Although Jack Monroe has experienced tough times and severe trolling, she has found a way to turn extreme negativity into personal strength, while testing her professional abilities, and championing good food for bad days...
While many people across the UK were busy celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics back in 2012, Jack Monroe was writing the essay that would mark the beginning of her career in the public eye. Hunger Hurts was an honest and heartbreaking depiction of a single, starving, and suicidal mum living in poverty, and explored the day-to-day struggle of keeping herself and her son fed and healthy, with very little means.
Jack’s words resonated with others finding themselves in a similar position, and during the eight years that have followed, she’s developed the popular budget recipe website Cooking on a Bootstrap, regularly speaks on poverty and austerity issues, and supports the Trussell Trust food bank charity. She’s now also in the process of writing her seventh cookery book, to sit alongside her other titles including Tin Can Cook, Vegan(ish), and A Girl Called Jack.
Jack’s most recent offering, Good Food, Bad Days, What to Make When You’re Feeling Blue, is possibly the one book that everyone should buy right now. Part-memoir, part recipe book, it offers up thoughts on how to feed yourself when you’re feeling at your lowest ebb, with Jack sharing her own experiences with mental illness throughout – as well as comforting, lifting, and soothing recipes including marmite, honey and peanut butter popcorn, jaffa cake mug cake, chicken porridge, and lemon curd ice cream.
However, the launch of Good Food, Bad Days didn’t go strictly to plan, with the coronavirus lockdown and mass cancellations of events, drastically changing Jack’s professional landscape, and eradicating all work bookings from her diary.
“In the first period of lockdown, I lost the equivalent of a year’s salary in the space of two days,” Jack explains.
This loss of security around future income triggered some deep anxieties. “I live under the spectre of poverty all the time,” she says. “It dogs me. I just wish it would leave me alone now, but there’s always that niggling fear that what I do isn’t permanent – there’s no ongoing contracts or weekly regular work. Every job has to be treated like it’s the last one I’m ever going to get, and I have to give it my absolute best shot.”
Jack never takes anything for granted and, like so many of us, looked to diversify what she could do in lockdown in order to keep afloat. She sold photography, and then received a call about co-hosting a TV show.
Daily Kitchen Live, a two-week BBC One morning cooking show, was a both a financial lifeline and a ray of sunshine at what had begun to feel like a very grey period for Jack. She’s deeply grateful the opportunity came along.
“I adored every second of it!” she shares. “I learned so much through that show, and grew in confidence. All the things I thought I couldn’t do – like co-present and read an autocue – all the things I’ve made excuses about to production companies for years, I had to do.”
The programme was a huge success, bringing in 1.6 million viewers. The achievement was a big one for Jack, who lives with severe adult ADHD and is autistic, which, she says, can sometimes have an impact on what she feels able to do, and how she can be perceived by others.
I don’t want to shy away from talking about difficult subject matters
“Having ADHD means I approach everything full-throttle; I throw myself into what I’m doing, and then can about-turn weeks later and change my mind,” Jack explains. “Being in the public eye, it’s a difficult personality trait for people to get their heads around.”
Jack regularly talks about personal experiences like this, as well as her depression, anxiety, and what it’s like to live with chronic pain. Good friends of hers have advised her in the past not to give so much of herself away when it comes to what she shares online, as they worry that exposing her perceived vulnerabilities could give critics and trolls ammunition.
“It’s quite hard though,” Jack reflects. “When you’ve spent eight years spilling your guts out on the internet, to suddenly decide to scoop them up and put them back inside yourself one day. It’s just who I am. I don’t want to shy away from talking about difficult subject matters, even if it is to my own detriment. I often say to friends and family, ‘I’m not a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, you can’t just pick the ones you like, you either take the entire packet or you leave the bag on the shelf.”
It’s understandable that those close to Jack want to protect her from online abuse, as the impact can be so severe. In the weeks before we speak, Jack’s hair began to fall out, she thinks in response to stronger medication, and a period of personal and professional stress. She now has a glorious buzz cut (her sixth time shaving her head completely), and is rocking it.
Part of the stress may well have been her recent issues with social media – but Jack hopes she’s found the sweet spot in managing this, after enduring a slew of online spite and hate.
“I recently got to the point where I was being harassed and bullied quite badly, and I had to make a decision as to whether to involve the police and lawyers,” she reveals.
“I would get up in the morning and read everything mean that was being said about me, and use that as something to flagellate myself with, and prop up the negative thoughts I have about myself. It became a compulsion, I had to see what was being said.”
Jack made a conscious decision to delete all social media apps, and has replaced scrolling with exercise. “I hate exercise though!” she laughs. “I’m naturally a sloth-like person when I’m not bouncing around the kitchen. But now, instead of scrolling, I go on the rowing machine, or if I find myself thinking about mean things that have been said about me, I’ll literally stop and do 50 crunches, or go to lift some weights.
“It’s stopped me from going down a rabbit hole of negative self-talk, and burns off the rage. It releases endorphins, and distracts me.”
Jack says that as well as the mental benefits, it has changed her in other ways. “I’m physically fitter than I’ve been at any time in my life. I’ve literally taken that external negative talk, and turned it into my own personal strength.”
‘Good Food For Bad Days: What to Make When You’re Feeling Blue’ by Jack Monroe, with foreword by Matt Haig (Bluebird, £7.99)