I love this minute. I love this hour. I have a bit of a fever, as I always do, as though my blood was boiling over and my head might explode with excitement waiting for the turning of the calendar. I tried working on the novel but I can’t settle into a groove, I can’t hang onto a single thread tonight. I was about to say that I wish it wasn’t so symbolically important to me, the new year, but it stuck in my throat as such a strange thing to wish. Why not? I get excited. I spend plenty of time being a crusty old curmudgeon, why not get childishly excited about something completely abstract for once?
I am grateful for a lot more than I probably let on.
I feel hope I can’t account for. That may be the best kind.
Sometimes we do things our whole lives and don’t understand why.
I think it’s fascinating to suddenly understand something that’s always been there, always been a shadow puppet in my life, always pulling my strings out of my control and yet I have simply called it this uncomfortable freakish thing and then let it fade against the more stark settings in a circular life inhabiting sharp square spaces.
I’ve heard it said that the devil is in the details. I think this is true.
We don’t generally eat at table as a family. I register a sense of guilt that this isn’t a bastion of strength in our lives as it seems to be in other families who take the dinner table as a sacred event. No one shall be excused from the dinner table without they happen to be dying! I have thought mistily about what it might be like to have a kid who can eat food without being distracted from the fact that he’s eating food because then we could all sit at the table together. It’s a nice fairy story and it’s so facile to lay this at the kid’s feet. He’s quirky and we accommodate him.
The joke is that we are all so quirky we have no way of drawing meaningful lines between normalcy and freakitude. It came up in casual conversation the other day with Philip, something about eating at the table, the fact that we almost never eat in our dining room, I can’t remember how the conversation twisted out between us but at some point Philip pointed out that we never have really been people who ate food at the table. Even before Max. The only time we eat at table is when we have guests.
The light went on like it does in grungy cement basements where a single bulb switched on can feel like the inquisition of Christ in interview room #1.
I did grow up eating at the dinner table. We sat down every night the way all families are supposed to do. My whole youth I ate at the table with four other people and the thing I’ve never ever articulated until this week is that it was a constant exercise in self discipline to sit and eat while hearing four other people chew. Hearing the various noises associated with mastication: teeth grinding down, saliva mixing in mouth cavities with food, open mouthed chewing noises, lip smacking, fork scraping against teeth and against plates, the sound of swallowing… all of these noises were like canons going off constantly in my ears and made it difficult to eat myself. It wasn’t just being disturbed by the noises that my family was making but knowing that they could hear me making the same noises. Someone once told me I’m a very loud swallower and I’m still traumatized by the thought of that being true.
It makes sense now. It makes sense in my current life where we put these “quirks” up to the light and accept them for the part of our overall maze of mental issues that make us who we are.
I don’t have issues sitting at a table with guests, the kind of dinner where someone is always talking (me, for distraction), and where the general clamor acts as a mask over the sounds of eating I find terribly disturbing and unappetizing. I don’t have these issues in busy restaurants or at parties where everyone is carrying food around on plates and generally chatting and shuffling so much you can never hear teeth clamp down on crunchy things.
My family, I think, may never have known about these issues. We didn’t live the way Philip, Max, and I live now: in great acceptance of our differences and figuring out how to live in such a way that our issues don’t interfere with our quality of life. Back then I was a chatterbox (as I am still) but in a different way. There was a lot I never said, never expressed. A lot of what I did express wasn’t heard anyway but I could never know if I let something slip, if it would let loose any repercussions that would prove bruising. I’m pretty sure I told my sister to stop chewing with her mouth open and I’m pretty sure I scolded my brother for slurping milk in great luscious gulps, but never did I say what intense distress it was to me to hear the sounds of eating at the dinner table.
I have always hated eating anything in front of people not eating. I have generally preferred to eat in private. Where no one can hear and hate the sounds of my chewing and swallowing.
I was once told that I chew like a cow. I don’t think I’ve recovered from that one yet. I think I was seventeen when it was said to me.
If I become uncomfortable at any dinner table I will provide cover in the form of random chatter. I will wait until someone else provides chatter before I will eat. There are plenty of times, especially at large tables of people, where none of this could ever possibly be noticed, but the fact remains that eating is not something I’m comfortable about even though I love nothing better than to feed the people I like and love. They are like irreconcilable siblings. If you want to know what it takes for something to cross the line from quirk to uncomfortable mental illness, I think this is a great example.
There is no time when eating around other people doesn’t cause me some sort of anxiety. I deal with it because there is also nothing I love better, nothing I find more meaningful than feeding people. This doesn’t change my discomfort. This doesn’t change the fact that “dealing with it” causes me a great expense of energy, part of why I am so tired after socializing.
Crunchy things are a living hell.
The real revelation is that this whole issue made it into the first draft of “Jane Doe” and I didn’t even realize it was me I was writing when I wrote Jane not being able to eat to the sound of people eating.
So even if I had a kid who could eat food without being distracted enough not to see it, examine it, think too much about it, or be grossed out by it, we still wouldn’t be one of those families who eat at a dinner table.
There is the blanket excuse that I need to eat earlier than Philip gets home, and while this is literally true, it is merely a coincidence. If Philip started getting home at five pm (when I like to eat) I still wouldn’t want to eat at the table.
Maybe this is horrible to other people. Maybe it’s a sacrilege to the ideal of family life as other people see it.
A lot of people believe that the cornerstone of a healthy family is to eat together. I think this is because it’s a natural time to share what’s been going on in your day, your mind, you break bread (a sacred ritual) with the people you love and you commune. I see nothing wrong with that. Unless you’re us.
Here’s my last thoughts tonight: you have to arrange your life and the life of your family as it works best for you and not according to any impersonal ideal. What’s important is that families talk together, that they listen to each other, that they come together and love each other as a unit, appreciating each other as is. That’s what’s important. How you do accomplish this is immaterial, as long as you are accomplishing it.
It’s okay to make up your own rules. I will always have these eating issues. When I wasn’t at liberty to arrange my life how it felt best I was in a great deal more discomfort than now. I will always find this uncomfortable, food with strangers, food in quiet, food at solemn tables- and it will make me feel like a freak often enough.
In my own home I need not suffer so. My people don’t want me to suffer so. My people don’t need table time together. My son is like me, I just didn’t realize how much I was like him.
I am reminded of my first psychologist, Jay Judine, who is dead now. He did me a great service by teaching me that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to make decisions to live in a way that makes me more comfortable as long as I’m not hurting other people in the process. If it helps me and hurts no one then I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s ideals of life. He taught me that it wasn’t about depending on crutches, it was all about building a life that’s more comfortable and happy. Being mentally ill has plenty of shit moments to offer but it’s okay to embrace your quirks unapologetically and to work them to your advantage.
That was a real gift to me. I try to give it out whenever I can to others because I don’t think there are enough people saying it’s okay to accommodate your own freak flag. It’s okay to arrange your life in such a way that you find more comfort, that you function optimally with an un-optimal brain and less than ideal issues. It’s okay to be who you are, you are not less just because you don’t function the way others do.
I know it’s always hard for people to not judge us when they observe we don’t observe the holy family dinner table, that we “let” our child eat all his food in front of a movie or a video game. They have no idea how torturous and impossible it is to get Max to eat when there’s no stimuli to distract him from eating.
I can’t explain it any other way than that it would be cruel to try and force him (or me) to conform to average people rules. We’re different. In our house that’s acceptable. In other houses it’s extremely uncomfortable.
Here in our house, if nowhere else, it’s safe to be who you are. Unless you are a serial killer or hurt animals. We don’t tolerate sociopathic behavior but everything else is okay. I can’t promise we’ll immediately understand your own brand of different, I can’t promise that we’ll know exactly how to make your own quirks work here. All I can promise is that we’ll figure it out.
I have a hope I can’t account for. I want you to have that too.
Before I go for the night, for it’s late already, I want to say one last thing, an acknowledgment of sorts. I had a long talk with my mother tonight which seems like a good thing to do on the last day of the year, and in the way conversations turn and revolve we somehow ended up on the novel writing. My mom was worried about us not having any health insurance at all and I told her that I intended my novel to be published and to do well and she told me that she had no doubt that my novel would be published and that it would do well.
Hearing my mother say that to me was a vote of confidence I didn’t expect and that I treasure. I don’t think there’s a moment in our lives when a parent’s confidence and faith isn’t more powerful than the faith we have in ourselves.
I have to remember this for my own son.
Goodnight my peoples. If you need a little buoy, if you need a little unaccountable hope, I have it to spare, just ask.
Happy New Year to you all!