By Haley Barker (from her blog at

I was working a virtual event a couple of Saturdays ago, sitting in my office at a job I truly love. Because it was an all day event and on the weekend they were providing lunch. It was Panera.

I had just finished eating my (delicious) Panera Macaroni and Cheese and I put the lid back on the empty container, getting ready to throw it away. And the craziest, silliest thing happened to me.

I felt huge tears well up in my eyes. OVER AN EMPTY PANERA MAC AND CHEESE CONTAINER.

And then I smiled.

So why am I writing about what I had for lunch on a random Saturday at the end of February? Here’s why…

2016-2017 was ROUGH for me. If any of you have known me for any length of time I am sure you’re well aware of the toll that year and a half took on me. I lost a lot. I went through a lot. There were many days I honestly didn’t think I could take one more thing going wrong. It wasn’t little things, either. There were several significant losses. One right after the other.

I lost a friend that was like a sister to me to Melanoma in March of 2016.
I lost someone that was like a father to me to a Heart attack in July of 2016.
And in between those two significant losses… I lost my grandma in May of 2016 to COPD.

On top of my own loss/grief during that time, I had to see the people I loved most in this world suffer those same losses. It was heart wrenching.

When you lose someone, whether to death or just lose the relationship you once had with a friend, family member, significant other, etc. it takes a toll on your heart.

I was convinced I wouldn’t make it through another loss in the fall of 2016. I was so tired. When you experience loss and see your loved ones experience loss that deep so close together, you don’t even have time to properly process and heal from one tragedy before the next takes place.

At the end of 2016 I lost two friendships, not to death, but to… life… I suppose. We grew apart. We had a falling out. We lost touch. And it hurt so deeply.

In 2017 I lost another relationship, again, not to death… but the loss was still so great.

I remember thinking, after each loss, “I don’t know how much more I can take.”

When my relationship faded out in 2017… I really was struggling. All of my loss had caught up to me. I struggled to make it through the day without crying. I wasn’t sleeping. I was struggling to keep it together at all, honestly.

I had a hard time eating. When I’m upset I just feel sick to my stomach and it is really a struggle to eat. One of the only things that I could manage to eat, even the littlest amount of, was Panera Macaroni and Cheese.

My mom would sometimes drive to my office in Mount Vernon on my lunch break and pick me up and we’d go to Panera so she could make sure I was eating something, anything. I’d cry in the front seat. I specifically remember, on more than one occasion, seeing tears fall into that tiny bowl of macaroni and cheese as I sat in the front seat of my mom’s minivan.

I was almost 26 years old at that time and my mom was bringing me macaroni and cheese in her minivan on my lunch break, begging me to take two more bites.

It may sound kind of funny reading it, but it was the worst time of my life.

I ended up losing a lot of weight. I remember my hair was thinning. None of my clothes fit.

I went to see a counselor who diagnosed me with severe depression and PTSD. I began trying to work through those struggles with her.

This went on for several months in 2017. I wanted to feel better. I didn’t want to be so sad all of the time. Life just felt so, so heavy. I look back now and cannot imagine surviving that time without my mom and my family and friends. My coworkers. The people in my life who kept showing up for me, even when I was difficult to show up for.

There were so many lunches and dinners filled with barely eaten cups of Panera Macaroni and Cheese. I’d get excited if I was able to eat half of it.

So when I was closing the lid on an empty Panera Macaroni and Cheese container 4 years later… all of that just kind of hit me.

My eyes filled with tears… of joy. There were so many times I closed a lid on a container just like that one… with only a bite or two taken out of it, with tears of pain and sadness spilling out of my eyes, oftentimes IN to my macaroni.

That Saturday wasn’t the first time since that difficult time in my life that I’ve had Panera Macaroni and Cheese but it was the first time that I stopped and realized how far I’ve come since then.

I am sharing this with you because maybe you’re where I am now… you’re no longer in those deep, continuous waves of grief and loss and sadness. But you haven’t slowed down long enough in a while to remember how hard it used to be to just catch your breath. Let this be your reminder to slow down and look around you… and really soak in the goodness surrounding you and your life. Remember all of those moments you wondered if you’d ever be able to catch a break? Remember all of those nights you cried yourself to sleep? Remember when you thought you’d never feel okay again? Look at you now… on the other side.

Or maybe you’re where I was then… maybe it isn’t struggling to finish a cup of Panera Macaroni and Cheese because you’re so overwhelmed and depressed you can’t even eat. But maybe it is. Maybe you’re feeling alone and isolated, discouraged, scared, anxious, depressed, sad… maybe you’re wondering if it will ever get better. I’m writing this to tell you that it can. That one day you can be on the other side of this darkness that you’re dealing with. And one day you will be able to enjoy the good days, whole heartedly.

I am so thankful that I made it to the empty Panera container part of my story. I’m thankful for family and friends that stood beside me and supported me through that tough season. I’m thankful for a support system that reminds me that it is okay to not be okay, encourages me to seek help for the things weighing heavy on my heart and mind. I’m thankful for professionals who know how to work through those heavy issues.

Please remember that your mental health is important.
You are worth the investment. You are worth it.

If you’ve read this far, thank you.
If you need to talk to someone or you want recommendations of counselors/mental health specialists in this area please let me know!

For me, it was grief.
For you, it could be anything.
Regardless, it can be worked through. There are better days ahead.

I’m promising you that, with a very grateful and happy heart… and an empty Panera Macaroni and Cheese container to prove it.

Haley Barker is a blogger from Richland County, Ohio. This blog article is reprinted from her blogsite at with the author’s permission.