Dinners & Sensory Overload

Recently I’ve been to dinner in a restaurant twice. With the first of the two dinners, it was so long time since I’ve tried it last that I thought that maybe dinners are not as bad as I remembered them. However, they are even worse than I remembered.

My husband told me that our neighbour Toby* had invited us out for dinner, and he had said yes, so we were going. We had been talking about inviting the neighbour over for coffee or something for some time. It is nice to have good neighbour relationships, and we like Toby.

Toby is a relaxed, quirky elderly guy who lives by himself and has a bunch of old** cockatoo friends whom he chats with on his balcony in front of our house. I often have a short chat with him and his friends*** in the mornings when I pass by his house during the morning walkies with my dogs.

First Dinner

First I didn’t get that the dinner was in a restaurant. When I did, my husband said that he had explained to Toby that I have issues with background noise, so that it had to be a quiet place. It would be somewhere local, close to home. All in all, it sounded like it was going to be OK.

Clipart: dinner table in restaurant with a bottle of red wine and a glass on

The restaurant turned out to be a local Chinese restaurant in the nearby little low key (some would say white trash) town. There wasn’t any table available when we arrived, so we waited in a nearby pub, all by ourself outside in their beer garden. That was nice.

Then we went to the restaurant and was seated at our table. The noise level was overwhelming. There was the typical relentless cascades of background chatter spiked with sudden high pitched laughter mixed with the massive, irregular murmur of miscellaneous restaurant sounds – Kitchen scramble, cutlery hitting plates et.c – as there are in restaurants.

I wore my usual invisible ear plugs but they weren’t quite effective enough. There was a birthday party with a toddler that kept screaming; a torturous high pitched sound that tore right through the ear plugs and “through marrow & bones”**** at irregular intervals. So I turned on my magic inner sensory shield, and the cacophony of irrelevant noise bounced off my personal space field as if the room was quiet, only letting through what I needed to hear. Just kidding…

The adults at the birthday table ignored the screaming. Altogether the sound ambience was a massive, swarm-like omnipresent murmur of irrelevant impressions flooding in from all directions.
I tried to sift out what Toby was saying and be conversational. After all we were there to build a friendship with him, and he is a nice guy. Unfortunately the sense of being invaded and on overcapacity made me resent his voice, eyes and face expressions; just like being overfilled and have to stuff down additional food can make one resent the food. I started to not like him so much any more because of all the discomfort being there and talking to him and looking at him.

My husband sent me out to go for a walk because he could see I looked miserable. I felt sad walking around in the scruffy town (basically just a line of worn down, ill-maintained shop) at night time, not having anywhere to go and feel safe and familiar, and knowing that I had to go back to the restaurant and get through eating the dinner. I had lost all appetite shortly after ordering; and that typically happens so I was annoyed with myself for not taking it into account. Now I had to eat at least some of the main course.

I went back to the restaurant and forced myself to eat a bit to be polite. Toby was paying for the dinner. My stomach seemed to ignore the food, and I feared the uncomfortable numb sensation would suddenly turn into jags of stomach pain and a digestive emergency (that has happened in the past in similar situations). And I remembered all the times where it has been equally bad and couldn’t believe I had landed myself in that exact same hopeless situation once more.

When we drove home, I was deeply relieved it was over and therefore quite positive. My husband thanked Toby many times and said he’d had a great time, and him and Toby agreed to do it again soon – Next time the bill would be on us, of course. I didn’t worry and said “sure”. Usually “do it again soon” is an euphemism for “maybe once upon a time in a perhaps fictive future”.

In this case, however, it was meant literally. Last week, just a week after the first dinner, Toby suggested that we had the dinner this week. My husband and him agreed on Yesterday evening.

The dinner appointment worried me all week, but I couldn’t escape it – if we cancelled it would seem like we didn’t want to keep our promise and weren’t willing to pay back. My husband and Toby were keen, and I’m part of the neighbour package. Since there are only the three of us, it would be a significant let-down if I refused to come… They would probably just want to reschedule it then. Also, Toby mentioned it excitedly every time I passed him on the street – clearly looking forward. And I like him, I just don’t like dinners.

Second Dinner

Yesterday afternoon, our dog got badly injured – a big patch of skin was torn open on her back, and we had to do an emergency vet visit. I rescheduled my work appointment until today and as it turned out she has to have surgery to be stitched together, scheduled for today.

Yesterday was also the day of the dinner appointment in the evening. The dog was OK to be home alone for a few hours, and since Toby has clearly been looking forward and all that, we didn’t want to cancel.

It was the same restaurant, this time much later to avoid the most busy & noisy time. Both my husband and I were stressed & tired after a worrisome day and just wanted to get home and look after the dog ASAP. I was feeling slightly depressed when we drove there, and as I walked in through the door to the restaurant it hit me full force.

I just hated everything about the place. My mind has intuitively categorised it as a Place of Unintentional Torture – added it to the long list of such places, and there was no way I could like being there. I took a deep breath and embraced myself for a few hours in Hell – Revisited.

This time there was plenty of space, but it was still too noisy. Wiser since last time, I ordered near to nothing… just an entree of a few spring rolls that could be shared. That way I was not under any pressure to eat. Which was great, because I couldn’t. It was if the misery from the last dinner was still present in the restaurant, towering invisibly in front of me on the table.

The momentary depression didn’t milden until after we came home. I managed to mobilise a bit of social friendliness when Toby invited us into his house to see some of his photos. After that, the rest of the evening & night & morning was trapped in an intolerable psychosomatic stress condition from which there is no escape: Sensory Overload.

The conclusion on this isn’t new: Dinners and parties don’t work for me, even with the quite plausible social skills I have in my current age (mostly).

I wish people could understand how bad it is. A dinner is not just a bit boring or something; it is f# traumatic. Really. And even more so because of the expectations about having fun and being sociable, and the potential relationship & social status damage my shutting-down-in-a-corner-being-the-loner-in-the-crowd or just looking-extremely-strained-and-uncomfortable-all-the-time behaviour may cause.

People may think I don’t like them. I may actually stop liking them temporarily or permanently because of the intense prolonged discomfort I experience in their company, and because I get reminded of it when I see them again. They may think that I am weird, arrogant, socially inept, unpredictable or just a person with bad vibes because of my behaviour in the situation.

A dinner is supposed to be fun, and it costs people money so they expect to be “repaid” with good vibes from the company they’re in. That’s the way it is worth the cost for them. And I’m not worth neither the cost nor their time when I’m miserable and trying to pretend my way through a dinner in damage control mode.

This may sound whingey, and also it isn’t the first time I have written about this topic. I am not sure why I wrote it; except maybe I needed to explain myself one more time.


* Made-up name
** He has known one of them for over 15 years. Cockatoos can be up to 90 years old in captivity. These are wild, and could be up to 70 years old – older than the suburb and older than Toby.
*** I don’t really talk to the cockatoos but merely ask Toby how they are
**** Translated Danish expression that means a penetrating effect one can’t shield oneself from, such as a harsh icy winter wind that penetrates any winter clothes (Danish speciality) or an excruciating sound.

Illustrations from openclipart.com



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