When I feel my anxiety rising, I think, “you are safe and happy, with food in your belly”’
As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, Nadiya Hussain’s panic attacks have been triggered by the lockdown. She tells Francesca Babb how she’s coping with the fallout, her fears for her mum and sisters working on the frontline and how she’s found her own small way to give something back
The time is 8.30 on a Sunday morning and I find myself rifling through the food recycling to rescue three banana skins. Why? Well, because Nadiya Hussain told me to. And in the recent weeks of isolation and uncertainty, doing what the 2015 Great British Bake Off winner turned national treasure tells me has become a bit of a habit. Guided by her Instagram channel, I’ve made brownies with a two-year out-of-date box of Milk Tray I found at the back of a cupboard (SCORE!), some disastrous bread (forgot the yeast), and now I’m going to attempt barbecued banana peel. Yes. Barbecued banana peel. I’ve read of Joe Wicks being described as the new ‘Vera Lynn of the nation’, but I’d argue that with Nadiya’s warmth and recipes that represent what’s lurking at the back of all of our cupboards, she is playing her part in keeping us going, too.
‘It’s natural for me not to waste anything,’ Nadiya says of her most recent food forays, focused on ways to use even the scrappiest of kitchen leftovers. ‘I didn’t grow up in a rich family – we ate a lot of offal, because it was free – so for me it’s not unusual to eat everything. I feel quite selfish just sitting here not helping [we are in week three of lockdown when Nadiya and I speak], so sharing ways to help people make food last a little bit longer is my way of doing something, and, from what I’ve seen on social media, people seem really excited by it. If we can get people excited at a time when we’re probably all very frightened, let’s do it, even if it is over something as small as banana skins.’
It’s impressive that Nadiya has put so much effort into making sure we’re all OK and well fed in a time that, for her, has been pretty rough. Her well-documented anxiety has found itself at home in these precarious times, and the panic attacks have been coming thick and fast. ‘I’ve been dipping in and out of anxiety quite frequently,’ she says, with typical candour, from her home in Milton Keynes, where she’s currently in lockdown with her husband of 15 years Abdal, their two sons Musa, 13, and Dawud, 12, and daughter Maryam, who is nine. ‘I have been trying to find the happy side to everything, but sometimes I find that draining in itself. I have to allow myself to be sad occasionally. In those moments where I need to make myself feel relatively normal, if I feel panic rising, I find a spot in the house or the garden where I can feel the sun on my face, and I stand there for a few minutes. It’s such a simple thing, but it helps.’
Nadiya’s anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that her family are on the frontline: her mum cleans hospital linens in 12-hour shifts, while one sister works at a pharmacy, another as a doctor’s receptionist and the other as a school key worker.
‘My mum always tells me, “You mustn’t tell people what I do – it’s embarrassing for you,”’ she says. ‘She thinks I’ve got this high-flying job in the public eye, and I couldn’t possibly talk about her cleaning linen, but I’m really proud of what she does. And while I want her to be at home, safe and protected from this virus, she has to do her job. It’s not about her being a hero or keeping the country running, it’s a job she needs so she can get paid. Both my parents have always worked hard [Nadiya’s father was a chef]. My mum works long hours, comes home and then cooks eight curries – I don’t really know why or who’s going to eat them. She says, “Shall I send some Tupperware over to your house and leave it by the door?” I’m like, “No, you’re grounded, you cannot go outside. No Dad, you can’t go out to buy fags,” but they don’t listen. My parents are now the teenagers.’
While her parents’ physical health troubles Nadiya, with her sisters, it’s their mental health that is the bigger concern. ‘The amount of abuse my sisters have received on a daily basis during this period is unbelievable,’ she says. ‘Stressed-out patients coming in, flouting rules, getting far too close – my sisters have to tell them to follow the guidelines, and they get abuse for it. They’re the ones making sure people are getting their medicine and are able to see doctors. My sisters worry about their families and getting sick. The effect on their mental health is like nothing I’ve seen before. Every day is like a counselling session with each sister.’
Although at the moment Nadiya is the one doing all the listening, it’s her sisters that she thanks for keeping her afloat during times of turbulence growing up. Having experienced anxiety since she was a child in Luton (she was diagnosed with a panic disorder as a teenager), she didn’t find the support she needed in the adults around her either at school or at home, so it was her sisters she confided in. Her parents didn’t talk about emotions and their house was governed with a stiff-upper-lip mentality, something she has no time for in her own home, where she has always been open with her children about her experience of anxiety.
‘I hate telling my children off, but I’m probably stricter. He sings and plays the guitar and he’s fun’
‘I grew up in the 90s, a child with mental-health issues being told that I couldn’t talk about my emotions,’ she says. ‘Even teachers would say, “Ignore it and move on”. So I don’t talk with my parents about how I feel, but we do talk about gardening or things that my mum might have cooked. I wouldn’t say we are close – I’m a hugger and my mum is quite the opposite – but I have a duty to make sure she’s OK. If something was worrying me, I would never ring her, but I can talk to my sisters really openly and they know they can ring me, however they’re feeling, and know that there’s no judgment there. My husband is amazing, too – he really gets it. He can cope with most situations. I feel very lucky.’
I ask Nadiya what she would be like if her parents had adopted her style of parenting, with openness and honesty at its heart. ‘I’d be out of control,’ she laughs. ‘I would have loved it if my parents were slightly less strict, but they were immigrants living in a country that wasn’t their own, so they had fears. One of the things that I did take from them was their need to teach us about Bangladeshi culture. I didn’t really get that as a child, but now I appreciate what they were trying to do by getting us to learn the language and how to cook. I try hard to teach my kids to eat the way we ate and sit the way we sat, on the floor, using our hands to eat, and about respecting your elders. I didn’t appreciate that as a kid. Now I value the etiquette that my parents taught me and I’m trying to teach it to my own children.’
Nadiya was just 21 when she had her first child. Hers was an arranged marriage, aged 19, in which she ‘got lucky’, her husband proving to be a huge support system, particularly in the five years post Bake Off, in which her career has gone stratospheric with cookbooks, children’s books, autobiographies, TV shows and documentaries. ‘I think we’re equally good and bad cop,’ she says of the parenting dynamic between her and Abdal. ‘I hate telling my children off, but I’m probably stricter. He sings and plays the guitar and he’s fun. He’s the one who riles them up at bedtime and I’m the one trying to get them to calm down. Every night, we score ourselves out of ten. Sometimes I’m a two – say, in lockdown, having a panic attack – so I aim for at least a six the next day. But we’re just trying to work it out. We’ll never get it totally right, but I can learn from my mistakes.
‘What I don’t want is regret, especially now. I don’t want to think, “I wish I could go back and do things differently.” I want to think, “We did the best with that situation.” The most I have to worry about is my conservatory getting too hot and my okra plants dying. That’s a privilege. When I feel my anxiety rising, I think, “Hold yourself together: you are safe, well and happy, with food in your belly; there’s nothing to worry about.”’
Like the rest of us, Nadiya has been using TV for a bit of escapism. Unlike the rest of us, her choices haven’t been the feel-good films we’ve watched in our thousands to lift our mood. ‘I look for things that are more depressing than our current situation,’ she laughs, ‘and when I watch them, it makes me feel good. The Split on BBC makes you so grateful for everything about your life. So does ITV’s Liar. Saying that, we also spend a lot of time watching Disney movies.’
I ask Nadiya what she hopes we’ll all take from this time of uncertainty and tragedy for so many, when the entire country’s emotions have been heightened. ‘I really hope that we don’t forget the important people who helped to keep us afloat,’ she says. ‘That those “low-skilled workers” are celebrated and we don’t forget what they did. And I hope when this is over, we don’t forget the people who died. We try to stay positive, but it’s a stark reality for those who have lost people they love and the people they’ve not been able to bury or say goodbye to properly. I hope we remember that.’
While I won’t forget any of those things, I know that when I look back on this time, when we’re on the other side, I’ll also remember Nadiya, and how she did her best to hold us all together with bandages of banana skins and a whole lot of love.
Nadiya’s memoir Finding My Voice is published by Headline, £9.99; her cookbook Time to Eat – time-saving meals using storecupboard ingredients – is published by Michael Joseph, £20. More tips: Instagram/@nadiyajhussain
Don’t chuck: check out Nadiya’s waste-not wisdom
Left: Sweet potato skins Mix with one egg white and add spices. Dry out in oven on baking tray. Heat oil in pan and fry for ten seconds to crisp up. Right: Banana peel: Discard bottom and top. Using a fork, shred into strands and fry with onion and garlic. Add ketchup, brown and BBQ sauces and cook until sticky. Grill on bagels with cheese.