Nothing makes me cringe more than that eternally British phrase “Cuppa tea?” when you go to a friend’s house. And especially if it’s just an acquaintance rather than an actual friend.
But why? I can hear you say, disbelievingly. You’re English, aren’t you?
Well yes, but as someone who has her good days, bad days and some impossible days with depression and anxiety, this simple question is laced with far more than a basic beverage enquiry.
When you’re in my position, a good day is when someone asks the question and I can immediately answer without even blinking: “no thanks, but if you have coffee that would be great!” And then I can go ahead and get precisely what I want, exactly the way I want it, poured invitingly into my mug.
On a bad day, everything in my head works slower; decisions take much longer and my outward intelligence takes a severe nose-dive into Jeremy-Kyle-guest territory. The conversation would go something like this:
“Hey, how are you?”
me: “mmm fine. Yeah. Fine!”
“Lovely. Would you like a tea or coffee?”
…! another question…”Oh, umm, ” [hesitation whilst brain cranks into gear] “Coffee, yes please.”
This is where I get into trouble. Yes, really! You see, I like a lot of milk, more like a latte, so that’s at least 30ml of milk in a standard size cup. Which means I need to explain that before the coffee is poured so there’s enough room for that amount of milk. And I want to just say this, but for some reason the ability to vocalise this instruction has disappeared from my skills set. And then the anxiety pops up to say hello. If I do manage to form the words and describe my dream drink, will my friend think I’m too picky? Too demanding? – Oooh, get her! She can’t just have a cup of coffee, no, she has to have a laah-tay– And the thinking spirals: I’m wondering if I’ll ever get invited back, will she still want to be my friend! I know this seems ridiculous, but in the moment, anxiety is so persuasive and I truly believe that saying what I want will lose me a friend.
Suddenly, my friend’s opinion of me is far more important than actually liking the flavour of the brown liquid being offered to me, so my response, two seconds later, is reduced to “yes, please.” And I might be able to add “and one sugar”, despite me always carrying sachets of my preferred sweetener around in my handbag to lessen caloric intake. But again, I don’t want my friends to think I’m weird/difficult/a java-diva. Internally the paranoia is making me jittery and has taken over all higher reasoning. You could now present me with a cup of steaming pond extract and in typical British style I would nod politely, and sip it ‘gratefully’. Normality is paramount, so I have often ended up drinking coffee that tasted like it had been mixed with petrol (or even tea), but then on a bad day, I can’t escape the feeling that that’s actually what I deserve.
And finally, there are the impossible days. On those days, you’re lucky if I made it to your house at all. I’ll be an hour late, wearing yesterday’s clothes, regardless (or oblivious to) the sauce stain on my left bosom. I may have odd socks on. I certainly won’t have brushed my teeth or my hair and I won’t be wearing make up for fear of resembling a Picasso. My daughter however, (I’ll call her Isobel on here) will look immaculate – I do have some standards to maintain. Inevitably I will have forgotten something important like my house keys, or spare nappies.
On days like these it is practically impossible for me to make any decisions at all, especially anything more complicated than yes or no! Sometimes the notion of transmitting the correct orders from my brain to the muscles of my lips to formulate any speech at all is a step too far. It’s not that I don’t want to talk – I simply can’t. An offer of a cuppa is likely to make me cry, because reaching my friend’s house has taken so much out of me that my last tether to normality snaps.
And here’s where my true friends come into their own. They won’t say anything more. They’ll sit me down and go away into the kitchen to make me a coffee anyway, because they’ll remember (3/4 coffee, 1/4 milk, preferably from a cafetiere, but instant’s better than nothing, not too hot, 1 sweetener) and they’ll leave me alone to cry and pull myself back together. Because I don’t need more embarrassment, or too much sympathy. And because, maybe, although I am unable to ask for it, I do actually deserve to be served a coffee exactly the way I like it.