My Life Under Golden Arches
How Fast Food Shaped My Life, But Not in the Way You Think
I wouldn’t have called myself a happy child growing up. Everything was stressful, anxiety provoking, or just upsetting. My mother was always fighting with my grandparents; we lived with them because my mom was a single parent and couldn’t do it on her own. They would fight after I went to sleep, thinking I couldn't hear them.
The day after these fights, my grandfather would pull me out of school early by about an hour and bring me to McDonalds, where he would buy me a Happy Meal; cheese burger, fries, strawberry soda and a coveted toy. Those days with my grandfather may not have been the healthiest way to fix a problem, but food was his way of showing love. It was the bonding and the pure joy from both of us that made this so important to me. Walking from the car, my tiny little hand wrapped up in his large speckled one. I would skip, and sometimes he would too. I would pick out our booth, always the one by the window where I could watch all of the cars zoom past while he ordered the food. The bright yellow, fake leather upholstery on the seat was tattered, the table always just a bit lop sided, but I loved it. We played a game, he would give me a color and I would point out every car that color that drove by, it was simple but fun. It wasn’t the food that brought me such happiness, it was the person I was with.
It hit me the hardest when my mother moved us out of my grandparents’ house. I cried every night for the first three months, not having my nightly routine of my mom saying goodnight, then grandma and grandpa took me a great deal of time to get used to. But the one thing that stayed the same was the fighting. Day and night there was screaming, slamming, and things breaking. My mother’s new husband was an evil I had never experienced before. He screamed at his children, dragging them across the floor by arms or legs, screaming in my face, sometimes for literally no reason. He told my mother I was a horrible person, and he blamed me for anything went wrong. My mother was not allowed to give me special attention or buy me anything, we couldn’t go anywhere alone together on weekend. She basically couldn’t love me. I wasn’t allowed to have friends over, I couldn’t do anything after school until I cleaned the entire house and folded his laundry. Everything was controlled by him, I wasn’t happy. I was destructive, I was explosive, and I was dangerously composed. The same meals every night of the week, he cooked- and not well. The happiness I got from cooking with my grandmother and cooking on my own was smothered. Dinner was always awkward, or stressful, usually ending up in a fight between my mother and him, or him and I. When I fought with him, it ended up in tears, always mine. Everything I had bottled up would explode; I was a stick of dynamite with a very long fuse, everything I had stored up inside was just waiting to come out. It escalated into things I could never imagine. During these seven years, I lost my mother to an abusive, egotistical maniac. She was still living and breathing, still my mother, but just a shell holding what was left of a broken woman, who couldn’t stand up for her child. A woman who couldn’t stand up for herself. He drove my brother out, pushed him to a point where he moved back in with our grandparents. It was just me, alone with the monster.
By the time I was in high school I had been suffering from severe depression, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and self-harm. Things were at its worst, and all I wanted to do was escape. By sophomore year I could. I had a set of my mom’s keys and as long as I got good grades I could come and go as I please. After a fight with the monster, or hearing him berate my mother, I would get in to our silver/gray/tan Honda civic and drive to the closest place the felt like home—McDonalds. I would crank my music up to the highest volume, a noise so loud it could cover any screaming, and I would drive. I’d order a double quarter pounder with cheese, plain, and I would sit in the seat closest to the window. I would count how many red cars would pass by. I did this until I didn’t hurt anymore, until I felt strong again, until I felt happy.
One night, two days before high school graduation, I asked my mother to take me to McDonalds for dinner. I wanted to talk to her. The monster was working late in his den and didn’t want to eat with us. We drove in silence the entire way there. My anxiety was so high I started to rip the skin from my fingers, my legs trembled, my heart was beating a mile a minute. The ride felt like hours, dragging on and on. We finally pulled into the parking lot, and walked into the building almost three feet away from each other. It was a safe distance. I told my mom to find a table while I ordered the food, she chose my booth by the window. I sat down and told her I was done. I remember exactly what I said. I still have it written down in the notes on my phone:
“I can’t handle this anymore. I can’t allow you to sit here and not see the pain I’m in, the excruciating amount of pain that sucks the life out of me every single day. He is a monster, nobody matters to him, not you, not me, not anyone. He is the only one that matters. I won’t allow this to destroy who I am, and to destroy who you are. I know that you know this isn’t ok. We have sat down and talked about this many, many times. I went to counseling for this. You sat with me week after week, hearing me talk about how he makes me feel, how unhappy I am. I hurt myself because I couldn’t express my feelings, I couldn’t get out what I needed to get out. I need you to understand the next thing I am about to say. I need you to LISTEN to me, not just hear me. It’s either me, or him.”
After this soliloquy, I left. I got up and I walked out. Sitting on the curb I watched her. I saw her compose herself, wipe a single tear and come outside. She reached out to me, grabbed my hand and hugged me, “It’s always been you.”
She chose me. Two weeks later divorce papers were written and she was packing her things. I went with her to find a home. A home for us, where we can finally be mother and daughter. I have my happiness back and I won’t let anyone take it from me.
I don’t consider myself a happy adult. I still struggle from depression, anxiety and everything else under the sun, but I am capable. Capable of creating my own happiness, and capable of telling the people who care for me what I need. McDonalds was never what made me capable or happy. It wasn’t the deliciously greasy burgers, the forever cold sweet tea, or the intoxicating aroma of French fries. It wasn’t sitting alone and thinking about what I need, writing to my mother, revising my speech over and over. It was just the vehicle for making myself happy and reminding myself that I am strong. I was always strong sitting in the booth by the window, thinking my own thoughts, getting what made me happy. I would be lying if I said that food isn’t what makes me happy, because it is, but it’s the memories and the feelings I get when I’m there. From McDonalds, I gained the ability and knowledge to create my own happiness, and found the strength to put me first.