I’m realising just how scared I am of relationships. Of other people coming into my space, both physical and emotional. Leaving footprints on the carpet and making mess and looking in the drawers and exposing me.
It’s not a simple thing. Bigger than the fear is the desire to invite other people in. It’s a bit like when I started eating again. I was so hungry, I just couldn’t stop. (Binging is still an issue, especially when stressed…but that’s another post). In the same way, after years of hiding away, when I spend time with others, I’m a bit overintense. I just want to hoover them up – I’m fascinated by them, by how they think and what they’re feeling and what makes them excited and tired and sad and everything. Like a desparate lover, hanging off their necks and pleading, ‘Don’t leeeavve’. This makes me vulnerable. And it awakens in me a hunger for fellowship, that I’m not sure can ever be met.
But practically, it’s taking a long time to work out how to make friends. There’s a theory (and for my money it’s true), that your emotional development stops around the same time as your eating disorder started. This makes me thirteen – and boy, does it feel like it. ‘Lovemelovemeloveme…don’t come too close! I want a hug…don’t touch me!’
Growing up, we had the opposite of an open home. This isn’t a criticism – or a complete explanation. But it’s part of the puzzle. Our family unit was pretty compact – and in some ways the outside world seemed a frightening place. There were many benefits – a real sense of security, of familial identity and safety. But the drawbacks were in interpreting visits as intrusions. In fearing the transgression of boundaries and personal space.
I was thinking about this on Sunday. We had some people over for lunch – and it was a real joy, but also very stressful. Why? Well, for one thing, it meant opening up our home – and that was frightening. I was worried about how clean the bathroom floor was. Whether or not the temperature was right. The napkins. And of course, the food.
Eating with others is still very stressful for me. Now that calories are no longer the issue, I’ve been trying to work out why. I think in part, it’s because I learned growing up, that meals were private, family times. Then I was anorexic and each forkful became a battle. Every mouthful had to be monitored. Every time I swallowed, it was watched. I associated food with a particular kind of shame, unique to me. It was a performance, an indication of worth.
At university, I negotiated meals by lubricating them with large quantities of alcohol. Post-uni, I still preferred to eat alone – or with good friends or strangers. When I became anorexic again, it was a shame that was written all over my body. Everyone could see there was a problem. Of course, everyone watched to see if – and what – I would eat.
Today, I’m pretty open about my struggles. Mostly this has been a real liberation. But it does mean that at mealtimes, people are pretty aware of how I behave. This is completely understandable. But it makes eating in front of others very hard. It’s made worse by the fact that my digestive system has never really recovered so I have to eat stuff that’s pretty bland – and even though my weight’s fine, I’m still on a weird ‘diet’. It feels a bit like sitting on a stage with an audience. I want to push crisps into my mouth and shout ‘look! Look! An actual eating event’. People mean well, but can get it wrong. A friend commented recently, ‘I was going to ask you for lunch, but then I remembered that you don’t actually eat’. I wanted to crawl under a rock for the rest of the day.
The solution is not to eat alone for the rest of my life. Nor is it to perform at mealtimes like a dancing seal. It’s not in battening down the relational hatches. Nor is it in racing, arms outstretched towards Everyone.
Perhaps it’s in this. Shining light into some of those fears. Taking baby steps, being honest, celebrating little victories, letting others in. Recognising that I’m screwed up – but I’m not alone. That ‘recovery’ involves relationship and a lifetime of change. That in Christ, I can be who I am and know acceptance. That it’s really okay to be broken. That other people are scary – but brilliant with it.