How Crowded Dinners Helped Me Choose Life
Featured in The Great Door Theater Project's Myxy Magazine, Volume I
I found the strength to fight back against depression and an eating disorder with the support of writing, family, and good food. The only way I could do it was by challenging inaction toward issues of mental illness in my own life, by speaking candidly about my own experience. Writing gave me an outlet to chew on years of adversity and spit out the words I had once failed to express. While the dinner table gave me a platform for real change to occur around me, the stigma I encountered had to be met by radical visibility. And so, my story is that of one single voice, which emerged from total silence.
I am a twenty-five-year-old New Yorker, with (admittedly) too many hobbies. I love to cook extravagant meals for dozens of friends and do so in the post-work two hours I have to throw a meal together. Cooking for my loved ones has helped me to reclaim a space I once lost to anorexia. It has revealed the power of openness in shifting “dinner table culture,” and the bond that can form when love, vulnerability, and a good meal intersect. My friends and I sit around the dinner table every week, under the glow of big candles, and do what many are afraid to do. We get real. “Family” is so often defined by genetics; parameters which fail to pay tribute to the solidarity that can be found in self-built communities. As I sit with my “built family” a conversation may begin with “I had a breakdown a month ago,” and end with a personal account of what it’s like to lose a brother. Over big pasta dinners we share a natural impulse to laugh awkwardly as we tell stories of trauma. Strange as it may seem, we all cope differently and repetition teaches us how best to convey stories of loss: of a childhood, of family, and sometimes, of hope.
But we all are now able to concur that silence will forever be more damaging than the use of benign coping mechanisms like humor to buffer discomfort. And all in one moment, we agree, transparency just feels natural. Sharing stories of darkness does not smother the light; in fact, we laugh more around this table than we ever have before. In the past, I hid my swollen eyes, but now I walk fearlessly into the room I once walked out of. For this – not despite it – I am loved.
As I prepare for these moments I so cherish, I remember standing on my tippy toes in the kitchen at age four, stirring pasta water with a wooden spoon. “A watched pot never boils,” my dad would say, and I would believe him and look fiercely away. My eyes would dart back to it on occasion, the temptation too strong to ignore. If it was summertime, I would await the local ice cream man, who would drive his truck over to my family’s annual Labor Day party. For thirty minutes, as kids filtered through the line, I felt like the town hero; like it was my ice cream truck. It was just a memory, but one that would no doubt motivate my very first business idea years later.
I never stopped seeking those pure sensations of childhood, and as a first-year in college, my friends and I bought a novelty ice cream truck. We would establish ourselves as the next truck in our small town; as the “ice cream women” dishing out treats and the nostalgic experiences kids never forget. It wasn’t a bad deal for us either: the freedom to eat ice cream all day, to stop for swimming pool breaks as needed, and to be with friends in a hand painted, 1977 Chevy Step Van, was the antithesis to the college internship in finance. But we learned the same skills in opening an LLC, managing money, filing our taxes, and keeping record of every transaction. On busy days, grape syrup exploded from pouring bottles into our hair, and we would have to scrub down the truck floor for hours. Our summer became one long string of ten hour workdays, and we would overcommit because we loved it so much. We became a fixture of the small town we grew up in, and one that, though we’ve left, lives on today. College Creamery is now owned by another wonderful family and it can still be found sputtering down the streets of Wilton, Connecticut.
Facing the reality of my eating disorder while at home was difficult, but working with my best friend on the truck helped me to see the gravity of my condition. How, in my early twenties, a number on the scale came to rob me of everything I cherished about life, I cannot explain. It was a storm I found I could no longer weather alone, and so I finally sought help. I knew what treatment would mean for me: accepting that I couldn’t handle the problem on my own, forging a new relationship with food, and, ultimately, gaining weight. There were times when all that I could focus on were my steps, the calories, fat, and sugar going into my body, and an intense fear that if I loosened the grip I had on myself, I would no longer have worth.
In time, I went on medication, challenged my strict “food rules,” and accepted that it wouldn’t just be a change in eating habits; it would be a new outlook on life. I came to allow my love for spaghetti take back what was stolen from me, and I challenged the invasion of every thought that tried to tell me I didn’t deserve what I most loved. Today, my body is better for it. The pounds that support a body that once struggled to hold on gave my heart the strength it needed to live, to write, and to love. Good food, which once distorted my every thought, now heals me deeply from the inside out. Each pound I gained back meant years' worth of accomplishment and resistance to the most damaging, but enticing, habits.
What matters to me now is that the food on my plate tastes good, and that my heart still beats by the love that surrounds me. The voices that now prevail say I'm worth more than what the void beside my hips once made me.
Without fail, my city friends show up to the birthday parties I host for my dogs and celebrate my antidepressant anniversaries with me. We indulge in flourless chocolate cake and apple crumble, reflecting on harder times and smiling about the present.
Even among millions of people, New York City feels small and cozy in these moments. Food culture in “the city” is aggressive and always changing; people will stand outside at four a.m. on any given morning just to try a pastry. Things like cornflake milk ice cream and guacamole sundaes not only exist, but are wildly popular. Every day sees innovation, and something new and strange becomes an extraordinary facet of New York food culture. On my nightly walk, jazz mingles with garlic butter on street corners as the two escape tiny French kitchens. Food can evoke powerful memories like nothing else. It can draw meaning into what is otherwise ordinary. These things will forever feel like home and togetherness; such is the power of food and nothing else.
Last month, author and fellow bipolar sufferer, David Leite, shared with me a compelling story of what saved his life. As a little boy, David’s mother left him a loving note on the bananas he had for breakfast every morning. It was a simple gesture, but one that would someday give him the strength to live his truth through humor and honesty. We can all learn from this simple gesture and allow the power of food to speak volumes for the love we aren’t otherwise sure how to express. All it may take to change a life is a couple of words on a banana, or hosting a “family dinner” for a friend you’ve been worried about. Just start with a warm “hello” and a chocolate chip cookie; end with “see you next week.” There is no love quite like this.