“Do you have problems eating in front of people?” my date said.
We’d been talking, laughing and flirting, when he asked me that question over his espresso. I smiled. He wasn’t being mean. He was simply taking note of the fact that in the hour we’d been sitting dormant at a coffee shop on a warm, rainy, summer night, that I’d eaten less than half of my turkey sandwich.
Days later, he sent me a text saying it wasn’t the right time for us, along with a host of other words about me; “smart and kind,” to name a few. Despite them, he had to go with his gut.
I always hoped I‘d hear from him again after that, and when I didn’t, I couldn’t help but wonder if my not eating that night had played a role in his decision.
I don’t go walking around with a big sign on my head that says “High Functioning Anorexic,” despite the fact that “when my eating disorder is bad” (language my therapist has taught me to use when I am talking about my anorexia), I tend to limit food consumption. I have restrictive type anorexia, something that rears its ugly head at unexpected times.
My cousin had been present at the party where I’d met that man, where I was also not eating. I spent the majority of the gathering on my feet, looking after my brother’s children. The man had joked about my not eating then, and my cousin casually mentioned how I used to starve myself. I smiled sheepishly because I felt embarrassed.
At that time, I had only published one article on my struggles and was in decent shape. I’d been eating well, and right. I had an agent for my novel in progress. I had just gotten a tenure track job. Life was good. It felt like I had filed my anorexia away in a reputable online magazine, and I could leave it there.
During normal stretches, I don’t think about the things that have altered my eating habits as a coping mechanism: breakups, deaths, bad days. I’m too busy living my life to do so.
But when that man asked me about eating on our date, I didn't know how to respond. I wish I could have given him an honest answer. It would have been, “I like you. I am enjoying your company right now, and it is freaking me out a bit. If I didn’t, I would have eaten the sandwich twenty times already.” That might sound weird to the average person, but it was the truth.
Since then, I’ve learned to be more aware of my habits and how I use food to respond to external circumstances.
The idea that I don’t eat is ludicrous to people who know me well, like the friend I meet at a New York City pub so we could have dinner and drinks and discuss our writing. Or my immediate family, with whom I have shared meals in restaurants — so many, in fact, that someone recently wrote on my Facebook page, “You guys love diners!” My friends from college, especially one who said at our Florida brunch, “You have a hearty appetite.” But those are all people who are close to me and recognize that there will be slip-ups too.
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“You look thin in the last picture you posted of you and your mom,” my pub friend said.
“You’re looking thin to me,” my mom told me.
“She’s having a hot dog,” my college friend said matter of factly. (When I was asked if I wanted one and was skirting the question.)
At the peak of my illness, I would have ignored those concerns. Nowadays, I address them in my therapy.
“There’s so much more to life than food,” one of my friends said years ago, and I wholly agree with her. How other people respond to my anorexia can diffuse what might be an otherwise awkward moment, and I do appreciate it.
It isn’t always as though I am completely unaware of my behavior, especially at moments when I am trying very hard to work through it. The lunch meetings at my job where I promise myself I will do more than cut up my food into tiny pieces, and then don’t. The afternoon at the diner where I ate so little that my friend leaned over and sliced my French toast with my utensils to prompt me to get started on a meal he was already halfway through. In both of those instances, I was dealing with something extremely triggering. Adding to that is the worry that everyone would view me as damaged upon seeing me at my worst.
During normal stretches, I don’t think about the things that have altered my eating habits as a coping mechanism: breakups, deaths, bad days. I’m too busy living my life to do so. I’ve been lucky enough to have a beautiful one, full of people I love, who love me.
A major factor in my recovery has been honesty. Honesty about how I’m feeling on any given day, and my ability to relay that to others who are close to me, or in a professional setting. I’m finding that removing toxic people from my life, or refusing to allow them to reenter it, has assisted me with healing.
It has also given me the opportunity to find people who share a similar value system with me, who detest the uglier aspects of the world and attempt to fix it on more than a surface level.
I’m learning how to drop the “everything is fine” act and replace it with “this sucks” whenever that is necessary.
It paves the way to a truer existence, and while a bit more painful, and messy, it helps. I’ve had to admit that not everyone is good, and worthy of my caring for them, a lesson learned the hard way. But, as the one of the people who taught me that used to say, “That’s a story for another time,” and one I come closer to telling every day.
For now, though, if you do come across someone like me, who is likely holding something specific close to their heart that cannot be put into words during a meal, have patience with them. They are just waiting and hoping for better days to come. They’ll need you there when they do.
I’ll need you there when they do.