There are a lot of quotes about laughter.
“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter,” said Mark Twain, my American literary hero.
“It is cheerful to God when you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of your heart,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., my activist hero.
“A great many people don’t know how to laugh at all. However, there’s nothing to know here: it’s a gift, and it can’t be fabricated. It can only be fabricated by re-educating oneself, developing oneself for the better, and overcoming the bad instincts of one’s character; then the laughter of such a person might quite possibly change for the better,” said Fyodor Dostoyevsky, my Russian literary idol.
And then the age-old “Laughter is the best medicine,” said by every wise person over centuries of generations.
Because of my eating disorder, it had been a long, long time since I laughed. It wasn’t just because my chest constricted and my throat hurt when I laughed. It was because I just had nothing to smile about, let alone laugh. Wrapped in self-pity, anger, bitterness, sadness and fear will do that to you. No matter how hilarious someone or something is, the light-hearted humor just doesn’t tickle you the way it would have before.
Recovery gave me many, many gifts. But one of the best gifts was the ability to genuinely laugh again. And a huge part of it was tied to my gradual willingness to socialize…by eating out.
The biggest clue to whether someone is struggling with disordered eating isn’t just the weight, but his or her unwillingness to dine out with friends. That’s because from then on there’s this Dominoes effect of incrementing disordered thoughts and behaviors as the individual resides deeper and deeper into seclusion.
You can’t socialize and bond with friends if you cannot eat out. Well, maybe you can–but you’ll always be missing out on something. After all, dining together isn’t just about the physical nourishment; it’s a social activity, a time when people break bread together over lively discussions, casual chatter and gossip. And when you take that away…well, you’ll always be the weird one. Some people might keep asking a few times, but after several rejections, most people start leaving you alone and hanging out among themselves. And before you know it, the texts and phone calls stop coming. You end up spending all mealtimes alone– which just worsens the cycle of secrecies, irrationalities and depression.
Eating out was always one of the hardest things for me to get over. If I had to eat out, I had to plan and prepare that event way ahead of time. I needed to schedule it so that is fit precisely into my rigid eating schedule. I needed to have at least some choice in where I was going to dine, and I needed to check out and practically memorize the menu beforehand, from which I would choose the safest (read: lowest calorie) item.
I liked chain restaurants. Chain restaurants were safer than small business eateries because they almost always had the nutrition fact information online for you to peruse. And with the public and government crackdown, I could at least be sure that there would be plenty of “healthy” options. The menu would likely be huge, which also meant that they would have a fine selection of meal-sized salads.
I don’t even know why I needed to examine all the menus beforehand. It was pretty much decided what I would order: carb-less salad–no cheese, no dressing, nuts on the side. That was pretty much my standard, and I never, ever ate out of the bread basket. Occasionally I would eat a tiny bite out of my dining companion’s dish, but mentally freak out over the single nibble of FAT-LADEN PASTA!!! Arrrrgh!
Every Anorexic has his or her worst nightmare dish. Mine was pasta, for some reason. I was insanely terrified of white pasta. After all, a 1/4 cup dry serving of pasta was 200+ calories!!! How crazy! How could that be one serving? I would be famished after that…and I would have used up a huge percentage of calorie quota of the day! For a fist-sized quantity of fiberless, protein-less, simple carbed pasta! Why, I could fill myself up nicely with nice, nutritious oatmeal for that same calorie amount!
And of course, I also convinced myself that I didn’t like pasta, even though ever since young, that was one of my favorite sources of carbohydrates. It was clearly bullshit to everyone except me. I was just so sure that I would not enjoy pasta, thus why should I ever order it?
I’m just exemplifying one of the myriads of self-deceits my eating disorder fed me in order to keep me from progressing in recovery. There were many, many more, but if I were to list them all this would become an ED encyclopedia (hmm…someone should write that).
Anyway. As I wrote on this post, after awhile, cooking started becoming more of an inhibition to my recovery. But my trip to Penang– in which I had to give up pretty much all forms of control– really gave me that final kick in the ass I dearly needed. I went through the worst situation an eating disordered individual could go through, and I survived. After that ordeal, many things that once seemed so scary to me was kiddie pool.
I started eating out a lot more often. Sometimes, even two times a day, several times a week– which would have been unfathomable to me before that Penang trip.
I need to give a special shout-out to Wengang, Liwen and Jingwen, who were my primary dining companions for the rest of the two months I stayed in Singapore. Wengang and Liwen set aside a day out of every week to take me out to eat. Most of the time, I relinquished the choice of venue to them. I did that on purpose so that I wouldn’t be choosing somewhere “safe” for me. It was absolutely, deliciously freeing for me to be able to do that.
Before, I had so many rules about eating out. But I created a rule: FLUSH OUT ALL PREVIOUS RULES. They are crap!!
And then I made a simpler set of rules:
1) I would go eat at wherever my dining companions wanted to go.
2) I would not look up menus beforehand, and even if that place offered nutrition facts, so help me God, I would blind myself if I had to– I shall not peek!
3) I will order what I truly want to eat– not what I think I want to eat. I need to stay real and honest to myself– by deceiving myself into thinking I really want a “safe” item, I am hurting no one but myself.
4) No more effing salads. Those days are gone forever. You want a salad? Go home and eat it as a snack.
5) Have fun. Don’t just concentrate on the food, but focus your attention on the people beside you. Listen to them, talk to them. It’s not about the food– it’s about the wonderful interaction that happens over it.
There were several occasions when I felt clutches of fear and anxiety. I would clench up and feel that oppression in my chest in the face of a certain food, wild thoughts of fat, calories, carbs ravaging my mind. There were times when I would let them overwhelm me, and end up not eating very much.
But there were more times when I would follow “new rule” #5: I would turn my attention away from the food, and to the conversation that was taking place at the table. It certainly helped that I was dining with people who love to eat, who ate real food with gusto, who chatted me up about everything from deep spiritual subjects to random jokes and gossip. These people’s laughter and licking of fingers and lips eased my tension away, and pretty soon I found myself smiling along…and even laughing out loud.
Laughter. Oh, wonderful laughter. Mine doesn’t sound too wonderful, to be honest. I have a slightly high-pitched, louder-than-average laughter. The first time I heard it since my eating disorder, it sounded so foreign to me. I had a flash of Wow, did it actually come out through my own body? thought before shrugging it away and then laughing some more. While I was eating out. The previous me would have never imagined that the two would go together.
It’s true. Laughter cures so much of the unhappy impurities within you. It’s a precious gift from God. It’s such a beautiful release. To me, it sounds like the bells of freedom. And that was what it was to me. It released all the cluttered, mushed up jumble of crazy and irrational thoughts inside me. It was both the start and the signal of happiness.
After days of eating out, socializing and laughing, there just naturally came a point when nothing seemed scary to me. I didn’t mind eating white pasta drenched in creamy, cheesy sauce. I didn’t mind deep-fried food. I didn’t even mind (well, not too much unless the meal was super expensive) if my meal out wasn’t very good. After all, I learned that eating out isn’t about the food, but the people with whom you dine.
Dining out is a multi-level relationship. It’s a relationship with yourself, of treating yourself to a nice, relaxing experience. It’s a relationship with the food, of realizing that it’s not the centerpiece of your life, but hey, if it tastes good– all the more to enjoy it! And it’s a relationship with the people around you, who share the time and conversation with you over a meal.
After overcoming this one hurdle, I have gained so many more treasures: I can fully experience and enjoy travels. I can learn and immerse myself into a new culture in deeper dimensions. I have bonded with many of the close friends I have now by sharing a meal together. But most of all, I have become free.
Thoughts to Ponder:
1) Are you afraid of eating out? What is the biggest fear for you?
2) What is your “ritual” like when it comes to eating out? What rules and obsessions do you follow?
3) What is your own quote/philosophy on laughter?