‘I’d get upset when the packet finished’

Every day at school, two bells would ring at 1 o’clock sharp. The school bell, with its loud, shrill ring, signalled that lunchtime was finally here and that it was time to take care of hunger – of one sort, at least. The other bell started quietly, inside my client’s head. It slowly and slyly increased its heavy toll, and with it came a familiar tormenting thought – who was she going to eat lunch with today? We were talking about one of the strongest memories of her childhood, and it took us straight to the canteen.

That same question would run rampage in her mind every day at this exact time. But it had the same answer: no one. And so each lunchtime, she would seek out an empty table in a quiet corner of the canteen; a place where the physical reality would match her experience of feeling invisible. Sat there, with only with her lunchbox for company, she noticed her feelings would begin to change as she unpacked the items – that hunger for connection, company, commensality somehow evaporated. Her senses were now occupied by something else – her favourite savoury snack that would show up every lunchtime: cheese and onion crisps. The bag rustled, just like a present. A present just for her. Their cheesy sweet oniony waft was strong and insistent, and so familiar. Savoury saviour qualities. In fact, she was now glad to be dining alone, she was secretly happier not sharing. She crunched her way through the golden discs for herself, and by herself. And just for those few minutes, she felt less alone inside. Until she reached the end of the packet. Then, she was fast to use all the might she had in her small hands to crumple up the empty bag. ‘I bloody wished mum hadn’t put them in my lunchbox in the first place. The crisps were the best thing about lunch. I’d get, and this sounds so weird, almost worried as I was eating them. I’d get upset when the packet finished.’ I was struck by her description – such conflicting feelings for a little heart and mind to muster. Ambivalence is not just about mixed feelings, but opposing feelings. My client experienced an emptiness and an immensity all at the same time, every lunchtime. An empty and full heart and packet, both mangled by the end of the hour. She had eaten lunch every day on her own for three tense and yearning years of her school life.

Sometimes if we feel so abandoned we will cling to anything that consistently offers something  – crisps can ward off the feeling of nothing just as well as anything else. In my client’s experience it was her dependable piece of joy every day. But her little bliss blitz at lunchtime was indeed just that: it was a feeling that crept up suddenly, attacked her and left her with a messy emotional aftermath to clean up. Some three decades later when she came to therapy things felt just as messy, especially in her relationships. Similar to her child self, she found herself feeling feelings before she even got to wherever she was going, emotionally. The front-running ‘pre’ feelings were anxiety and grief. She couldn’t bear goodbye, so had stopped saying hello. And because of that she was painfully lonely. How could she not be? Her life had been about living loss.

Loss and separation – the price we pay for attachment. That day, crisps in a canteen took us to a conversation about what is at the heart of therapy, and of attachment: separation and reunion. Or more simply, hello and goodbye. And much of the work in therapy is about learning to say goodbye. Sometimes it is only when we say goodbye that we can really see what’s leftover.

My recipe for cheese and onion chips was inspired by this story.

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