You’re sitting at a long, wooden table with 15 strangers. Their eyes seem to burn into you as you sit before an empty place setting, attempting to will yourself to take a single bite. They are laughing and talking, indulging in bites of sandwiches and salads between bits of conversation. The strangers are not directly staring at you, but you feel their unfamiliar presence suffocating you, gripping your mind and preventing you from enjoying your meal.
The pervasive taunts of your eating disorder encircle your mind. I can’t eat in front of these people. They’re all judging me. I feel too vulnerable. The reality is, everyone but you is absorbed in savoring their food, but you cannot seem to move past your mental blockade of complete terror. They’re strangers, you tell yourself. I’m not safe.
You reluctantly pull a prepackaged salad out of your bag, longing for a sense of security, hoping that you will eventually be able to overcome the label that seems painfully ingrained in your heart: the one with the eating disorder. You peel back the plastic cover, staring in awe at the fear-inducing array of greens in front of you, wondering how you found yourself in this predicament. Your motions are quick, reflexive, unflinching as you attempt not to feel, valiantly working to numb yourself as your cheeks flush and burn and a sharp wave of anxiety mounts in your chest.
Just take a bite, just one bite, you cajole as you wrestle with your inner demons. You want nothing more than normalcy, to be able to enjoy a meal without fear of judgement, but your mind is conniving, deceiving you into believing that a horrific harm will befall you if you enjoy your food.
You can’t seem to convince yourself to take the first forkful, to boldly relish in your meal without the strangers’ presence constantly infiltrating your mind. They know my fear. They know I’m terrified. I can’t change their wandering eyes. I can’t escape this, you think helplessly, wondering when the excruciating discomfort will end.
Slowly, gingerly, you raise a forkful of salad to your lips, suddenly lowering it out of pure terror. The minutes seem to simultaneously drone on and fly by, pressuring you to nourish yourself. Still, you raise and lower, raise and lower your fork in a mechanical dance, a frightened, anxious tango. You let the fork dangle closer and closer to your lips until eventually, you let the terrifying biteful hit your tongue.
You feel a wash of victory and restlessness consume you as you swallow, hoping and praying that one day, you will no longer think so heavily and feel so deeply. Until then, all that remains before you is a solitary salad and 15 strangers who didn’t even notice you take a single, frightening bite.