Monday evening, I am in my class that centers around art practices in the community. For class this week we read an article about a group of artists that did a collaborative project with the Bayside community out in California. In this particular area there are three distinct ethnic groups which make up the population. In order to bring all these diverse individuals together, the team of artists centered their initial community art practice around food. For example, preparing beans in three ways that represented the ethnic backgrounds of the individuals and then telling stories reminiscent of food preparation in their households growing up. These scenarios lead towards a discussion with my class about food’s ability to bring the community together and build connections that previously were missing. I agreed with everything spoken about. In truth, food has a beautiful ability to foster connection. Sharing meals is a time for conversation and relationship building. But I also couldn’t help but start uncomfortably shifting in my seat as the conversation left me feeling empty and sad knowing that this was not the case for myself the majority of the time.
Our class is partnering with a residential treatment facility for men and women struggling with addiction. We are going to make art together as a collective and at the end of a two month stent have a show displaying all of our work. Our class has been brainstorming different ways to build connection among the group we are collaborating with and this article brought up a great idea of having food be a part of the first portion of group. The idea is to have snacks together as people arrive while checking in with an emotion and intention for the group. Everyone in the class seemed on board with the idea. “It would be a good conversation starter.” “Yeah, an ice breaker. Everyone loves talking about food.” “Everyone loves food in general.” “No one is going to be opposed to having snacks.” “I think it will draw more people to the group.”
And right there in the middle of the class discussion, I was sucked out of my chair and dropped into a clear cage posed as an animal on display, estranged and isolated. Because every head around me was nodding in agreement with the suggestions around food, the comfort of food, the excitement of food, and I wasn’t. I was sad and angry and hurt and confused because I couldn’t for the life of me understand how an entire room full of people could agree that food only held pleasant memories and pleasant experiences to be had. Because, for me, the animal in the cage, food had been the reason for disconnection. If I had heard in treatment that a group was offering some unknown snack at the beginning of session, I wouldn’t have gone. If a community was sharing memories centered around food growing up I would fall silent. The reality is that even being in recovery and starting to gain some distance from my eating disorder, when the suggestion of adding an element of food to our group was thrown out my mind immediately disagreed. “No snacks, no snacks, no snacks!” And though, I know no one could hear my thoughts, I felt that just the expression on my face and inability to participate in the conversation any longer subjected me to the clear cage in the corner of the classroom.
In class on Monday, I instructed my body to nod when needed, agree when necessary, as if putting on a show would mean that the key to the clear cage would somehow magically fall into my hand and I could unlock myself and walk alongside everyone else. But it is moments like this, speaking about food as comforting and connection provoking, that I am slapped in the face with the reality that my mind does not operate like everyone else’s. I am and always will be different and I can lie to myself saying that I don’t live in a clear cage, but that would be precisely what I just said, a lie. Because in truth there are clear walls that keep separate me from other people. I have an eating disorder and that means that I think differently and things that are seemingly normal and true for other people just aren’t inside my world. So I fall back on the conclusion that I am different and alone as I sink lower into my chair and fall silently away from my class, painting my expression blank, and praying no one will see through into the screaming conversation happening inside my mind.
There are two diagnoses that I have.
- Terminally Unique.
- Professional Minimizer
The first is soaked in a sea of irony because though believing I am vastly different, so much so that I am walking around in a clear cage that forever keeps me from other people, that I am unable to relate or even communicate, this statement just isn’t completely valid. But that is how my mind works. No matter what it fights to be a single entity in a web of two hundred million. Forever alone. Forever different. Terminally unique.
That first time I walked into a treatment center and was met with dozens of individuals whose thoughts were similar to mine I decided I wasn’t anything like them. I didn’t cry over cheese. I didn’t obsess over my body. I didn’t think I was worthless. I didn’t hate myself and use a number on a scale to try and give some leverage to those thoughts. I didn’t, I didn’t, and yet deep down I felt a part of myself becoming entangled in those dozens of men and women. And, that, this feeling of entanglement was precisely why I had to convince myself I wasn’t like any of these people. I didn’t have an eating disorder because if I did then I was like them. Then I needed help. Then I had these racing thoughts and self doubts and insecurities and fears. Then I was like them and I wasn’t my own and suddenly my little entity is woven into the web of everyone else’s whose minds are “fucked up”.
Fast forward to Monday’s class and I wasn’t like them either. I wasn’t because I had an eating disorder. Because on Monday I rewound to that moment in treatment, using this example for the reason to my separateness from my class. Different because I had an eating disorder. Then in treatment I would fast forward to classroom and work places for examples that I didn’t have an eating disorder, couldn’t have an eating disorder, never had an eating disorder. Because in life I slip back on my mental illness and in treatment I slip back on my “normalcy”. Always fighting to disconnect and become alone in my experience one way or another.
Bottom line is that no matter what the situation my eating disorder mindset likes to lock me back in the clear cage and convince me that no one could possibly understand me because I wasn’t like anyone else. When in reality the clear cage is translucent. It can be walked right through. It doesn’t actually exist. And, if I was really honest with myself it never did. Because no matter how “messed up” I may believe I am, no one is incapable of connecting with another person. It is in our very nature to connect. We are human and humans need other humans. So even if the food conversations gave me anxiety on Monday, I can’t possibility convince myself that I don’t have one positive memory around a meal that I could use to connect with my class.
Terminally unique is not a thing. It never has been and never will be.