said. “So I just tried to pray it away.”
For a long time, that held the worst of her symptoms at bay. She monitored her moods, tried to get enough sleep and exercise and reduce her stress, and chalked her too frequent and excessive spending sprees up to youthful irresponsibility.
Four years after her hospitalization, she was able to finish her masters degree in education. A year later she met her husband, whom she married after a whirlwind courtship of just three months. She did disclose her earlier hospitalization to him because “he’d had struggles of his own” and it created a special bond between them. Five years later, their daughter was born. Motherhood suited Marcincuk, who had previously taught pre-schoolers, and for the first five years of her daughter’s life, she maintained a precarious but consistent balance.
“I don’t know if it was just the happiness of life that kept me stable, but my diagnosis was the furthest thing from my mind,” she says. “Like everybody else, I had my ups and downs, but I didn’t live there. I was just in this cloud of hopefulness that maybe my diagnosis was wrong.”
Then, just as it had 13 years earlier, an overload of stress, emotional upheaval and lack of sleep combined to create another “perfect storm,” triggering symptoms of hypomania. When she’d been hospitalized the first time, it was “surreal and scary” because she had no awareness that her behavior was bizarre, no understanding of what was happening in her brain and no explanation for why she’d been taken to the hospital by the police. This time she understood all too well what was happening and now, with a family to consider, she agreed to allow her husband to take her to the emergency room.
“I had a full awareness that ‘OK, I can’t ignore this diagnosis anymore,” she says.
This time, she didn’t fight the doctors nor reject the prescribed medications. She went to therapy and support groups and, with reluctance and sadness, recognized that it was best for her to resign from her teaching job and devote her attention to her daughter, who’d been shaken by her mother’s behaviors and hospitalization. She spent time with her family in Virginia and focused on the baking and cookie-making side business she’d started before moving to Florida after college.
She’d learned her way around the kitchen as a young girl, following on the heels of her mother and grandmother and “always kind of in their shadow.” Looking to create her own baking niche that would set her apart, she stumbled on cookie decorating, an elaborate process that can elevate the simple sugar cookie to an art form.
Cookie image here
She found the labor intensive process of making the dough, chilling it, rolling it out, cutting shapes, baking and then piping the cookies with multiple layers of frosting in various colors and consistencies to be focusing and therapeutic. Because each layer must dry before the next is applied, it can take an entire day to make a dozen, making them truly “a labor of love,” Marcincuk says.
It was during her recovery from her second hospitalization that she heard about something called The Depressed Cake Shop, a pop-up bake sales first started by a woman in England with the intention of provoking conversations around and raising funds for mental health. All the baked goods in a Depressed Cake Shop sale feature a gray icing exterior to signify the cloud that can descend when someone is struggling with a mental health issue.
Cookie image here
There are Anxious Oreos (gray chocolate covered sandwich cookies with googly eyes and a pained expression), Misfortune Cookies, Sad Shortbread and Black Dog Cupcakes. (“Black Dog” was Winston Churchill’s euphemism for his depression.) But inside, there is often a pop of color or a rainbow, to signify hope. The idea is to juxtapose cake, a treat that is typically colorful and celebratory, with mental illness, a topic too often shrouded in secrecy and somberness. The Depressed Cake Shop motto is: “Where there is cake, there is hope…and there is always cake.”
Cookie image here
“Me, being a baker, and having a mental condition, I thought, ‘Wow, I really want to be a part of that,” Marcincuk said. “But it took me two years to finally have the courage to say, ‘OK, I’m going to host the first Depressed Cake Shop in the state of Florida.”
That’s exactly what she did in 2017. It was quite a coming out. The local newspaper featured a picture of her and her cookies that was featured above the fold on the front page, a degree of visibility Marcincuk hadn’t quite anticipated. It was clear there would be no more hiding her diagnosis.
“I had told my husband I was doing an article for the paper and he was thinking, “But why would you be in the paper?’” Marcincuk recalls. “And then there I was on the front page, telling my story. It took a lot of courage for me because I had always been so tight lipped. But it was something I had to do. So many of us just live in the dark, we don’t share. And it’s been very rewarding because I’ve heard from so many people who say, ‘That you for sharing because it’s helping me to know I’m not alone.”
As her recovery endured, Marcincuk tentatively took some time-limited teaching jobs, usually as a substitute. She often doubted that she would ever be able to find or sustain a long-term teaching position. But after four years, she was offered a position as a high school science teacher at Inspiration Academy in Bradenton, and it has turned out to be a great fit. While high school students provide a considerably different kind of challenge than preschoolers, she’s not only learned to manage it, her students students adore her — both because she makes science fun and because “you feed them cookies and they love you.”
Teaching online during the pandemic added a whole new level of stress and balancing it with ongoing cookie orders that at times threaten to overwhelm her (see Marcincuk’s work at nativesweets_confections on Instagram) makes for yet another balancing act. But today, Marcincuk has accepted that the responsibility for monitoring and caring for her mental well being is priority No. 1. If that means turning down cookie orders, so be it.
“What happened seven years ago was a wakeup call for me that I couldn’t ignore,” she says. “I don’t want to be labeled by a diagnosis, but I had to accept that, OK, I have this issue and it’s exacerbated by stress and not sleeping. I love being productive but I’m very mindful of what my limitations are and that I have a finite capacity. Sometimes I have to pull back on my commitments a bit.”
She is transparent about the fact that she no longer takes medication. She recognizes some see that decision as potentially perilous and that it puts the burden of her stability on her own monitoring. But while medication helped in the early stages of her recovery, eventually, she says, it made her feel numb, affectless and uncaring about what was happening around her.
“I just got to a point where I was lacking any feeling,” she says, “and that wasn’t me. I didn’t like how that felt. I feel I have the ability to recognize, now that I’m not in denial anymore, how to control my symptoms. I’m getting my sleep, eating a good diet, exercising when I can and limiting stress. Do I still get depressed? Yes. Do I still have bouts of mania, which for me comes out in shopping and spending too much money? OK, then I know to rein it in. I’m very conscious of that.”
Given her earlier disappointment in her church family’s reaction to her initial diagnosis, it may be surprising that when Marcincuk is asked what — other than the support of her family – has most helped keep her on an even keel, she points to her religious practice.
“Oddly enough, my faith is the No. 1 thing that has helped,” she says. “I know God created me with a purpose. And my purpose is to shine a light on mental health issues rather than keeping them in the dark.”
Has anything else also helped?
“That and cookies,” she adds. “Cookies are always the answer.”