Catherine Santino
March 15, 2015 7:08 am

I struggle with anxiety and panic disorder. It’s something that I have been dealing with my whole life but have only come to terms within the past two years. I have opened up about my disorder before, but I have never fully discussed one of the areas of my life that is greatly impacted by it: food.

Not too long ago, I was sitting at a restaurant having lunch with some family members. When the waiter came around to clear our plates, he looked at like at mine and said. “You barely ate anything!” It was just an offhand observation, but he was completely unaware that it was the absolute worst thing he could have said to me at that particular moment.

Because of my anxiety, my relationship with food has always been somewhat tumultuous. When I was little, and before I could give my disorder a name, I would often get anxious at school. I remember sitting in the cafeteria at lunchtime and feeling unnerved by the dreary blue walls and the fact that it was raining outside. I couldn’t eat anything; my stomach was in knots and I just felt funny. My mom was one of the parent volunteers that day and was getting frustrated with me. She kept begging me to eat at least one thing from my lunch, and even offered to allow me to only eat the cookies she had packed me. “You’re so lucky,” one of my friends said to me, “I wish my mom would let me eat cookies for lunch.” At the time, I was far from figuring out what it was I was experiencing, but I did know that it was definitely not luck.

When the waiter made his comment to me that day in the restaurant, I had happened to be going through a very anxious few days and I was struggling to get through the meal. My internal monologue during moments like this is impossible to shut off: “How am I going to get through this meal without drawing attention to myself?” “What excuses can I make?” “What am I going to do if someone says something?” And someone almost always says something. That waiter’s words immediately positioned themselves like a knife in the pit of my stomach, and I knew right then that I wouldn’t soon be able to shake them. It’s bad enough to have to go through anxiety, but it’s even worse to have to worry about ways to hide it in the process.

The complex history of my eating habits doesn’t end there. I have always been an emotional eater. In times of stress, I snack. It’s just a way for me to cope or avoid dealing with whatever is stressing me out. This fact combined with the completely opposite affect my anxiety disorder has on my eating habits results in a serious love-hate relationship with food.

Now, I realize that what I’ve said may seem a little contradictory. You might be confused as to why I’ve categorized “stress” and “anxiety” separately. This is because in my mind they are two completely different things. A lot of people may think that a person who struggles with an anxiety disorder just feels an increased amount of the same kind of stress as the average person. But in truth, what they experience is not necessarily more stress, but a totally different kind of stress.

For me (and I’m sure many others who struggle with similar issues), “stress” and “anxiety” exist on two separate planes. Think of them as two parallel lines that will never intersect. I could be as nervous or stressed as I’ve ever been in my life, but it doesn’t cross over into panic or anxiety. Because anxiety is on an entirely different wavelength. It’s a different state of being.

It’s the reason I sometimes can’t stomach more than a few mouthfuls at a time for days. It’s the reason that myself and countless others feel so very isolated. It’s the reason I can’t “just relax.” If I could, it wouldn’t be a disorder.

And it’s why I urge you to really, truly think before you comment on someone’s eating habits. A person’s relationship with food is incredibly, deeply personal, and can be a highly sensitive subject. You have no idea what people are dealing with. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but even the smallest comment can be incredibly destructive to someone who is struggling with anxiety or any other form of mental illness.

A lot of times, people close to me will express concern after reading something I’ve written about my anxiety. And I won’t tell them that I’m completely and totally fine, because the truth is, I’m not. I never will be. But I am OK. I’ve accepted it, and I’m dealing with it. Just because it’s an ongoing battle doesn’t mean I’m going to let it defeat me. Everyone has demons that they struggle with, and this is mine.

Talking openly about it is really hard. Frankly, it sucks. Roughly 90% of me would be content to just leave it bottled up inside me, untouched, for the rest of eternity. But ultimately, I know that I have to go there. I have to talk about this thing again and again, and for more than one reason. I want to continue to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness, so that someday sharing stories like this won’t feel as scary or embarrassing. I want to spread awareness. I want to contribute to my own healing process. But most importantly, I want to show people that they are not alone, and that their struggles are legitimate.

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