Four (and a bit) terrifying words


“We're having a Christmas do”

This phrase, and related ones like “we're having a few people over for nibbles and drinks”, or “we're going for a meal for X's birthday”, trigger the fight/flight/fawn/freeze response in me. Somehow, all four are set off at the same time, leading to a strange facial expression which is part revulsion and part laughter (because anyone who knows me will know I hate these group things so even though the invitation is extended out of politeness, it's hilarious to me that they even ask), a bit flushed (because the fight response is activated due to the threat that is group meals and unstructured social time) and my new go-to phrase: “sorry I don't do group meals”


I have IBS (and some allergies), and catering round my sensitivities is difficult for people who aren't used to them. I can't do milk or cream, but I can do cheese and butter (so, it's not “no dairy” at all but I am allergic to nuts and instant-vomit-intolerant to soya dairy alternatives). I'm not gluten intolerant, nor coeliac, but I can't do wheat products unless they're sourdough, or in very small quantities. Mushrooms, garlic and onions are also a huge IBS trigger (even in small quantities), plus there's the hardly-ever-applicable (except when it's in the one possibly safe option) of the fenugreek and watermelon allergies. Vegan restaurants, which are widely thought to be a good option for anyone, are actually the worst places for me to try and eat.

Having this conversation with people intending to host, or with wait staff in restaurants is a horrendous prospect because none of it makes sense without a long protracted explanation which gets everyone's backs up and makes me seem like a trouble-making attention-seeker. This is not a good label to be given by someone who is trying to feed you. There are plenty of people who don't believe in allergies and think if you don't know about it, you won't have a reaction, and some people who are just arseholes, so it's safer and easier not to take the risk. I find the whole thing incredibly stressful, and that's without getting to the place and finding out there's been a change of plans or menu and the thing you can eat no longer exists.


Setting aside this enormous ball of stress, group meals are sensory hell. The lighting is often way too bright over the table, and if the table has a pretty marbled effect, it reflects and scatters the light at me from that angle too, so there's nowhere I can rest my eyes without overstimulation. Some restaurants have very busy wall decoration, rendering them an instant NO even if the menu is miraculously workable.


The noise level is always going to be a problem except in private homes and I like my friends enough not to put them through the hassle of catering for me. Meals out involve the constant clatter of cutlery, plates and glasses. I'm also trying to follow at least one conversation, with an eye out for the wait staff because for some reason people are terrible at noticing when someone's waiting on them and it makes me uncomfortable. There's also the conversations of the table behind, in front, and on either side and even on the other side of the room, should I be unfortunate enough to be in the same place as some ex-public school boys.


Yes, I have earplugs I can use for the noise, but I then have the added burden of regulating my volume effectively so I am not whispering, because my own voice is amplified in my head. This leads to me wanting to say as little as possible, which incites lots of “are you alright, you're very quiet” comments to contend with and the answer is obviously “no, of course I'm not alright I'm at a fucking group meal under duress” except I can't say that...


I'm OK with food smells, but lots of autistic people struggle with the sensory overwhelm of food and people smells, both of which are present in abundance in eateries (and everywhere else, for that matter, including offices and public transport where it should be an offence to eat stinky food, but I digress). The textures of some food can also be a huge issue, on the scale of the IBS obstacle, and even having foods touching one another can be a barrier to eating out for some people.


I haven't even started on the social aspect so here's a list:

  • Remembering everyone's name
  • Meeting new people and trying to remember their name on the spot, and how you're connected to them
  • Remembering who has experienced a recent (or not so recent but still tragic) loss and remembering not to say anything even vaguely related to it
  • Remembering to stay upbeat and lie about the “so, how have you been?” question because no-one actually wants to hear about your personal hell over their starter
  • Remembering the right small talk topics
  • Having something prepared to say for every possible question or topic so you don't inadvertently say something stupid or inappropriate
  • Remembering to ask questions back (I really, really struggle with this)
  • Remembering to do the right face (interested, semi-concerned, positive, “I'm having fun”, smiling, etc.)
  • Remembering to do the right hands/arms (not crossed, elbows off the table, don't hide your face/mouth with your hands)
  • Remembering to read everyone else's face and body language
  • Trying not to feel awful for the person who's being ignored, or picked on
  • Trying not to actually be the person who's being ignored, or picked on
  • All the other things you're supposed to do in social situations, like drinking but not getting drunk, trying to be friendly but not get accused of flirting, asking questions but not seeming creepy...


Thankfully, being self-employed means I don't have to contend with office parties, office drinks/nibbles or any secret Santa silliness. It does mean that my “work Christmas do” will probably consist of me doing my tax return while drinking sloe gin, but honestly, that is exactly what I want to do. It gets a task out of the way, giving me the satisfaction of a reduced burden, and I get to taste the literal fruits of my foraging while I do it. And I don't have to talk to anyone, eat anything, deal with noise or light or body language or worry about saying inappropriate things while I semi-drunkenly swear at the HMRC website.


Merry Christmas.

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