How Being a Picky Eater Feeds My Anxiety

Confession time: I’m a picky eater.

…And I don’t just mean that there are a few thing that I don’t like or that I’m a little bit picky. I mean I’m a really, really picky eater, and there are lots of things that I just don’t like. I don’t like peas or beans or tomatoes or sushi or eggs cooked any way except scrambled. I hate steamed vegetables. Mushrooms make me shudder.

This is not new. I’ve always been a picky eater–there are photos of little baby me, spitting out mashed peas and carrots and making weird faces at tomatoes. Occasionally someone could convince me that a food I didn’t eat was something that I actually did eat (family legend has it that as a toddler I ate fried fish because I was told it was fried hot dogs)  in an effort to get me to broaden my horizons, but that was not an oft-tried or oft-successful tactic. For a long time I wouldn’t eat things that were “delicious” because my brother told me that peas were delicious, and I hated them so very much that I was convinced that the word “delicious” meant “horrible” instead.

At some point, my mother and father stopped fighting with me about what I was going to eat for dinner, because they had already raised two children, one of them also a picky eater. They also seemed to recognize that I would’ve gone hungry rather than eat something I didn’t like. I know this is true because I had an aunt who wouldn’t let us have a snack later unless we finished all the dinner on our plates. At her house, I would sometimes go hungry because I would not eat what was on my plate.

And here’s the thing…I wasn’t, and I am not, just being a brat. The truth is far more complicated, and it has had a profound affect on my life–my relationships with other people and my relationship with food, hence my relationship with my own body.

You see, certain textures of food actually make me feel ill, physically ill. Like those peas and beans I mentioned? The texture of a bite of peas or beans triggers my gag reflex. I don’t necessarily understand how or why, but that tends to make them difficult to even begin to like. So, while I hear a lot about things that are an “acquired taste,” I’ve never really known what that was like from an eating perspective. It’s pretty difficult to learn to like something that makes you feel like you just might vomit every time you take a bite.

And boy is that a load off my chest to admit…Because I’ve been made fun of for it almost all of my life, and I really and truthfully wish that my relationship with food were different. My picky eating has caused arguments and sadness and endless amounts of frustration and anxiety. Because even though my parents weren’t hard on me about how I was eating, other people in my life haven’t always quite as kind.

And you should know that here in the deepest parts of the American South, food is a way of life. There was food at church, food at my grandmother’s house, food at family reunions and backyard barbecues. There were family dinners and breakfasts and brunches. So. Many Brunches. Everyone here loves a potluck, tables piled high with casseroles and cooked vegetables and meat….And when I sat down with a plate that had a few pieces of turkey, a buttered roll, and a bit of macaroni and cheese but nothing else, there were always snarky comments and laughter. Every time we sat down together to eat, comments were made about what I was eating, about what I was not eating. And while I desperately wanted those comments to go away, I found them preferable to the kinds of embarrassment I might suffer if one of those foods actually did make me sick.

So I started to work around having to eat with other people, trying to control as much of the environment as I could. I was lucky enough to like a few basic things–chicken and burgers, french fries and chips–that could be found at most any restaurant in some shape or fashion and that were often on the pot luck table. If I couldn’t control the menu or was going to a place that might not have anything I would eat, I’d often eat a bit beforehand (not enough to be full, so that I could be polite and eat at least a small something). Alternately, I would arrange to arrive once everyone had eaten or find a reason to leave before food was served. This way, I didn’t have to deal with rude comments or nosy people. I could, instead, focus on having fun with the people I was spending time with.

I became The Girl Who Never Ate or The Girl Who Ate Like a Bird. All of this was even more darkly comic because I am a chubby girl–even at my lightest, I was still a solid size 8/10 with curves, so there were always smug looks and occasional derisive laughter with those comments about what was on my plate.

Over the years, my relationship with food, with eating, created a spiral of frustration and sadness and fear. As a teen and young adult, especially, my food issues wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. Food became something secret. It became something I was ashamed of, a bad habit. I ate alone, and I ate too much.  I ate things that were bad for me–because the unfortunate truth was that many of the healthiest foods were the foods that created the most anxiety, the textures I disliked and dreaded the most.  I gained weight, packing on about 75 pounds in my 8 years of college/grad school. The weight gain made me feel worse about my body, worse about food and more self-conscious about eating unhealthy foods in front of other people. This level of discomfort with food and with my own body were a kind of self-perpetuating cycle, feeding my depression and anxiety disorder. I’d feel anxious about going out and eating with other people, then my self-isolation would add to my depression.

I’ve been trying, since I first understood the nature of my disordered eating (because that’s what it is, really and truthfully) to expand my palate. This is difficult because there are emotional, psychological, and physical components to my relationship to food. In addition to being aware of the texture issues I have with some foods, I know now that, at least in part part, I have been mimicking my mother, who was constantly trying to lose weight and who had a tendency to try to hide when she ate junk food. But I now I do eat a lot of foods that I would not have eaten when I was younger, and I eat with other people more often.

I recognize that I have created a situation in which food, already culturally symbolic in so many ways, is personally symbolic. Most importantly, perhaps, I have learned to be patient with myself and to ignore snarky comments from people who cannot possibly understand how and why I am being brave when I nibble a slice of tomato.

In Which I Make an Extended Metaphor

Today is a difficult day. An impossible day. A day that I wish I could’ve stayed in bed. The noises of the office, the buzz of people talking, typing, laughing, chewing–living their lives–feels too big and too loud. Even the sound of my own fingers hitting the keys as I type this is Just Too Much. Today is a day I’ll cry on the way home, out of exhaustion and frustration and sheer sadness.

Today is a day that I have to deal with my monster. Well…Every day is a day that I have to deal with my monster. She never goes away, really. But sometimes she is small and easily sated. When she is medicated, she is a Good Monster, a Watchful Monster. Other times, like today, she is big and bossy and horrid.

And yet.

And yet, I have to teach. I have to walk into a classroom full of college students (two rooms, actually), and command respect and diligence from my students. I have to talk to them, and I have to listen to them. I have to be attentive to what they need from me. I have to do my job. At a time when every noise I hear makes me wish I could curl further into the fetal position, I have to be upright and on-task.

And that’s what life is like for me–knowing that I must be upright when there’s a literal weight and heft to my anxiety pushing me downward. Being out of bed and out of home instead of being bundled under the covers, my pup curled next to me. Even when it’s difficult to move through the day, I must move through it. This is what I must do, not every day, but many days.

There are lots of days when just getting out of bed, going through the routine of bathing, getting dressed, and getting the breakfast-and-medication routine finished, zaps whatever energy I have. That’s today, a Monday that has brought both a rise in anxiety and some PMS symptoms. Those are beasts, both of them. Big, ugly monsters–bossy ones, at that. But I can’t stay in bed, and I can’t avoid the things that need to be done. I either have to do what needs to be done or forfeit some part(s) of my life, a thing that I am unable (and unwilling) to do. The bills still have to be paid, the child and dog still need to be taken care of, my students still have to be taught, and I still have to keep going.

I’ve been reading up on the Spoon Theory today, wondering if I can use it to help explain how my anxiety and depression work. And to a certain extent, it does work–I have a finite amount of energy each day, and I must consider which tasks have to be done and which can wait. But my illness deviates from Spoon Theory, perhaps because it is of a mental rather than physical nature–or perhaps just because we’re all different, and there is no one-size-fits-all way of explaining what it’s like to live with an illness.

Some days, I wake up and bounce out of bed, moving through the getting-ready-to-be-out-in-the-world phase pretty quickly and easily. Some days, it’s easy to face my classroom full of students–and there are times when it even gives me some spoons back, almost like re-charging. On those days, the monster sits quietly by, attentive but not active. Leashed. (Modern medicine is a Wonder, and it is Key to Keeping the Monster on a Leash.)

And then some days (like today), getting out of bed feels like slogging through mud–with an unruly, awful critter screaming at me to hurry up. That I’m not doing well enough. That I’m weak. That the world is big and ugly and always will be. That I’m insignificant. These taunts make me so afraid that I start dropping spoons. And once I start dropping spoons, it’s difficult to get them back. Everything is scary, and nothing is good enough.

Some days (like today), I start thinking about how I’ll have the energy to parent, because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I need spoons when Little Jedi is home. I need spoons when he’s home so that I can find him something to snack on, help with homework, and give him the emotional and mental support and care that he needs from his mother. And if there’s one thing that I’m afraid of, especially on a day like today, it’s that I’m doing him a disservice by using up my spoons on the rest of the world. And so the monster grows louder, needier.

That monster–that loud, mean monster–is more difficult to quiet on some days than others. And while I am lucky enough to have a wonderful, supportive spouse and a fantastic kid and a comfortable home, none of those things can make the monster quieter.

On these days, we wait for the monster to wear herself out.

Code Words for Crazy

codewordsforcrazy

I was six when I had my first panic attack.

I’d gone back to my grandmother’s house after church on a Sunday night, something I did often when I was young. On this particular night, the church service we attended focused on heaven—on what it would be like to spend eternity with Jesus and the angels. But instead of being comforted, I was afraid. I didn’t like the idea that forever had no end, none at all, and I felt suffocated by the idea of being in one place forever. It didn’t matter that Jesus or his angels would be there, that the streets would be paved of gold, or that there were be no more sorrow or pain there. In fact, I could not imagine how it would be possible not to experience pain or loss or sorrow if I had to stay in one place for always, especially if those people I loved didn’t make it there, too.

That night, as I crawled into bed beside my grandmother, I started to cry. She asked me why I was crying, what she could do tell help. And so I told her. I told her that I was afraid of forever, that something never-ending was so far beyond my comfort zone and so enormous as to be horrifying. She told me I needn’t be afraid, of course, and somehow she soothed my fears enough for me to go to sleep.

That was, really and truly, my first indication that I was different…Different from my family, different from my friends and the other kids my age. I thought about things they did not, or at least if they did consider the things I did, they were not bothered by them.

This would become commonplace for me—being troubled by things that did not seem to trouble other people.

*****

I was 13 when I threatened to commit suicide. I wrote a note to a friend, told him about how sad and lonely I felt, how I thought it might be better if I just didn’t exist.

I don’t remember if he meant to show anyone the note, but I do remember that one of my teachers found it. She went to the principal’s office with the note, and my parents were called in. They didn’t understand why I was so sad—but of course, I didn’t really understand either.

I was taken to my first counseling sessions after that. We had to drive half an hour to the closest therapist, because our little town didn’t have any mental health professionals. I don’t actually remember much about the sessions, though I was certainly more than old enough to have a good memory of them. Mostly what I remember is that it didn’t help much, but I pretended that it did.

I spent the rest of middle and high school hiding most of my anxiety and sadness, though there were still times it would rise to the top. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 17, and I had to take the test three times. Mostly, I was too nervous when someone else was in the car—but I also just hated driving. It frightened me. The bad stuff was usually explained away as PMS, or maybe just because I was a teenager, or maybe I was too emotional.

******

When I got to college, everything exploded. I took my first drink of alcohol during my freshman year, and I found that my thirst was difficult to satisfy. I drank too much. I smoked too much. I was too promiscuous. I dated men and women.

The social club I’d joined (which was much like a sorority) ordered me into counseling. I went to a session or two, but I wasn’t really ready to talk, and in any case the focus seemed to be on how much I was drinking instead of why I was drinking so much. The club told me I couldn’t come back without going to counseling. I told them to fuck off, and I spiraled into more drinking, more sex, more fights with my friends and my off-and-on again boyfriend.

I’d reached a point where I felt anxious all the time, and I cried a lot. I saw a psychiatrist, who put me on anti-depressants for the first time and gave me a name for what I was feeling…Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

I always managed to keep good grades, and somehow I found myself preparing to go to graduate school, and then actually going, making a move that I promised myself would help me change things. I felt better than I had in ages.

******

When I was 24 and in the final stages of grad school, I returned home from a summer abroad and very soon thereafter conceived my son. There was pressure on all sides for me to marry before the baby was born—pressure from the people who had been helping me pay bills while I was in school and who would be helping me while he was a baby, pressure that I couldn’t ignore.

And so, at 24 and four months pregnant, I married my off-and-on boyfriend and we moved in together. Our son was born 8 weeks early because I had preeclampsia, and he had to spend 5 weeks in the NICU. After pregnancy and 6 months of pumping-breast-milk-because-the-kid-wouldn’t-latch, I returned to my anti-depressant regimen under the care of a general practitioner.

My son’s father and I didn’t live together a full year before I asked him to move out. The relationship had always been tempestuous, and we knew we did not want to raise our child with both of us so unhappy, so we didn’t.

I returned to graduate school to work on a PhD, and I moved back into my parents’ house. It was only an hour from my university, and my retired mother was willing to stay with my son during my classes and while I was teaching. I stopped drinking, and I mostly stopped smoking. I tried counseling again, but the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to my anxiety didn’t work. I continued on with the anti-depressants and the anti-anxiety medication cocktail, and it mostly worked.

*****

At 32, I live in New Orleans with my child and my second husband, an amazing man who I met at a birthday party for a college friend….Her older brother. I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink very often either. I left graduate school over a year ago.

But not long ago, I admitted to myself and my husband that the anti-depressants had stopped working, that they hadn’t been working for a while. And so I went to a new doctor. He gave me a new word for crazy: bipolar type 2 disorder. Looking at the criteria, the diagnosis is a far better one than MDD or GAD. The medication he prescribed works better. And so here I am, trying to get better.

Over the years, I’ve been called overly-empathetic, pathetic, emotionally unstable, emotionally manipulative, too emotional, bitchy, and a laundry list of other things that were code words for crazy–because I felt too keenly, cried too easily, and fought too hard. Because I panicked.

This new word is a better one, but a harder one to come to terms with. Another word for crazy. A real word. A difficult word. It’s not even a code word for crazy—but maybe that’s good, because I’m finished with code words.