This week, I’ve seen a number of articles circulating the internet with tips to help navigate/survive the holidays when you have an eating disorder. This particular topic struck a chord with me, having struggled with both anorexia and bulimia since I was nine years old.
Living with an eating disorder was and still is emotionally exhausting. Although I’m older and living in recovery, I remember all too well being in constant fear of gaining weight, and trying to suppress hunger on a minute to minute basis.
Although every day with an eating disorder was difficult, it became increasingly hard to manage my fear and anxiety during the holidays. I followed a strict and punishing diet, and at the height of my illness, the idea of being around food or even watching other people eating was terrifying for me. I would often decline invitations to family dinners or parties with friends to avoid straying from my routine and leaving the safety of my house.
At Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, my appearance and eating habits were often a topic of discussion. In an Italian family, it was an insult not to eat the food prepared for you. I would sit with my family, and try to deflect their pleas for me to eat something. At one point during my eating disorder, if I did give in to their coaxing, I would begin to binge. I’d eat plate after plate of food, and then excuse myself and go to the bathroom to purge. I’d come back to the table, help myself to dessert, and continue the cycle for the rest of the night. There would be times a family member would try to stop me from going to the bathroom and plead with me, “not to ruin the holiday.”
With the holiday season approaching, I thought I would compile a list of helpful suggestions based on my own experience to help people suffering from eating disorders and their families manage the holidays.
Schedule Extra Appointments
If you have an eating disorder, you know first hand the anxiety of having to attend holiday parties and family dinners. If you’re already working with a team of doctors towards recovery, be sure to book extra appointments with your physician, therapist or psychologist close to the holidays. This is something I STILL do. Having that time scheduled to discuss your fears and anxieties is a welcomed release, and these trained professionals will develop coping skills and small goals to help you get through the busy holiday season.
If you haven’t yet spoken to your family doctor about getting help for your eating disorder, I encourage you to make that brave step! You can do it!
Create an ally to your health
When I was in high school, during a particularly rough period of bulimia, a teacher was perceptive enough to inquire about my health. I told her that after school was my worst time to binge, because there was an hour where I was home alone to do whatever I wanted before my Mom got home from work. My teacher sat with me every day for an hour until 4 pm when it was safe for me to go home to a house with people in it.
Whether it be a family member or a close friend, confide in someone about your fears for the holiday season. Letting someone you trust know how you feel before heading into a party or sitting down to a family meal can makes a world of difference. Ask that person to be your lifeline or ally for the day/night. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, having that one person there who is aware of what’s going on can be a life saver. They can run interference for the tough situations or difficult conversations and can provide support to help you work through your feelings.
Trust your program
Recovery is a scary son of a bitch. I remember bursting into tears the first time a nutritionist gave me a meal plan during treatment. Just because I was on the path to healthy eating, I knew that I wouldn’t all of a sudden be able to overload on turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cookies and eggnog. I knew I could ask family to prepare healthy options, or bring my own healthy snacks to maintain the meal plan. Maintain consistency in your eating, and don’t skip meals! Stick to your plan. Trust your program.
There is nothing wrong with standing up for yourself when people pressure you to eat. If a family member or someone is hounding you to take a second helping of food, or help clear dessert so that there are no leftovers, it’s OK to politely say, “No thank you.”
If that person doesn’t take your first no for an answer, you don’t have to fly off the handle (although you may want to ) and yell, “B*tch you have no idea how close I am to losing it!” But a simple, “I’m doing the best I can, please be understanding.” Often will suffice.
When things get to heated with family, or you’re feeling particularly anxious, take five minutes to get some fresh air. Removing yourself from the situation is an easy way to regroup and let your feelings settle.
For Family Members
The onus isn’t just on the person suffering from an eating disorder to survive the holidays. There are ways family members and friends can help make the season easier for their loved one that’s struggling.
If you’re hosting a family dinner, but know someone in attendance has an eating disorder, consider including a healthy option in your menu. Depending on your level of comfort with the person, you can even phone ahead under the ruse of needing ideas for what to serve.
A simple, “I’m taking requests for Christmas dinner, is there anything you’d like in particular?” Can help ease the anxiety of your loved one on the day of the event.
Don’t Comment On Appearance
It may come from a good place, but comments like, “Eat something, you’re so skinny!” Can really affect someone with an eating disorder. Depending on your loved one’s frame of mind, you can be unknowingly rewarding them for their illness, and encouraging them to continue their unhealthy habits. I used to take comments like these as a personal victory, and proof that I was succeeding in my illness.
Likewise, saying things like , “You’re looking so much healthier” can be translated to someone suffering/recovering from an eating disorder to mean, “You’ve gained weight. You look fat.” Be sensitive to your loved one’s illness and refrain from commenting on physical appearance altogether.
Timing is Everything
Christmas dinner is not the time for an intervention for someone’s eating disorder. If you have concerns for the health of someone you know and love, wait until the family dinner is over, the dishes are cleaned and the boxing sales are over to privately inquire with your loved one on their health. You may be met with hostility, but at least you gave them the courtesy of not embarrassing them on Jesus’ birthday in front of their entire family.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
It’s important to be understanding of your loved one’s illness. The road to recovery is long, winding, and will often include some relapses. I’ve seen many Christmas dinners and holidays ending in tears because of someone’s good intentions to help me with my eating disorder.
Instead of saying to someone with bulimia, “Are you sure you want to eat that? Don’t you think you’ve had enough? ” Gently offer your support and for that person to come to you if they need anything throughout the night.
Eating disorders are so much more than vanity. Please be sensitive to
someone’s struggles, not just this holiday season, but every day.
*I’d like to stress that I’m not a doctor or certified in any way to treat people with eating disorders, I’m merely basing my advice off of my own personal experiences with anorexia and bulimia. I encourage everyone suffering with an eating disorder to talk to their doctor about treatment and begin the road to recovery as soon as possible.