A few weeks ago while attending an event hosted by a large Bruneian bank, I had another nasty confrontation because of my eating disorder. As I sat at a table of 10 people, a few friends and family members, the rest either strangers or mere acquaintances, I tried to predict what food would be served. I mentally rehearsed the lies I have been telling almost my entire life – “I am not hungry…I am allergic to seafood…I already ate before I came” – which never get any easier to tell.
The starter was served: creamy mushroom soup. I breathed a sigh of relief. I could take that. Cautiously I dipped my spoon into the soup, trying to feel whether there were large bits of mushrooms in it. There were. I whispered to my friend to help me remove the bits. Another person at the table noticed and commented on our activities. I explained that I am not a big fan of mushrooms, and silently wished once again that I could remove the bits myself, attracting less attention. My friend gave me the “all clear.” Relieved, I took a small sip, reminding myself that I must make this soup last for as long as I possibly could so I had an excuse to skip the other courses.
The main course was served. My friend whispered that there was fish, prawn, lobster, beef, lamb…but there was no chicken. My heart sank. I couldn’t make my soup last until dessert. Keeping my head down, I prayed no one would notice that I wasn’t touching any of the food on the table.
Then, the inevitable question came from across the table, “Don’t you want to eat anything?”
I looked up and smiled. “No, thank you, I am not hungry,” I lied.
“At least have something. What about the fish? It’s really good.”
“No, thank you,” I smiled again.
My tablemate said nothing more, and I congratulated myself on having successfully evaded an embarrassing situation.
“She doesn’t eat fish,” my family member commented.
I clenched my fists under the table. Not again. Just when I thought I was safe, too. I knew what was coming. A familiar feeling surged through me, bringing out a flush to my cheeks, half anger, half humiliation. I wondered again why my friends and family seemed to put me into such situations whenever they had a chance. It couldn’t possibly be because they enjoyed them.
“Oh?” the woman said, not surprised. “Then let her have the beef.”
“She doesn’t eat that either,” said my insensitive family member, “or the lobster, or the lamb, or the prawn.”
Even without my sight I felt the disbelieving stares penetrating through my skin. I hung my head, bitterly mortified. Jokes and insulting comments passed round the table like a favorite dish.
“Even my two-year-old daughter eats fish.”
“You should starve her; then she will learn to eat everything.”
“All of you have to deal with her blindness; why does she want to be picky and make your lives harder than they already are?”
I am blind, not deaf. I heard every word, and every word cut me to the quick. But I say nothing. What could I say? All I can do is blink back tears as I curse my insensitive family member for putting me in this situation for the 100th time.
What is wrong with me? I have selective eating disorder.
SED is not as widely known as other eating disorders, such as anorexia, but it is still a complete nightmare on my social functioning. Dates, parties, events, business meetings, family gatherings, almost every social context where I know I will be expected to eat often winds up with me feeling resentful and mortified.
One of the things I fear the most is accidentally eating an “unsafe” food. Last July while at a breakfast buffet, I mistakenly put a piece of crab meat into my mouth. Immediate result: I got sick and threw up. Putting this into context, eating a non-safe food for me is parallel to how you probably would feel if you were to eat a spoonful of cow poo. Others don’t see it as cow poo but instead think it’s delicious, but you know it is cow poo and you would never even think of having it anywhere near your tongue. Such are the highlights of being a SED sufferer.
What exacerbates it further is my vision impairment. While majority of people dislike certain foods, they can typically push what they dislike aside. This is, however, not an option for me, and asking someone else to do it often attracts unwanted attention. I imagine this is the reason why a good many people see my picky eating as an additional burden my family and friends have to carry on top of providing the practical needs my blindness requires of them. This is devastating to my self-esteem, given that I constantly feel as though I am being more trouble than I am worth to those closest to me.
My family does not acknowledge my picky eating to be an actual eating disorder, so I have not had the opportunity to be formally diagnosed by a doctor or a therapist. In fact, I only discovered that such a disorder existed when I stumbled across several articles written by psychotherapists such as Nancy Zucker three or four years ago in which they described the characteristics of the disorder as seen in their patients and clients. The characteristics and symptoms they described tallied point for point with my struggles. You can’t imagine the relief I felt in learning that there were others like me.
To many, however, my picky eating is a decision or a pretense; that I can magically be rid of it if I choose to. It is amazing to me how anyone can believe that one can consistently fake extreme picky eating for 19 years.
Nevertheless, I do make attempts to address my eating disorder without therapy. Over the past few years I have added a small handful of foods to my “safe foods” list which I could not previously tolerate. I am very lucky in that I have one or two close friends who do not mind or even point out my picky eating, and so with them I sometimes have the courage to try something new.
So this is a call to everyone: please try not to judge anyone you know who appears like a toddler in his/her picky eating habits. SED is a very real eating disorder, and with less ridicule and criticism, I believe that more and more people with SED can start to accept it as part of who they are and not something to cause shame.