Excerpt: Jackie Kai Ellis's 'The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery, and Paris'

In her first book, the Vancouver bakery owner describes how exploring food — and the world — helped her cope with depression
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on August 30, 2018
guests on The Agenda in the Summer
Nam Kiwanuka talks to author Jackie Kai Ellis on The Agenda in the Summer.

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The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — Lao-Tzu

These were the two moments in my day I dreaded — no, I think ”feared” is a better word — most: the moment just before sleep and the precise moment I woke up. The unnerving silence of those times. There were no busy sounds to distract me, and nothing tocover of the book The Measure of My Powers occupy my mind. They were the moments I would be forced to face my own tangled and disfigured mind, even though I wanted desperately to look away.

At night I would lie awake sometimes until the dark sky lightened into paler shades of dawn. My insides crawled and vibrated, panic hijacking hours that, for others, were filled with easy rest. Even when I did find sleep, usually on the couch with the artificial noises of late-night TV lulling me, it was never for very long.

In the morning my chest would clench and yearn for unconsciousness. I kept my eyes closed and my body still, like a corpse, in hopes that my fragile sleep wouldn’t leave me completely. I tried to remember the last lingering image, any residue of a dream, wanting it to pull me back for another moment or two, but I was always out of luck and would quickly realize the effort was in vain. I hadn’t dreamed in months. In the past, my dreams had been wild and vivid: full of colours, conversations, places, the feel of fabric between my fingertips, or even the faces of people I had long forgotten. I would dream of a friend’s hazel eyes speckled with rust, or of the fine hairs at the back of their neck that formed a V. But these dreams had stopped, and so had sleep, with restlessness replacing both almost entirely. I was abandoned and forced to be alive for another day, so I would relent and slowly open my eyes to my dark, damp bedroom.

Inhale. Exhale.

“I can do this. Just get through today... and then after today ...” I paused to imagine what came next. There was only a repeating image of a lifeless routine that made me feel nauseated.

“Tomorrow it starts all over again.” Dread filled me. I closed my eyes again, sinking into myself, wishing I could cry, but mostly, that ability had abandoned me too. “I have to do this over and over again, and again, and again,” I thought to myself, G sprawled to my left, the sheets, humid from his sweat, covering me like thick, cold skin.

“When does this end?” Inhale. Exhale.

Light was so unbearable to G that he had dark blinds installed on every window in our two-bedroom apartment. Greater than his dislike for light, though, was his loathing of materialism and superfluous “things.” So there was no artwork on the walls of our room; there weren’t any family photos or night tables for them to sit on, only a bed and a generic Swedish floor lamp in the corner. And every single morning, I awoke in this beige room, with bare beige walls and carpets that were an ever-so-slightly lighter shade of beige. I opened my eyes to nothing but emptiness in an empty room, numb with only the feeling of moist blankets cradling me.

I pleaded silently to God, to anything that might help me. “All I need is one thing, one thing to focus on, one thing that will help me get through today. Anything. Please.”

I scanned through my day for something that might give me relief. Waking up. Showering. Getting dressed. Driving to work. Saying good morning to coworkers. Starting a new design account. Meetings. Lunch... maybe.

I decided on one of the few things that still made me smile: “I’ll eat a chocolate-chip cookie.”

I sat up and headed to the shower. I dressed myself in opaque black tights and a baggy tweed skirt suit I bought from a store I frequented that catered to affluent seniors. I tied my black hair in a tight bun at the nape of my neck and put on my wire-framed glasses and a pair of pearl earrings I had received as a wedding gift from an uncle. I was careful to look polished so no one would suspect that I was actually breaking apart, but I was also purposefully unobtrusive so as not to draw too much attention. I drove to work in my reliable silver sedan, and after lunch, I sat at a café table while I savoured each sweet bite of my chocolate-chip cookie, taking time to sip black coffee between each morsel. For those minutes, there was nothing else, no one to please, nothing to prove, just a cookie and me.

Excerpted from The Measure of My Powers by Jackie Kai Ellis. Copyright © 2017 JKE Media Inc. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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