Mental Health & The Holidays
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
There is an old rumor, or an old wife's tale, or maybe just a lunch-table legend, that the rate of suicide increases during the holidays. According to most sources (including the CDC), that rumor is absolutely false. Suicide rates are lowest in December, and peak in the spring and fall. Time of year aside, suicide itself is the 10th leading cause of death for all Americans.
While I never really dealt with suicidal ideation, I did live with and for an eating disorder for years. I went from heavily restricting, to binging, then purging, a relatively common sequence of events. Eating disorders are among the most deadly mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose, and over a quarter of people with eating disorders attempt suicide.
When I first sought treatment, I sat in a group session and thought to myself, "these people have problems." What I didn't care to admit is that I had a problem, too. I wouldn't have been there otherwise. In one group therapy session, a girl proudly showed me the scars that lined her thin arms. Another tried to recruit me to get high with her in the bathroom. High on what, I wasn't sure. Another girl talked openly about her depth of self-hatred, how she couldn't be as thin as she wanted and therefore, didn't feel like living. I hated group sessions. I didn't want to hear about other people's problems, not because I didn't care, but because I didn't feel like I had the energy to hold space for them. I was barely hanging onto myself. When someone is drowning, they can't be expected to see anyone else. It was all I could do to keep kicking toward the surface.
Back when my eating disorder was all I could think about, the holidays were hard for me. Navigating food and drinks, family and friends, and the eyes and comments of so many friendly and strange faces was exhausting. I tried my hardest to appear normal and happy, but the toll of working to seem happy was exhausting in itself.
I started running ultramarathons toward the end of my therapeutic treatment. I was seeing a dietitian and a psychologist, and with their help, I learned how to feed myself and more importantly, how to let me feed myself. Ultramarathons presented a larger challenge than I'd ever faced before, in many ways, but specifically with food. I'd only ever trained for a 5k or 10k. I didn't have to eat as much, and I didn't have to be as strong. Training in the mountains required that I eat. There was no way I could be both strong and starving. There was no way I could endure and also neglect myself.
During my first 50 miler, I didn't eat or drink enough and the last twenty-five miles became a struggle. A few months later, I tried again. I signed up for another 50 and changed my strategy, eating every 45 minutes and drinking often. I took salt every hour (it was a hot day), and my body responded brilliantly. After that race, the final puzzle piece clicked into place. I finally knew that I wanted to be strong, and in order to be strong mentally and physically, I needed to nourish myself.
With each year that passes, I get one step further away from the long, lonely days when I was sick and tired and weak. The holidays aren't riddled with stress anymore, and I don't dread the gatherings.
Sometimes, it's hard to tell when someone is struggling. Chances are, if someone is struggling now, they might be struggling later, too. While the holidays can be difficult, people also tend to be more philanthropic and giving this time of year. The most important moments on my path to healing didn't happen during the holidays, though. They happened in everyday, ordinary moments when someone cared to check in, or when I was able to watch other people rise above ordinary, everyday strife. They happened in my dietitians office, and on long, lonely trails, when everything she taught me finally started making sense.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline or find a therapist near you.
P.S. Watch the Choose Strong documentary, or read up on managing holiday stress.