I Took Myself Out To Dinner—And It Taught Me A Lot About Anxiety
For someone that has high-functioning anxiety, I'd say that I am pretty comfortable being alone. In fact, I love and relish in being alone, and need time each week to spend by myself in order to recharge. That's not to say that I am antisocial or anything; I just have always felt pretty comfortable spending time by myself.
So when I was visiting my boyfriend Tim and had a few hours between when I got to his house and when he would arrive, I didn't think twice about going out to a restaurant by myself for dinner. I navigated my way to Spain alone through 4 plane cancellations for crying out loud—I could handle a dinner alone. And I did. I stopped by a local upscale diner and ordered myself a chicken sandwich, read a few issues of Domino and ELLE Decor (I've been on an interior design kick lately), and enjoyed unplugging for a while.
It was everyone else at the restaurant that had a problem.
Okay, maybe not everyone, but most of the staff and the couple sitting next to me were visibly shaken that someone was dining alone.
Now, you may be thinking: "This sound a bit like she was being paranoid. There is no way anyone in that restaurant gave a crap what she was up to."
It's not that they cared what I was doing, but that they were analyzing why I was alone and therefore could not figure out how to interact with me. When I told the hostess I needed a table for one, she repeated my words back in the form of a question, as though to give me an out just in case I was about to change my mind. Then, she couldn't figure out where to sit me, even though most of the tables were empty, and she ended up sitting me in a corner, as though to help me hide from the other diners for fear of being embarrassed. There was a couple sitting next to my table who made no effort to hide their prolonged stares in my direction, and gave me questioning looks when I would stand up to go to the bathroom. The most paranoid was probably my waitress, who kept whispering to me when asking what my order was, in an effort, I'm assuming, to not bring attention to my empty table as not to embarrass me.
I was a bit annoyed when I first got to the restaurant, just wanting to eat and read in peace without the stares of the couple next to me and wait staff passing by. Then I started to feel anxious, and I realized that I wasn't anxious because I was uncomfortable eating by myself. I was feeling anxious because everyone around me was feeling anxious, and making them uncomfortable was starting to make me uncomfortable, like a vicious cycle of anxiety.
Noticing this cloud of anxiety hanging over my corner of the restaurant, I decided to ignore everyone else's anxiousness and focus on my reading and my dinner. When people stared, I'd smile and say hello, as if to assure them and say: "Don't worry about me, please. I am not a sad person abandoned on a blind date crying into a sandwich. I'm just sitting here, enjoying some peace and quiet, and reading about the pros and cons of buying a statement chair for your living room."
Though this mental switch made me enjoy myself a lot more, the mood of the restaurant never really changed. It wasn't until I was telling Tim about everyone's strange behavior later that night that I started to realize that I had learned something pretty valuable about anxiety during my solo dinner.
Anxiety can feel all consuming, and when you're having a panic attack, it feels almost like you're being sucked into quick sand, with everyone and everything around you becoming a trigger to keep the anxiety going. That's what the restaurant felt like to me—like a room filled with anxiety and triggers. But by recognizing the tension and making a conscious effort to let the anxiety coexist with me, not take over me, I was able to go about my night and enjoy myself. Instead of pretending that I wasn't in an anxious situation or letting my anxiety overtake and ruin my night, I acknowledged that there were triggers around me and actively worked to face them head on.
Doing this instead allowed me to have a positive experience despite what was going on around me, something that is hard to do when anxiety keeps me wrapped up in worry and stress so often. Knowing that you can't control the world around you and you can only control yourself seems like such an easy concept, but for people with anxiety, it can be a lot harder than it sounds to not let outside triggers influence their lives.
So my dinner alone not only gave me a delicious meal and some home design inspiration, but it armed me with a powerful tool against anxiety attacks by allowing me to realize that I don't always have to spiral out of control into a panic attack. Sometimes, despite what it going on around me, I can just enjoy a chicken sandwich in peace.