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To the Woman in the Booth Who Never Finished Her Soup

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

Small towns are all I’ve ever known. I was born and raised in one. The kind of place where people have Sunday dinner with their grandmothers after church, Friday nights are spent at high school football games and a trip to Walmart is just as much a social event as it is a shopping trip.

Every small town has unique qualities, and residents often believe their town is superior to any other. My hometown is far from glamorous. Not much happens here other than when Dirty Dancing was filmed in the upper part of the county. There are also some who believe Abraham Lincoln was born here, but I doubt Rutherford County will ever be named in the history books for his birth place. For the most part, the county nestled in the foothills of western North Carolina is a peaceful place to enjoy a rural life.

I moved away for a year during my freshman year of college. Like most teenagers leaving home straight out of high school, I wanted to get away from home. It mattered very little where I was going away to, as long as it was new turf. I ended up five hours from home in the town of Mount Olive. I spent a year at a school smaller than my high school in a town with five fast food restaurants, two grocery stores and no coffee shop. That year I gained an appreciation for a small town, but not the one I uprooted to. This small town will always be home to me. I said goodbye to Mount Olive when the school year ended and returned to Small Town Friendly.

Possibly the most discouraging factor in small town life is the lack of jobs… The few jobs that are available are not high paid positions and offer very few benefits. The majority of Rutherford county residents work outside the county. When I came back home from my year away, I decided it was time to get a decent job. I had a friend who had been a long-time employee at a steakhouse, and thought he could help me get a job there. I guess I will never know if Ron was just really impressed by me, or if I got the job because I used Tyler as a reference. Either way, I ended up getting the job and I have been employed by the same restaurant for almost six years. On average, it takes me 35 minutes to travel to work one way. Customers are always shocked when I tell them this, but there are no decent jobs in my hometown. My coworkers all think they live in a small town, but to me it feels pretty big. Gaffney has an outlet mall, a huge movie theater, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, every fast food restaurant you could imagine (including Chick-Fil-A) and it is adjacent to the interstate. OK, so maybe it is a small town, just not as small as Forest City.

I have spent so much time in Gaffney over the last six years that I feel at home in this small town as well. Working in the restaurant, I have waited on teachers, politicians, preachers, nurses, parents, voters, police officers, stay at home moms… all members of a small town community. I have learned which customers are related and which ones have kids at the same schools. I have learned which ones are business owners in the community. I have learned which guests want to chat and which customers are going to be grumpy regardless. After six years, if the guest has dined in the restaurant before, the chances of me recognizing them is extremely high. I may not have served everyone in Gaffney, but I have served a lot of people in Gaffney. Customers stick out to me for different reasons, but none had ever caught my attention for the reason you did.

The first time I remember seeing you in the restaurant, you were sitting at a small booth across from the bar. It wasn’t my section but I had to pass where you were sitting on every trip to the kitchen. You never knew who I was, but I never forgot your face after seeing you once. A common disorder shared by two strangers. Two beautiful women caught in the grips of an eating disorder. Tormented by never ending thoughts of food, weight, scales, food, calories, diets, exercise, control, food, pants sizes, cellulite, food, vomiting, restricting and more food. You didn’t notice me because you were concentrating on your potato soup. Every time I saw you eat here, it was always potato soup. I wanted to ask why potato soup was a safe food, but I never did. I doubt I would have ever found the courage to ask, but I always wondered. I also wondered if the person sitting across from you realized that you were doing a great job playing with the soup, but actually eating it not so much.

Maybe you didn’t notice me because I am not visibly anorexic. Compared to you, I look like a “picture of health.” Looking at you was like real life thinspo. Through my disordered lens, I had never seen someone look so perfect, so flawless and so thin. You never came frequently enough for me to consider you a regular customer, but each time you did I couldn’t help but stare. I was insanely jealous of you and seeing you made me feel like a failure in my own disorder.

Only a severely sick individual would think it possible to fail in a disorder. To fail would ultimately mean winning. If you fail at anything else in life, it means you have lost. If you fail at an eating disorder, it means that you have actually won and have resumed a healthy way of life. During this time period, failing in my disorder meant weighing more than I thought I should. No matter how often I was purging or how much I was restricting, I saw nothing but failure when I looked in the mirror. I wondered if you were happy with the way you looked. If we were friends I would have told you how perfect you were, but I’m sure your actual friends were scared to death. They didn’t think you were perfect; they thought you were extremely ill.

January 2, 2018, was the last time our paths would cross. You were having lunch with a friend. I realized it was you by the bowl of soup. You were wearing an oversized shirt. I was managing the front of the house which gave me the opportunity to keep an eye on you throughout your dining experience. I had to go to your table because you initially tried to pay using four bonus cards. In years past that would have been fine, but the company changed the rules this year. You were super sweet and understanding. On this particular day, the restaurant was giving away free appetizers as part of a promotion. In order to get the free app, the customer had to tell the server they wanted it for free.

After you left the restaurant, you called back some time later and asked to speak with the manager. When you got home you had noticed that the appetizer was still on the bill. I asked if you wanted to come back that day and get one for free, or if you wanted to come back another day. You said you would come back another day. I took down your name and phone number and told you to ask for me on your next visit. Until this phone call, I had never learned your name. The girl I wanted so desperately to emulate was a nameless character until our last interaction.

January 11, 2018, a familiar face flooded my Facebook newsfeed. News spreads like wildfire in a small town, faster than ever thanks to social media. A week earlier, I could barely stop staring with envy as you pretended to eat soup. It never crossed my mind you could be close to death. I thought you looked absolutely perfect, but you were almost gone. I read every post on your Facebook. It was clear that you were loved, and it was clear that no one understood you. No one said anything mean-spirited. It was obvious you touched a lot of hearts in this town. Many people said they were “in shock” or that they “couldn’t believe it”.

Only a couple of people mentioned anything pertaining to food, and it was obvious from their posts that they had very little knowledge about eating disorders. I wanted to know what caused your death so I direct messaged one of my friends who knew you. She said it was a heart attack and that you had been having chronic ulcers. She still didn’t mention anorexia. Not once on your Facebook is it mentioned.

I’m sorry you never got your free appetizer. I’m sorry I was jealous of your sickness instead of befriending you. I’m sorry we live in a society that values appearances way too much. I’m sorry that people are afraid to talk about what really caused your death.

The same day you passed, I applied to an eating disorder treatment center in Greenville. A few hours later the news of your death surfaced. Coincidence… maybe, but it gave me a weird feeling that’s for sure. Everything about treatment terrifies me, but the alternative is much worse. This disorder stops at nothing, destroying everything it touches. I refuse to lose anything else in the fight.

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Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

Originally published: March 31, 2018
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