This holiday season, a certain article prototype has been blowing up my newsfeed: tips on how people with eating disorders can stay in recovery during the holidays, articles which are often written by treatment centers and eating disorder non-profits. I will refer to them furthermore as TPEDHR- Tips for Eating Disorder Holiday Recovery, because otherwise I’m going to get tired of writing that mouthful and you’re going to get tired of reading it. These articles have a lot of good insight. In fact, I will link to some of my favorites at the end of this post, so you can peruse those.
Today, I do not want to replicate one of those articles or make broad generalizations about what will help all people because I don’t know all people. What I do want to do is offer my two cents about eating disorders and the holidays with a twist on what I said last year for an article from my school newspaper entitled, “Eating Disorders Don’t Take The Holidays Off.” I am going to primarily speak from my experience but will also reference some of the TPEDHR articles I’ve read this year.
Holidays can be less than merry when you have an eating disorder. A lot of times gatherings focus on food, which can trigger whatever urges you have– whether it is bingeing, purging, or restricting. Then, of course, spending time with family members can bring up triggering relational dynamics. Food or family issues can be stressful on their own when you have an eating disorder, but then when there is a synthesis of the two, that dynamic can culminate into a clusterfuck of craziness. Having experienced a lot of holiday seasons with an eating disorder, I will offer some things that have helped me through this time of year:
1. Knowing that I’m not alone– One of the most validating experiences was being in treatment during the holiday season four years ago. I felt a sense of camaraderie with the other patients there, and we bonded over the difficulties that we had this time of year. For some people, being jolly and bonding over turkey and cranberry sauce can be life-giving and pleasurable. That was not so for most of us. The fact that we were together in the midst of it was so powerful. We understood and were in solidarity with each other. Now that I am am on my own with my family for the holidays, without people who inherently get it, it can be easy to feel alienated by my struggles. If there is one thread of similarity between all of the TPEDHR articles, it is that they speak to the sense of isolation people with eating disorders can face during this time of year. So many people suffer in silence, but being in treatment during that time was a visual representation that there are more of us suffering during this time than you think. We need help and support, and honestly, a lot of us are not getting it, because otherwise there would be no need to write so many articles on the subject. There is power in knowing others say, “Me too.”
2. Accepting that people make triggering comments– People in your families are not going to be experts on eating disorders. That is just reality. Some people care about what you’re going through, and most are well-intentioned, but there is something about the holidays that stirs up in people the desire to comment on another’s body. In the past, I have been shell-shocked by the number of horrifying comments people have made about me. I like the suggestion that some of these TPEDHR articles have written about talking to family members prior to events to minimize some of these comments, but even if you try to preempt comments, the occasional “I haven’t eaten in 36 hours”/ “I feel fat” might come out. Speaking from the people I know, they try. They don’t understand that “Wow, you’ve really filled out” = I’m going to go cry in a corner and throw egg nog on myself or Aunt Sue talking about her paleo/ weight-watchers/ whatever diet incessantly = me having the desire to suffocate myself with mistletoe. Even when I am open about my struggles and try to minimize harmful comments, I still prepare for 1-2 insensitive comments per Christmas season. It just happens.
3. Being flexible– Being a fairly rigid and OCD person in general, I don’t do well with flexibility. Unfortunately, the holidays necessitate flexibility… and so does normal eating. It has taken me years to accept the fact that eating extra Christmas cookies while I’m baking will not kill me. It really, really won’t. I used to “hedge my bets” as far as eating was concerned, and then I woke up one day realizing: drinking egg nog, Peppermint Mochas, and savoring desserts are okay. In fact, they are… enjoyable. For years, even when I was “in recovery,” I didn’t do partake of those things out of fear. I kept to my same routine, and while there is nothing wrong with routine and meal plans (I have both), they are not the most realistic for every situation. I learned that it is okay to change things up sometimes and stop micromanaging. My body can handle it. This would have sounded crazy to me a few years ago. It takes a lot of practice and consistent waking up to realize that after I ate a little more than I normally would, nothing changed. Nothing. I am okay.
4… But not flexible enough to put myself in temptation– A lot of these TPEDHR articles talk about NOT restricting prior to big meals, i.e. preparing for “The Last Supper.” That is so true. Speaking out of personal experience, doing that has never ended well. On a personal level, my body does not like me when I decide to “save up” for a big meal later. I end up feeling like shit all day, and then I’m like, “WHY DID I DO THAT?” It is easy to con yourself (and others) into thinking that you’re being “flexible” when you’re actually engaging in eating disorder behaviors in order to relieve any anxiety you have for being “flexible.” If that makes sense. What I deem to be “flexibility” (which is, in actuality, giving in to my eating disorder in the name of “flexibility”) has led to significant set backs for me in the past. Sometimes I have to accept that maybe I am not able to be flexible for a given meal, snack, or season. Maybe I have to go on autopilot. I have spent many-a-Christmas eating my meal plan and calling it a day, no extra cookies while baking. And you know what? That is okay. You are where you are, and there is nothing wrong with that.
5. Reach out for help– Something always comes up for me during this time of year that serves as a trigger. I am blessed that I have an awesome treatment team and lots of friends and family who care about me and are willing to speak truth into my life. If I’m anxious about something that happened, I am going to reach out to someone. There is no point of suffering in silence. There is also no point in slipping or relapsing because I thought I was “strong enough” to handle whatever went on. Chances are, I’m not, and I need help. There is nothing wrong with admitting that.
So, that has been what some of my experiences have shown me. Now, I’ve talked a lot about these TPEDHR articles, and I will show you some I’ve read and liked below, but not without a caveat:
Beware of ulterior motives: Interestingly, a lot of articles written on the subject are written by people in charge of treatment centers. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with that, but I am cognizant of the fact that many people enter treatment centers around Christmas, and I see a possible marketing ploy going on here. One treatment center recently posted a picture on social media that was, ironically, airbrushed of a girl holding a gift, and it said, “Give the gift of (name of treatment center) this year.” There is nothing wrong with going to treatment around Christmas. In fact, four years ago, I came into treatment right before the holiday season. The articles are benevolent enough, but the fact that they publicize the names of treatment centers raises a flag for me. Maybe I’m just really cynical, but I don’t like the idea of treatment centers preying on a vulnerable population. I don’t like that people are “planting the seed” of treatment and using a difficult time to promote their services.
With that said, here are some of my favorites from this year: