You decide to meet friends for lunch.
You walk in and see them.
You sit down and begin enjoying their company. The environment feels welcoming.
You take in the soft buzz of sounds around you and the aromas of the foods, contemplating what you're in the mood for. You survey the menu and order your food.
You engage in conversation. When your food comes, you enjoy it and continue conversing with others.
You sit through the meal until the eating and the conversing naturally come to an end.
I have massive anxiety about deciding to meet friends for lunch. I stress about what sounds or smells will get to me. If there will be anything on the menu I can eat. If I will be too overstimulated to eat or to engage in conversation. If I will make it through the meal without being triggered.
I walk in and see them. Panic washes over me when I see where they’re sitting. Instead of greeting them right away, I begin circling the table, like a hawk, trying to determine the best place to sit. Where there will be the least amount of foot traffic behind me. Where I will be able to see what’s coming. My husband notices what I’m doing and asks someone to move, so I can sit in what he knows is the best spot for me.
I sit down, force an uncomfortable smile to the person who moved and mouth the words, Thank you, to my husband. He circumvents the confusion we’ve caused by striking up conversation while I get settled. I try to begin enjoying everyone around me, but I’m too distracted. The environment feels threatening.
I hear a waitress shout an order to the cooks, a man clap loudly, children giggle and screech as they run to the candy counter at the register, a semi truck whiz past the restaurant outside. All I can smell is the perfume a woman is wearing a few tables behind me and the fish that is sitting on a plate under the kitchen window. I begin to get overwhelmed by the sounds and the smells, and I become disoriented. I take deep breaths in and out. I remember I will need to order soon, so I stare at the menu and try to refocus. As I survey the menu to see what I can stomach, I see that, out of the dozens of items listed, there are only one or two things I can eat given my limited gluten-free, plant-based diet. When the waitress comes, I ask her about the ingredients in one of the items. She says she’ll ask the cook, which makes me feel too complicated, so I order what I know I can eat: a veggie omelette without egg, cheese or toast. I prep the waitress that my order will be weird so she isn’t too thrown off. Her face contorts with confusion as she writes down my request.
I attempt to engage in conversation as we wait for our food. I ask others how they’re doing. When they ask me, I try to keep it brief, not wanting to reveal anything I will regret sharing later. When a plate drops, my attention breaks, and I’m quiet while I regain my thoughts, trying to push away the triggered feeling that is rising up in me. But then someone touches my arm, and I flinch and back away. Those who know me well aren’t troubled by this. Others take it personally. When my food comes, if I'm too overstimulated, I'm too nauseous to eat. I used to push my plate away, which I was told looks rude, childish, so now I let it sit in front of me until I can regain my appetite. If I can't, I move the food around and get a box, claiming I'm not that hungry. Meanwhile, my blood sugar is dropping rapidly due to the overstimulation I'm experiencing, and I need to eat. If I'm not overstimulated, I try to enjoy my meal, but can focus only on my plate. If I stare at the savory things others can enjoy, I become discouraged, let down, angry at my limitations due to my disorder. I try to remain in conversation, but if the topic changes to something that makes me feel sick, like the poor treatment of animals, I need to either excuse myself or change the subject, so I can digest my food properly.
I try to sit through the meal and attempt to block out the sensory stimuli around me, but I’m triggered when the host starts vacuuming. I feel a rush of panic as I know it's starting. I think of the bathroom, mumble I’m going, and race into a stall. Once safely inside the stall, the intense anger pours out of me. I begin screaming without sound. Clenching my fists. Shaking. And then I cry. When it's over, I can finally collect my thoughts. I flush the toilet so it seems like I was using the bathroom, splash cold water on my face and search for myself in the mirror. I always need to find myself when it's over. I walk back to join everyone at the table, but the vacuum is still running. I try to engage, but my thoughts won’t connect, and I begin to feel the tick again. I know if I don’t get out soon, I'll explode. My husband takes note of this and asks everyone if they're ready to walk out, so we can continue our conversation outside. Trying to get me someplace safe, so our lunch and our time with friends doesn’t come to an abrupt end.