“She just doesn’t like it.”
These words were said when I passed on a piece of cake at a recent birthday dinner I attended. And to be honest, it’s why for years I always stayed home from birthday dinner outings.
Recently, I shared — quite excitedly — with my husband about how proud I was that it had been months since I avoided a social function due to my mental illness(es). It was very routine for me, for years, to agree to something, only to decide last minute I couldn’t do it and send my husband on alone. It caused a lot of tension in our marriage. When you’re our age, and most of your friends are either married or in a serious relationship, it’s not fun to be the solo person. My husband would constantly ask, “Well what do you want me to tell them? Why aren’t you coming?”
I don’t feel well. That was my constant go-to response. And, to be fair, it was true, but it wasn’t a physical illness — except of course for the way my mental illness(es) manifested themselves (e.g. hives, dizziness, paranoia, etc.) — in the way that I knew they’d imagine it to be.
However, something happened when I became open about my mental illness(s). It’s not that overnight I became a social butterfly or that all of my party-going anxiety went away — not at all. But people begin to see me differently, and I in turn began to trust (or least hope) that they might be more empathetic and understanding. It’s certainly not always the case, but it has given me more confidence in building relationships.
All of this to say, although I had gotten better at attending smaller gatherings and parties, it had been quite some time since I had been invited to a dinner outing composed of 20 or so people — most either acquaintances or people I’d never met, only a handful I’d claim to know well. Fortunately, the restaurant had vegan options, and I had already looked at the menu and figured out what I was going to eat — this action of planning what one will order can be a HUGE help for those with eating disorders. It gives one a sense of control and confidence. Eating out is scary for people with EDs, and there is nothing worse than reading a menu, panicking, and feeling pressured/rushed. When that happens to me (and it has, plenty of times), I get really angry and frustrated and typically just leave without ordering anything, or I order something and instantly regret it and beat myself up about it.
So, please be patient with your ED friends! Seemingly “normal” activities can be especially challenging.
When I eat around people (besides my husband), two thoughts occupy my mind:
- They are going to watch me to see if/what I eat because I’m “out” about having anorexia. No secrets here.
- They are thinking “she doesn’t look like she has an eating disorder” and “she’s eating,” so clearly she’s cured.
I can’t help but feel like I have a giant spotlight on me — even though, in truth, no one probably even notices. But hey, if anything is certain, it’s that mental illnesses are not rational.
So, there I was at dinner. I had made it through over an hour of strained conversation and overpriced vegetables, and I was feeling rather calm because it was coming to a close.
And then two massive cakes were pulled out. Slices were cut and just passed down the table. I politely refused for two reasons: ONE, I don’t like dessert. I never have. I eat dark chocolate and frozen yogurt occasionally, but that’s about it. TWO, I’m vegan, I have a dairy allergy, and I really try to keep to a low-sugar diet because my skin doesn’t react well.
So, I politely refused. Then got offered another piece. And refused again. And then I heard, “She just doesn’t like it,” from the person who made it. And then I felt both guilty and embarrassed. They made me feel like a snob. I began to sweat. I could feel my chest breaking out in a rash. And it felt like all eyes were on me (again, likely not true, but nothing could convince me of that). We left shortly after.
And do you know what I remember from that night? Those words and the way they made me feel, reminding me that I don’t have a normal relationship with food and never will. And it’s no one’s fault. I’m not blaming the person who said them at all. I just share this, so that maybe, if you have an eating disorder, you know that you’re not alone in the IMMENSE courage and strength it takes to do seemingly routine activities, like going out to eat, and, if you don’t have an eating disorder, so that you might think about how your words and actions can affect someone with an eating disorder.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience, either by writing a guest post, or doing an interview with me. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.