I’ve been paying a lot of attention to words lately and to how we use them. Back in primary school, Mother Patrick would give out to us for our wanton use of the words all and always and never. All the world, Mary? Really? Every single person in it? You always do it? Always? You’ve never told a lie? Not ever? She did my head in. Decades later, I sigh inwardly (and outwardly, but mostly inwardly) when I hear the words always and never being thrown around with a mix of certainty and abandon. And I’ve become sensitive to words like starving and allergic. I remonstrate with myself when I hear the word starving pop out of my mouth in relation to food. I’ve never known starvation or anything close to it. But there are millions who have first-hand knowledge. They get to use the word, I don’t. Not when it relates to food.
Eva Deutsch Costabel, an artist living in Manhattan who survived two concentration camps, told Luke Tress in an interview back in 2016:
My friends always tease me because my refrigerator is always full. They say, ‘You could feed ten people.’ I think this is definitely from starving for many years.”
I wonder what she’d think if she heard my didn’t-have-time-for-breakfast-or-dinner hunger pangs being described as I’m starving!
Another word I’m very cautious about is the word allergy. Back in 2014, I wrote a piece for the Budapest Times on Amy May Shead. Amy has a severe nut allergy. When visiting Budapest with some friends, despite having an allergy information card translated into Hungarian that explained the seriousness of her allergy, the restaurant fell short. Her life as she knew it ended. That’s an allergy. Many claiming to be allergic have an intolerance. You might feel bloated, have some heartburn, vomit a little. That’s discomfort, it’s not debilitating. That’s intolerance, it not an allergy.
I’m not allergic to anything ingestible (except penicillin). But I am lactose intolerant. I know better than to eat too much cheese or dairy. And usually, I’m good. But on occasion, the line between intolerance and indulgence merges and even though I know I’ll pay the price, I give in to the temptation.
In Sicily last week, I must have eaten my weight in cannoli. I ate so many that I’m cannolied out. And on the last day, on the last bite of my last cannolo, when I felt all the symptoms of my intolerance rise up against the ricotta and scream at me to stop, I did. But I had to get there myself. No amount of telling me that I’d regret it, no amount of reminding me about last time I overindulged, nothing anyone could say would have stopped me until I was ready.
There’s a lesson I’d forgotten about.
We can’t change people. We can’t stop their addictions or fix their lives if they’re not ready, even with the best will in the world. Sometimes people have to run their course, to get to the point where they say enough, no more! I’m ready now. I’m ready. In the meantime, all we can do is to be there, ready to help. Not to enable. Not to fund their habits or addictions. Not to excuse their behaviour or encourage it. Just to be there. Ready.