Warning: This will be an emotional post.
Today, I’ll tell you a secret. One I have told very few people; less than the fingers on one hand. Few know about this aspect of my life, outside my immediate family growing up. Not even the closest of friends. It’s not a short story, and it’s not easy to write, nor read, but there is a point, I promise.
I’ll get right to it. I have struggled my entire life with sitting at a dining room table for a meal. Not in restaurants or cafes. Public places. Those are fine and safe. But in private homes? Impossible. And there is a good reason for it. Well, a reason, anyway. Strange? Believe me, I know this.
As a kid, dinner time was torture time. It was the time of day that posed the most danger in our house. And my Dad was the source of that danger. It was brimming with unpredictability. I can sit here today and break out into a sweat just thinking about it. Tears falling at the memory. Rules needed to be followed. Strict rules that started with the salt and pepper shakers to be taken from the windowsill behind the chair where my Dad sat, and placed on the table by 4pm. 4pm. That was the rule. We wouldn’t be eating until later, but if this didn’t happen there would be consequences. Why? It doesn’t matter. You never asked why. Only compliance mattered. As you can imagine, it got worse from there.
The chair to the left of my Dad’s was where my Mom sat. The chair to his right was ‘the hot seat’. He was right handed. This was reserved for trouble makers. The bad kid. It rotated occupants amongst my siblings until I was about 4 years old. Then it became my permanent seat, every night, until I left for college, when I did anything and everything I could to never live in that house again.
My anxiety about dinner would start on the bus on the way home from school. I needed to remember to get those salt and pepper shakers on the table. If I got distracted that would be bad. I had little reminders I kept so I wouldn’t forget. But, still, sometimes I would. Those were the worst nights. I blamed myself for forgetting.
Dinner was always filled with taunting, humiliation, yelling and sometimes violence. As my Dad would fill our plates with the amount of food he decided we should eat. For a five year old to be given the same amount as a grown man, and expected to sit at the table until it is gone, is not realistic. We were allowed only one glass of milk. There were times it took me more than three hours to get it all down, all while being berated for not appreciating what it was like during the Depression when he had nothing. Needless to say, mine and my sister’s relationship with food has always been fraught because of this. And many, many other things.
As an adult, my loathing for a traditional family meal at home has never waned. If anything, it got worse. I would avoid it, even subconsciously, at all costs. Looking back, even after I had children of my own, I realize that I would cook for the family, but always find excuses not to stay seated. Getting additional plates. Or refilling milk or water glasses. Clearing plates. Like I was a waiter. Jeff would get up from the table and find me in the kitchen standing at the counter.
‘Come sit down.’ He’d say. Frowning. But I couldn’t and I didn’t really know why. Not understanding why I was so irrationally afraid. Of what?
I couldn’t have our friends over for a sit down dinner without having an anxiety attack. A pool party or bbq was fine. But a real meal? No way. So I stopped inviting them. Not because I didn’t love and value our friends. I just couldn’t do it. And accepting invitations to their homes was equal torture. My boss invited us to Thanksgiving once, with her family. If we had gone to a restaurant I would have been fine. But dinner was at their home. It was all I could do to stay in my seat. Jeff held my hand under the table through the entire meal.
I have hated this secret thing about myself for so long, but I can’t remember not feeling this way. Or wishing so hard that it wasn’t so. I’ve bought countless dining room tables over the years. Hoping it would help. A round table so there would be no ‘hot seat’. A few made of stone, not wood. I tried everything. At one point I spoke to a family member about it. They didn’t seem to have any issue eating a family meal, like a normal person.
‘You just need to get over that.’ They told me dismissively. ‘It’s been a long time. And you were the youngest, anyway. You didn’t have it as bad.’ I don’t know why I expected empathy or support. Our house was always every man for himself. But I think trauma manifests itself differently in different people. My fear of dining room tables is probably pretty benign compared to what some other people go through.
After my Dad died in January of 2020, I was determined to overcome this. But I wasn’t sure how. English speaking therapists are hard to find in Spain. You don’t think if that when you move to another country. And Covid got in the way, just a bit. Then, a friend in Valencia connected me with a therapist in the UK, who agreed to help me over Zoom. His lovely Yorkshire accent and his guidance have been invaluable. We did a lot of work on this and other stuff. At 55, I wanted to eat a meal in my own house at the table. That shouldn’t be Herculean. And to be able to invite people over for a meal in my house, and actually enjoy it. But, after decades of it getting worse and worse, I wasn’t sure it was even possible for me. Then, my Zoom therapist had an idea.
‘What if you made your own table? You could do whatever you wanted. You choose the materials and you decide how it should be.’
It was a good idea. But I was skeptical after trying so many different things. After I got home from the Camino, and Jeff returned from the US, we drove to Santiago and we bought the wood. But I struggled to imagine it in our house. Helping me overcome this thing? How?
Jeff got some tools together and he helped build the top. We sanded it down. Then we stained, together. And I started to get a bit excited about the possibilities. We might actually be able to invite people over, like normal people. Maybe this would work.
It’s a huge table. And heavy. I never do anything small. Jeff had to wrangle the table top in to the house from the barn on a hand truck. Once we got it inside he was able to put the legs on. It wouldn’t have fit through the front door assembled. Then we applied coats of bees wax. So far so good. That night, in the middle of the night, I got out of bed in the dark, came downstairs and turned on the light over the dining table. It’s a no nonsense farmhouse table. Not perfect. Just like me. But a beautiful color. And made with love. Jeff’s efforts to help me kick this thing made manifest.
We gotta make peace, you and I. I thought, running my hands over the surface.
I know I’m not alone in something like this. My traumas and old burdens or hurts are no worse than another person’s. When we look at other people in the world, we do so from our own perspective. It can’t be any other way. We often assume someone else has the world on a string. Life is easy for them – or so it seems. And sometimes we judge others harshly, perhaps for a perceived slight, or a weakness or failure, without understanding the origin of how that came to be for them. But we are just human. All of us.
In my little corner of the world, last night without fanfare, Jeff and I sat down in our own house and we ate a meal at the giant table we built together. You have no idea what this meant to me. For the first time in a very, very long time I didn’t have that sick feeling of panic. Or rush through the meal, fleeing to the relative safety of the kitchen. It was, well, remarkably unremarkable. That’s all. Nothing more.
This blog has been a lifeline to me for some rough patches over the past 4+ years. I try to be as open and honest with what is happening and I appreciate all of you who take the time to read it. I wrote this because, as you all know, I am starting something new in July. A fresh adventure to blow out the cobwebs. And it’s time, finally, to put the old ghosts to bed. Once and for all.