Navigating the Holidays With an Eating Disorder
[An audio version of this podcast is available HERE].
I used to weigh myself every morning. Usually, I weighed myself every night, too. And if I was home during the day with unlimited access to the digital bathroom scale, I'd weight myself too many times to count. This practice was born of anxiety and had the irritating side effect of either quelling it slowly or increasing it exponentially. Constantly weighing myself and worrying about my body became my norm. But when my norm became disrupted, the measures I carefully put in place to help myself feel okay gently folded around me like a deck of cards. Holidays were some of the days that almost always shattered me.
Food is everywhere. People gather, ostensibly to reconvene, laugh, share love, and always, always, eat. I was usually so focused on not eating too much, or avoiding the foods that terrified me, that I totally ignored or missed out on the rest of the holiday festivities. But holidays aren't always happy or joyful. This is as obvious and trite as reminding someone that the sky is blue, or that today happens to be Thursday. Holidays are really just ordinary days that we've collectively agreed are more important than the rest of our ordinary days. The idea of a holiday is often better than it's actuality-a sad, if not necessary, realization.
Whenever there was tension during the holidays, which was not uncommon, I doubled-down my focus on food, mistakenly believing that if I could eat perfectly, I could avoid negative emotions entirely. Of course, I couldn't avoid the negatively that swirled around me, and couldn't fully realize was that it had nothing to do with me.
As I've worked my way into and through recovery, holidays have remained an impenetrable fortress, a cause for anxiety and a puzzle I've yet to completely solve. Along my road to recovery, I've picked up the following helpful practices.
1. Set Healthy Boundaries
This cannot be overstated. You are not responsible for anyone else's emotions. If a friend or family member is upset and you didn't directly cause their distress, the best thing to do is maintain healthy space. You can be there for someone and not take on their emotional distress, and more importantly, you are not responsible for solving their distress. Take this common scenario: a family member offers you a serving of a dish they made. You politely refuse, for any number of reasons (maybe it's a fear food, maybe you genuinely don't like it, etc). The family member becomes upset, but you did nothing wrong. In this scenario, it's best to simply remove yourself and your emotions from the room entirely. You cannot fix how they feel, and it is not your responsibility.
2. Stick To Your Normal Eating Plan
This seems counter-intuitive when holidays are often so food-centric. Many people avoid eating all day in anticipation of a feast, but that tactic works against most people, especially those in recovery. Eat breakfast, even if your family might be feasting later in the day. During the meal, tune into your hunger cues. It's okay to be done eating before or after other people are done eating. And finally, the day after a holiday is just as important as the holiday, but often just as difficult. Sticking to your eating plan will help normalize these days.
3. Have a Support System or Plan in Place
This can seem daunting, but it's really not. I have a few friends I know I can message or call when situations or life feels overwhelming, and that really makes all the difference. I don't have to explain myself to them, and they usually know exactly what I'm going through. If you're in treatment or have a therapist, ask them to help you create meal plans and/or coping strategies. The most important thing to remember is that you're not alone.
4. Be Kind To Yourself
Beating yourself up for feeling anxious around the holidays will only make you feel even worse. It requires enormous courage to step out of your comfort zone and face your food fears, especially during a time when there are so many people and dissenting voices invading your mental space. It sounds really easy to say, "be kind to yourself," but I know how difficult that can be in practice. One thing my therapist has be do when I spiral into negative thoughts about myself or my body is to re-frame my words as if I were speaking to a child. At first it felt strange to coddle myself is this way, but it works.
5. Have An Exit Plan
Exit plans can be whatever you want or need them to be. Create ways to exit conversations you may find triggering (diet talk, snoopy relatives, etc). You are not obligated to answer anyone's inquiries. If you need to create physical space, you have every right to leave the room and find a quiet moment to take some deep breaths or simply be silent for a moment. This rule applies all the time, not only during holidays: taking time to care for your mental health never needs justification.
Below are tips my dietitian gave me prior to Thanksgiving.
P.S. Visit the Recovery Warriors for more holiday coping tips. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find a treatment center or therapist near you HERE, or find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE.