TW: Food, disordered eating
There were seeds in the bread.
It was a simple mistake: the server had given me multigrain bread instead of the plain for my tomato soup from Cosi. I’d even eaten some of it while I was looking at my computer screen, not realizing that it was wrong. I knew, from the bites I’d already taken, that there were no nuts in the bread, nor was there anything else that would make me sick.
And yet, it still became an ordeal.
I tried to be brave and finish the slice. I usually thought the portions of bread were too small, but this one felt gargantuan. I made it through a few bites, noticing all the different shapes and textures of the seeds until I finally decided to stop torturing myself and go back to the restaurant. I left with a slice of plain bread in hand, which I promptly devoured.
I knew, in my head, that there was nothing wrong with the multigrain slice, and I should have eaten it rather than wasting the half-slice I had left. But with food, my OCD fights back the hardest, and some days, the fight is too hard to win.
My OCD manifested as emetophobia (the fear of vomiting) as far back as I can remember, which meant that anything unexpected in my food - like seeds in bread - was completely unacceptable. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have let this mistake happen out of the degree I inspected my food, but even now, it still causes panic in me if I eat something I didn’t mean to by accident.
I was so anxious during my childhood that I was only able to eat the same exact thing every day: plain cereal for breakfast with milk on the side; a plain bagel for lunch with some snack mix or an apple after school; plain pasta with canned vegetables and a scoop of strawberry yogurt for dinner. If I had to deviate from my routine for even a single day, I got anxious - and if there was any chance of my food being contaminated or not what I was used to, even if it was as simple as butter on the pasta, my anxiety soared.
It took me years to start trying new foods in earnest, and even more to work with a nutritionist to try a diet where I was getting the necessary nutrients for my body. I’m proud of my accomplishments so far, but there’s still something inside me that craves my old routine and misses it if I eat something different even for a day.
After my work with a nutritionist, most of my easily-visible food anxiety has departed. But I can’t seem to shake my anxiety at a common discussion starter: “Where do you want to go for dinner?”
When I was younger and someone said this, not knowing about my habits, I would panic and demand to go to a place where I could eat. Now, I keep those feelings on the inside with some carefully formulated phrases in case people want to go somewhere I can’t muster the courage for: “I had a big lunch.” “I’m just coming to hang out.” “I’m happy eating later.” “I really don’t care.”
Truth is, I do care, but I’m afraid that if I express my rigid eating habits, I’ll find myself friendless. After all, many people are willing to eat foods I like the first time, but for people who find repetitive food boring, their interest wanes over time - in both the dinners, and me.
Last weekend, I stayed silent as my friends tossed around ideas. Korean - maybe I can deal with that, there’s rice and noodles and vegetables, right? But no, they’re moving on to Greek, where I don’t know what’s vegetarian, and then burgers, which definitely aren’t vegetarian except for veggie burgers and I don’t like them, and then to so many other options that my head is reeling. I practically cried out in relief when one person suggested pasta, and everyone went along with her suggestion as my heart rate went back to normal.
“Why don’t you like trying new foods?” another friend asked at the table when I say how much I appreciate eating pasta. “It’s so easy.”
My fork with comfortable, easy pasta hovered in my hand.
“Easy” would be the farthest word from my mind as I recall the long night sitting at the kitchen table because I was too afraid to take a bite of fish sticks, the time a girl in my class held me down and forced me to take my first bite of pizza, and the panic when I found out that I would have to eat at a Mexican place on a job interview.
It’s not what I think of when I recall working with my nutritionist on eating a single bite of a new kind of grain or a new vegetable, even if that one bite was all I had. It’s not what I think of when remembering the time I was too scared to try Persian food on my own and my best friend went out to a restaurant with me to try the new dishes piece by piece.
As an emetophobe whose thoughts cycle through my head, trying new foods is anything but easy. It represents years of pain before I could even start trying, followed by years of eating new foods one bite at a time, keeping some and abandoning others and fighting hard to learn to eat new foods and maybe enjoy them.
Every day, I find myself facing some version of this challenge. Sometimes, it’s that my bread has seeds in it, and the texture disgusts me or the thought that I’ve already eaten some and it may make me sick infests my head. Other times, it’s the days when I do end up at restaurants where I scan the menu endlessly for anything I feel comfortable eating, and decide on the fly which excuses will work best with which people. It can be the lightly mocking remarks from friendly coworkers commenting that I’m eating the same thing again or the not-so-friendly mocking from others who comment cruelly on my food choices, as if I’d choose to eat like a “freak.”
OCD is not a life of “easy.” OCD is a life of trying as hard as I can on the inside to make my new ventures look easy on the outside. It’s a huge difference, and one that I share with my friends and with my readers as an attempt to teach that what might look easy to some is most definitely not for others. Some things that I find easy, like making a phone call, petting a dog, or commuting to work, are this hard for other people. If we can try our best to be kind to what other people find hard, it’d make the world a much easier place for people like me.
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.