Halloween and Eating Disorders
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"What are you going to be for Halloween?" my friend asked me.
"Gone," I replied. "I'll be in Mexico, remember?"
Some people, like my friend, adore Halloween. The dressing up and going out. The parties and candy and elaborate drinks. Halloween hasn't captured my attention since I was the height of a white picket fence. One year, I dressed as a doctor in a little uniform my mother sewed for me. More than once, I dressed as a witch. As an adult, I've attended many Halloween parties dressed as nothing. Tis the damn season, as Taylor Swift said.
Growing up, my favorite Halloween candies were the ones that dentists dislike most: chewy caramel, dots, tootsie rolls, licorice. Because my disordered relationship with food began very young, I understood that candy was unhealthy, but because I was a child, candy was endlessly alluring. The bright colors and intense sweetness were mysterious and addicting. And the more I enjoyed a food, the more I knew that it was bad for me, which made candy both illicit and inviting. I'd fluctuate between throwing out my candy to eating enough to give myself a stomachache. These fluctuating attitudes were rooted in a desire for control. Food, and in this case candy, felt relatively easy to control, especially around a holiday like Halloween that only rolled around once a year.
But, and this is the big secret nobody told me about. But, the more control I thought I had over food, the less I actually held. The more I restricted, the harder I binged. The more extreme my behavior, the more extreme the lash back. It's obvious, except when you're in denial. Hearing someone say something and actually learning the thing are planets apart, so I didn't understand that control is nothing but an illusion for many, many years.
As a college student, I'd restrict for a day or two or three if I knew I'd be going to a party. Alcohol was full of empty calories, so I reasoned that starving myself ahead of a night out would make up for all those extra, worthless carbs. This behavior, called drunkorexia is common and incredibly stupid. I felt drunk after one drink. One Halloween, I went to a party my coworker invited me to and don't remember much. He put me to bed at some point, and I woke in the early morning hours to hunt down my heels and drag myself home.
Eating disorders touch every single facet of life, and holidays exacerbate life. It's harder to hide disordered behaviors during the holidays: there are tempting foods everywhere, events to attend, people to mingle with, and anxiety can run high. A big part of overcoming my eating disorder was dissociating feelings from food. If I allow myself to eat chocolate whenever I want chocolate, then I want chocolate far less often and holidays like Halloween hold far less appeal and far less fear.
Some tips for navigating a holiday if you're recovering from an eating disorder:
Eat as you normally would. Eat breakfast and lunch and dinner. Eat whatever holiday-ish food happens to be around (if you want), or don't. Sticking to your normal eating routine will help you think about food less.
Remove yourself from triggering or difficult social situations. This is important always, but especially during the holidays. If you have a pushy family member, distance yourself. If you're being pressured to eat or drink something that you don't want, walk away. And if you're being shamed for eating something, I'd seriously reconsider spending time with whoever is shaming you.
Divert conversation away from food or bodies. Sometimes, food or diet talk doesn't have to be about you for you to find it annoying or anxiety producing. Be as direct as you want in diverting the conversation. Change the topic, walk away, or simply say, "let's talk about something else, this topic bothers me."
Indulge if you want (or don't). The most important thing that all my years of therapy taught me was to listen to my body, and holidays are the perfect time to practice intuitive eating. Do you want the cake because it's a birthday party or because you're body wants the cake? Maybe you just want a bit, and that's okay too. You can and should "indulge" whenever your body wants or needs a certain food.
Have an ally you can confide in. Have a friend or family member you can turn to who understands your struggles with food. This will help you feel less anxious in social situations and around food. Plus, having someone in your corner is never a bad thing, and the more people who support you, the more empowered you'll feel to prioritize your health.
Look forward-tomorrow is a new day. Holidays are fun and wonderful, but at the end of the day they're just another day. If you have a hard time, feel stressed, overeat, or don't eat enough, remember that you get to wake up to a brand new day.
P.S. Read more about coping during Halloween here, find additional resources for eating disorder treatment at NEDA, or watch a therapist explain the link between trauma and eating disorders here.