“It took thirty years, but I finally figured out how to have the perfect Thanksgiving.” – my facebook status, November 27, 2014.
And I did. Because I did. And I’m still happy about it.
You know that saying, ‘what would you do if you had no fear?’ Well, it turns out that if I had no fear, I’d…….get this……….enjoy the holidays.
I know, it is still kind of astonishing to me as well.
You see, Thanksgiving (and Christmas, and quite a lot of other holidays, but mostly Thanksgiving) is centered around food. To be precise: turkey, vegetables, pie. And ever since I was a very small child I have had, to put it mildly, a rather fucked-up relationship with food. I like food – I’ve never been one to deny myself, never thrown up or restricted calories – but I like specific food, cooked with specific ingredients in a specific way. When I was in my twenties, I found out that this was all due to my pretty-severe sensory processing disorder, and part of my Asperger’s syndrome. But when I was growing up, my family had never heard of either of those things, and so they called it, as they called the majority of my autistic behaviors, Being A Spoiled Brat.
I knew from a very young age that I did not eat ‘normally’ and that this was a very bad thing. I learned quickly to shuffle things around on my plate, to say I’d already eaten, to hide bits in a napkin to throw away or, if I truly had to consume something, to rush to the bathroom and spit it out. I knew – I know – without a doubt that things like broccoli and meat will make me extremely nauseous. Almost anything with a strong flavor does. The slightest bit of pepper feels like my tongue is on fire. Carrots have always been jalapeno-spicy, not sweet, to me. The texture of bananas makes me shudder. The scent of curry roils my intestines.
As an adult, living mostly on my own, I enjoy a very bland, limited, albeit healthy, diet. I, like most Americans, probably consume too much sugar and fat, but I am careful to eat enough of the one vegetable and the few fruits I tolerate, and to supplement with various vitamins, to maintain my health. However, to the majority of my family, especially to my siblings, the fact that I, at the age of thirty, have a palate that more resembles that of a two year old is something incredibly horrible and shameful. I should have just ‘gotten over’ all of my food issues ages ago…….but I haven’t.
In retrospect: a diagnosis and proper understanding of my sensory processing disorder as a young child would have benefitted me greatly, but those things simply didn’t exist in the mid nineteen-eighties. I’m sure that with various occupational and feeding therapies, I could have expanded my palate when I was younger. Instead, my parents relied on the old-fashioned discipline they were raised on, staunch in the belief that if a kid is hungry enough, they will eat. (That is true. Mostly. That is not true if your child is on the spectrum. Who’d have thunk?) Their rules were that I had to sit at the dinner table until I ate. Period. Instead, I fell asleep. When my mother let herself be guided by her instincts and gave me food I would actually eat, she was shamed, told she was spoiling me and all of my problems were her fault. But I was a bright enough child, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that nope, my problems were not her fault. They were mine.
Finding out about Asperger’s syndrome and sensory processing disorder changed my life in many ways, but one of the biggest ways it did so was in terms of eating. My favorite foods, it turns out, are the favorite foods of many on the spectrum – plain pasta, vanilla yogurt, milk. My sense of smell is so acute that I can suss out many a hidden ingredient, and be able to tell long before I taste it whether or not I’ll be able to eat it. And although I still try to expand my palate, I’ve come to realize that it is far easier to just accept it. It really is too bad that my family cannot.
For years and years and years, I was deeply ashamed of how I ate. I knew that I was a spoiled brat, a baby, a horrible person who had no empathy for those poor starving Africans who would be grateful – grateful! – for those green beans I cut up into smaller and smaller pieces, trying to make it look as if I ate at least some. “You don’t deserve dessert, you didn’t eat your vegetables,” my sister still taunts to this day. (Yes, she’s much too old for that , but my relationship with her is a whole other story.) I actually find it hard to eat sweets in front of other people to this day, because of the amount of guilt I feel, of how undeserving I am of them.
Which is why this year, for me, this Thanksgiving was such a wonderful one. Because I made the very conscious choice to not be around my relatives. To not be around people with whom I have had a lifetime to internalize their hatred of my Otherness. To not hear their silent taunts and judgments. To not explain, for the millionth time, that vegetarianism means no chicken broth in the mashed potatoes. To not take portions of everything, just to be polite, knowing most of it will end up in the garbage an hour later.
This year, I sat down with my friends, and I took portions of three things at the table. And I ate these three things very happily. I stopped when I was full. I complimented a friend of the rolls she made, and in turn received compliments on my pie. I ate dessert without being furtive about it. And – this is the best part – nobody cared what I did. There was absolutely no judgment present with these people. We all simply accepted what was, accommodated each other and moved on to more important things, like finding funny cat videos on youtube.
This year, there was no hard ball of worry in my stomach the whole day. There was no panic at the thought of gravy touching the mashed potatoes. There was instead a blankness, a calm, heavy feeling that I’ve never had at Thanksgiving before. When I voiced my doubts about if I deserved whipped cream, my friends told me, in no uncertain terms, that I did. They quieted my unspoken fears with their confident acceptance of who I am.
This was my Thanksgiving miracle. And I will forever be grateful for it.