Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"When Anxiety Is At the Table"

When you have food allergies you can seem a bit obsessive compulsive to the uninitiated. I know I’m a little compulsive sometimes about making sure my food is allergen-free, because I have to be. If you hear me repeat after each course, "there are no nuts in that" it can sound a bit over the top.

As anyone with food allergies knows, even the most compulsive grilling of the chef or server doesn’t mean that there won’t be mistakes. Which of course feeds into the next experience with the next restaurant and the next compulsive questioning of the restaurant staff.

So I was particularly struck reading this article in the New York Times about obsessive-compulsive disorder and dining out. It seemed to me that someone with OCD faces very similar challenges dining out as someone with food allergies does.

“Sometimes the trouble is the element of public theater in the dining room, meaning we have to indulge in our often-embarrassing rituals under the eyes of so many strangers ...”

Have you ever felt this way when you are going through your food needs in front of a new friend, a work colleague or gasp! a new date? Going to a restaurant for someone with food allergies or intolerances or any special dietary need is a very public declaration of one’s needs. Some people feel embarrassed about asking the kitchen for so many “special favors” or “substitutions”. And then add to that the whole table’s conversation seems to stop when you’re going through your list.

The article continues. “Sometimes the trouble … might be worrying about the safety of the food and the people who serve it.”

Now someone with OCD and no food allergies would have a different take on this sentence but still, food safety is a food allergic diner’s number one concern. I can do without restaurant theater, hot model-type waitstaff, or gorgeously plated masterpieces. I really want Allergic Girl safe food. As Suzzy Roche said in “Crossing Delancy”: “…just give me scrupulously clean.”

The article continues: “To many of us with obsessive-compulsive disorder… We walk into a calm and civilized dining room and see things we won’t be able to control. This feeds directly into one of the unifying themes of the disorder: an often crushing inability to handle the unknown.”

Who with food allergies or food intolerances hasn’t felt that way?

What do you think?


talisma said...

Your post is really true... I am allergic to eggs, milk and fish, and for me, going to the restaurant with new boyfriend or colleagues is so hard... I feel so insecure, I can not be concentrate to the conversation, and I do not "trust" the dish.
Now, I use to go to vegan restaurant, and I feel better... but only on these places.
Thanks for sharing with us this article.

Emily said...

Interesting.... I'd say that a major difference to note here is that as allergy-sufferers, our obsessive behavior is adaptive: a survival strategy. I know I'm not the only one who has had a server tell me three times that there are "absolutely no nuts" in a dessert and then find herself explaining to the 911 operator that I ate pecans while I administer my EpiPen. Things are getting better, but it happens all the time! Something that means life or death to us is just an inconsequential extra ingredient to most of society.... So while someone with OCD can work with a therapist to limit/decrease obsessive behavior, it seems that we allergy-sufferers would do best to cultivate that behavior. And that is a tough fate to swallow! But we can be assertive and try to find ways to be obsessive-cool. And that is a skill you have clearly developed, a.g.!

Kali said...

Thank you. Throughout your entire post, all I could think was "yes, yes, YES!". You expressed my exact feelings toward dining out. I go through stages too of sometimes feeling embarrassed and shy about it (and just not eating if dinner arrives inedible) to angry and self righteous (why can't they understand I deserve to eat too!). I wished I lived in NYC so I could join your "Worry-Free Dinners". I'm going to foward this post to all my friends and family. It is so hard to explain why eating out is emotionally exhausting. The worst part is feeling marginalized or belittled by "friends" because they're embarrassed to eat with me. "Eating with Kali is so hard." Well for Kali, eating is hard too.