When I got my job at a grocery store, I was a wreck. My anxiety was through the roof, and I worried about every aspect of the job, no matter how small. I started as a bagger, which meant my job consisted of retrieving carts from the parking lot, some cleaning tasks, and of course, bagging groceries. Another aspect of the job, “providing premier customer service,” meant that I was expected to be friendly and outgoing. I was supposed to greet every customer who approached me, and be knowledgeable about where products were located in the store. The fact that I was supposed to spend entire days being friendly to strangers terrified me. Anxiety made my shy and awkward. I had no idea how I was supposed to overcome it. On my first day, a woman frantically asked me, “Where’s the cheesecloth?” I didn’t know what cheesecloth was, much less where it was shelved. Through no fault of my own, I had failed to provide premier customer service, therefore I was a failure at my job, which meant I was a failure as a person.
After working at the store for a few months, I was trained as a cashier. I was terrified of the register. I have nonverbal learning disorder, which affects my ability to process numerical and spatial information. It means that I struggle to read a map and that I’m really, really bad at math. I was scared that I would make incorrect change and a customer would accuse me of stealing from them, and that I’d lose my job. Obviously, this didn’t happen. Anxiety had me assuming that people tended towards ill will, that customers were unforgiving of any rookie mistakes I might make, and that it was people’s nature to yell at a nervous teenage girl. Eventually, I became comfortable on the register. I got accustomed to handling cash, and today, I am a job-class trainer, meaning I know my way around the register well enough to teach others how to do it.
Working at the grocery store has helped my anxiety tremendously. I strive to do well at my job, which means I follow the rules, even if it’s hard to. I learned how to talk to strangers, how to make smalltalk, and how to handle customer complaints. I also made friends with my coworkers, and earned the respect of my managers. I’ve come to enjoy working. I like spending time with my coworkers, who are a diverse group of people with many different perspectives on life. I feel like I fit in at work, which is important to me.
Over the weekend, I took a huge step out of my comfort zone. I started training for my new position at work, a meals clerk for the Aprons Kitchen. Basically, this means I spend a whole day cooking free samples of a meal to encourage customers to make the recipes at home. The idea behind the Aprons Kitchen is to bring families together at the dinner table. In the past, my eating disorder prevented me from enjoying cooking, or even handling food. I was afraid of absorbing calories through my hands or by smelling food, even though logically, I knew that was impossible.
Something John, the chef at the Creek, told me has stuck in my mind. He said, “Mealtime is a celebration,” and he’s right. Family dinners are a celebration of togetherness and love. Eating is a celebration of a job well-done. It made me happy to serve food to the customers and talk to them about how I cooked it. I spent the entire day cooking food and talking about it, something I never could have done a few months ago when I was consumed by anorexia. I got to make people happy by feeding them and motivating them to try the recipe at home.
My job has taught me that I am capable of much more than I previously thought. I can be friendly and outgoing, and doing so is rewarding. I’ve made friends with some of our regular customers. I’ve done mitzvot by helping disabled customers shop. I’ve helped financially struggling single mothers save money on their groceries. I’ve listened to elderly people tell their stories when they have no one else to listen to them. I’ve befriended my coworkers, and (at least I hope) have been able to set a good example for them. Most of all, I’ve overcome my anorexia and anxiety around food. Cooking a meal brought me joy I’ve never had around food before. I felt like I’d really accomplished something when I saw the smiles of customers when they tried what I’d cooked. I am proud of myself for testing the limits of my anxiety, and pushing myself to do more than what I initially thought I was comfortable with. Working has helped me see that mental illness doesn’t limit me. I may face different challenges than my coworkers, but that’s okay. I’m doing my best, and that’s enough.