The Red Scare

By Lindsay Whittington

I’m in Sarah’s living room with a group of people I know–all good friends, I might add–but all I can think about is the chili. It is at the center of my consciousness. Fear of it is gripping my mind and making my stomach clench in uncomfortable knots. My friends are blurs around me. I can’t see them. I can barely hear them. All that is there is the chili, sitting innocuously in its orange pot on Sarah’s kitchen table.

I think someone asks me if I like chili. No, I say. You know you’re going to have to eat it to be polite, I hear him reply. I already know that. It’s easy not to get mad at him for not understanding because he’s already gone.

It’s still sitting there. Mechanic hands–are they mine?–grab a bowl. How much do I have to take? How much is everyone else taking? I grab what I think is enough.  I drink some water. I refold my napkin on my lap. I think I breathe. Wait, did someone ask me a question?

I put my spoon in. All I get is broth. I make myself put it in my mouth and try to hide the fact that I can’t swallow it without gagging.

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“For sufferers of food phobia, when faced with the prospect of having to eat certain foods or cook a meal, symptoms are similar to those of any anxiety disorder:

    -dizziness

    -excessive sweating

    -nausea

    -feeling as if you can’t breathe

    -heart palpitations

    -shaking

Some may have panic attacks, including feeling as if they are going crazy or going to die.” –Eileen Bailey at Healthcentral.com

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Let me tell you about my fear.

For 21 years of my life, I was terrified to eat red meat. It was a completely irrational fear, and I knew it. But that couldn’t stop it.

There was never a moment when I consciously decided to avoid certain foods. Most of the foods that I wouldn’t eat, I hadn’t even tried. I just knew they were bad and that they were scary.

I think I was born with this in the same way that some children are programmed with separation anxiety or fears of the dark or their carseat. I had all of those, too, but this one was the worst. It couldn’t be explained away as a phase and it couldn’t be justified as being “normal.”

I always knew, was always reminded, that I wasn’t normal, that people were grateful to have kids that were not like me.

Could eat

• Chicken

• Fried fish

• Deli turkey

Wouldn’t eat

• Hamburgers

• Hot dogs

• Pork

• Bologna

• Steak

• Raw fish

• Ham

• Meat loaf

• Pot roast

• Sausage

• Bacon

• Roast beef

• Salami

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One of my early memories of this happened when I was around 10 years old. It was the fall and the southern Illinois weather was finally starting to become bearable and people wanted to be outside. My parents decided that we were going to Eastman’s orchard that day to get a bag of apples. If I was lucky, my mom would make a pie out of them. But first I had to eat my lunch. It was bbq pork. I was young enough that my parents still spooned food onto my plate for me, so I had no choice but to watch as they heaped an entirely-too-big spoonful onto my plate. I refused to eat it. I had done this plenty of times before, but for whatever reason that day my dad decided that I must eat it. I still refused. So I sat as everyone else, including my baby brother, ate the meat and finished their plates. I thought my dad would let me sneak away while they cleaned and put away their plates, but he didn’t. He made me sit there until I ate it. So I sat. and sat. and sat. and sat. and I cried. Big tears rolled down my face. Still, he made me sit. He wanted me to eat.

Finally, I did. A shaky arm brought the food up to my mouth and slowly–excruciatingly slowly–put it in.

It didn’t taste that bad.

I still threw up.

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You’re picky.

Well, sort of. Call it that if you want, but you probably think you’re picky because you don’t like black olives or mayonnaise and I wouldn’t call that picky. You’re lucky. I was abnormal.

If you get hungry enough, you’ll eat it.

Not true. I wouldn’t.

Why don’t you become a vegetarian?

I didn’t know a single vegetarian until I moved to college. I’m from a rural Illinois town where everyone eats meat. It might have made my life easier, but I didn’t know vegetarianism was an option. I didn’t even know pescatarian was a word.

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There was the time in fourth grade when I went to my best friend’s house and sat through an entire dinner pushing beef lasagna around on my plate until it looked like I had at least tried it.

There was every holiday meal. Me with my yellow plate of carbs and my cousin asking me–genuinely, yet still somehow condescendingly–if I was anorexic.

There was the time when I met my ex-boyfriend’s family for the first time. His tia made fried pork chops. “Ella no le gusta carne?” she asked him. My double shame for not wanting her food and not speaking her language.

There were all the times that my friends asked me to come spend the day at their houses. Maybe after dinner, I would say.

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This past summer–the summer of 2015–I was at a church conference in Carbondale, Illinois and I asked someone to pray for me. I was embarrassed to ask. In a crowd of hundreds of people standing shoulder to shoulder giving and receiving prayer, I knew the people beside me could hear me. I also knew, or felt I knew, that they were probably getting prayer for much more serious things. I felt silly. But I still did it. I asked the woman who walked over to me to pray that I could eat meat. I closed my eyes and tried to get myself in a prayerful mindset without focusing too much on what the people beside me could hear or might think. She put her hand on my shoulder and began speaking to God, asking Him that He would help me crave meat. She even prayed that it would begin to look and smell good to me.

Nothing happened for about a month. In late July, one of my older cousins hosted a picnic at her home in the middle of cornfields and country. Her husband cooked hamburgers and hotdogs. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel scared of it. Its brownness wasn’t repulsive.

I put a plain hamburger–no cheese and no bun–on my Chinet plate and sat down in a lawnchair on their driveway beside my dad.

I brought it up to my mouth without pausing to smell or examine it and stuck it in. Chewed. Swallowed.

It was fine. It was kind of bland, but fine.

No one even noticed.

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