An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.
In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.
It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.
My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.
“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”
~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b
Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.
Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, “Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.
As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.
When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.
“It is just one day.”
“It is just one meal.”
“It is not going to kill me.”
“I can do this.”
When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?
She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.
“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.
“It is just one day.”
“It is just one meal.”
“It is not going to kill me.”
“I can do this.”
It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.