I had been fretting about my birthday. On the one hand, I really wanted to see friends that day. We’d be leaving for Portland in two weeks, and I’d hardly been social at all since getting sick. If my illness kept me from celebrating even my own birthday with friends, it would feel like a bitter defeat.
On the other hand, I was ill. And overwhelmed.
Looming in my mind was the vision of a birthday cake. I couldn’t eat anything that remotely resembled one. I hadn’t yet deviated from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, so my meals consisted, as they had for months, of mushy food like peeled and cooked carrots, applesauce, and spinach.
Even worse: I couldn’t bear to watch others eat cake on my birthday without me. Perhaps someone more magnanimous would have smiled her way through such a scene. I wondered if it made me selfish and clingy, but even if it did, the fact remained that such generosity was beyond me for the moment. Watching others eat cake on my birthday sounded like pretty much the most depressing birthday ever.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t want to be around anyone eating anything I couldn’t eat on my birthday. I hated, hated, hated that feeling, still, and wanted to avoid it just this once. Not on my day!
This was what I wanted, at the least: To be spared the usual crushing loneliness of food exclusion, just for this one day. I wanted this so badly that I was even willing to forego hanging out with friends. I decided I would rather spend my birthday alone than spend it with friends who were eating things I couldn’t eat.
But spending the whole day alone would be unbearable, too. A defeat just the same.
In what had become a typical scene, Ron and I talked about the options and I grew tearful and panicky, sensing the walls of my deep hole closing in faster than I could dig. Ron, calm, produced a solution. He emailed our friends a week before the big day:
On August 1st, Katie Songer will celebrate another trip around the sun. With a festive air in the lake breeze, we would love to have you guys over at our place for a birthday party. We all love Katie, and we both really want to soak up time with you guys now. It’ll be fun!
What: Katie’s b-day shindig
When: Friday August 1st, 6:30 pm
Where: Our place–walk down to the backyard or come upstairs if we haven’t moseyed there yet
What to bring: yourselves, your singing voices, and maybe some type of food (we’ll have a grill), and since Katie’s on a very specific diet these days, and it’s her birthday, let’s have what she’s having. If you want to bring something to share with her, here’s a handy list: burgers, fish, skinless chicken, avocados, ripe bananas, almond butter, natural applesauce (without peels), yogurt, natural grape juice, and very cooked veggies (green beans, peeled carrots, mushrooms, peeled peppers, peeled and deseeded squash, and spinach). If you’re not up for it, just bring a food that’s similar to what she eats. It’d be your birthday present to her. :)
Any way you slice it, it’ll be good to be with friends. Hope to see you there!
I was a little worried that he hadn’t said things explicitly enough. What if someone brought cake, or cheese, or even a horrible, taunting bowl of fruit salad? But I needn’t have worried–this was the Midwest. Midwesterners are Ron’s people, who communicate in polite, tangential phrases, and pick up on nuance even when it’s not there. His email might as well have said, Don’t even THINK about bringing fruit salad.
Our friends went above and beyond. They emailed to ask if I could eat this or that spice or veggie. They brought only foods that I could eat, and even found creative dishes to make from the strict list of ingredients. No one complained that there was no cake. They instead politely exclaimed on the tasty fare, despite its obvious inferiority.
I spent the evening in a shaky, relieved state of gratitude. This was not the best birthday ever, but it was a good compromise. And sharing food with friends one last time brought tears to my eyes.
For me, the significance of the evening went far beyond my last several months with colitis. Long before I read Andrew Weil’s passages on food as a symbol of inclusion, I had understood that symbolism through my own life experience. It was right here, in Madison, with some of these same people, that a deep shift had occurred within me years ago. And that shift had been intertwined with consumption–not of food, but of alcohol.
When I arrived in Madison at age twenty-eight, I still carried the secret burdens of a bullied, ostracized, painfully shy child. I had grown up starkly apart from the other kids in my high school. I made no true friends, attended no dances, tried out for no sports. I abstained from prom and wasn’t asked, anyway; I was never invited to a single party. In college, where I emerged from my shell, I still only rarely found myself in settings where others drank. There I felt so uncomfortable that I always found excuses to leave quickly. With friends, I instead talked and hiked and played Frisbee and board games. Whenever they drank and partied, I stayed away, reading books alone in my dorm room many nights.
In the years after college, I couldn’t avoid parties any longer. I had become too comfortable with myself not to make real friends, and by this time everyone except me, it seemed, had been drunk before. They had also dated, another realm I had also not yet entered, never having been on a single date. I slowly became adept at pretending, around these more-experienced people, to be comfortable.
But I steadfastly abstained from drinking, except the occasional sip out of curiosity. And I remained, as ever, secretly terrified of dating. It was only when I met Ron in Peace Corps, and when we finally did start dating, that I also tried drinking a whole beer one night. It tasted good. The world didn’t end.
My fear of alcohol stemmed from childhood. Growing up around Dad’s alcoholism, spending many weekends with him in his halfway houses, hanging out with the dozens of other men he lived with, men whose lives had been destroyed by drugs and alcohol–all of it created a mountain of sad and frightening memories. For many years, I was afraid that if I even touched beer, it would carry me down the path toward Dad’s brokenness. After I eventually realized I was not an alcoholic, I still feared for friends who allowed themselves to drink. And I had no desire whatsoever to be around drunk people.
So these were my tender secrets when I arrived in Madison, the broken parts of myself that I didn’t know how to express. That Ron was the only man I had ever dated. That my youth had been barren of romance until I met him, barren of so many experiences that most young people have. And that, for all my smiling and demurring, I was still deeply uncomfortable around alcohol and drunkenness.
The latter was a problem in Wisconsin.
We quickly made friends with others in our grad school program, and every social event–of which there were many each week–involved drinking. In Wisconsin, beer was everywhere. It was served in pitchers at the student union building and sports bars, served at the restaurant in the lobby of the theater on State Street (and allowed in the theater), served by the pub that sponsored the Frisbee league, served out of a keg at our department’s monthly academic gathering to showcase student projects. Everyone had it at parties and potlucks. Madison is a microbrew city; several colleagues took to brewing their own beer.
And here, for all my discomfort with alcohol, something began to shift inside me. I fled parties that involved keg stands, and scowled at one friend’s drunk-driving story. But actually, at the bars and student union and most everywhere else, I was having a great time with these people. Beer was present everywhere, but it was almost never the focus.
My good beer memories were becoming numerous. They began to pile up, and their pile began to rival the mountain of bad memories. And one day, after a couple years in Madison, I realized that the scale had tipped. I no longer minded alcohol at all.
I still never got drunk, but now I often drank. One year I laughed to Mom that I was drinking about five nights a week, at the pub after Frisbee games, at parties, or just a glass of red wine with Ron in the evenings. I drank quite a lot for someone who had still never been drunk. I liked the taste of beer and wine. I didn’t associate any of it with Dad anymore.
And I felt included. Really included. Standing at a party, or sitting in a restaurant with a beer, amidst the others, now fully one of them and not separated by my abstention, gave me immense relief and happiness. I no longer harbored my secrets. I spoke easily to these people of my lonely history, for they had become like family. I felt one hundred percent legitimate–no longer an impostor or pretender–in a way I never had felt until living here.
So this year, each time I had found myself at a gathering where I could no longer join in the food and drink, all of that history rose keenly to my mind. Madison was where I had come to truly belong at last. My belonging was interwoven with my participation, and I understood the privilege of that participation better than many people. I had consciously enjoyed the new feeling of belonging for a few brief and wonderful years. Now, through the curse of my disease, it had been stolen from me again–it felt as though colitis was forcing me once again to the outskirts. In dark moments, I felt like my body was punishing me for thinking I could ever truly belong.
That was why, as we prepared to leave this place, it helped to share food once again with my friends on my birthday.