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I hated holidays when I was in my eating disorder. I felt like I was in a minefield of panic. I would tip toe through the eating disorder detonators only to have to deal with worried family.
My eating disorder would kick up a fuss months before any holiday gathering, acting like a sergeant in drill training. With every failure to honor its demands I would be mentally punished with visions of my families faces looking at me in disgust. And with every success of meeting its needs I was rewarded with a fleeting sense of accomplishment before the demands would start again. Either way, holidays sucked for me, and my family.
I adored my family. But no presents or thought were ever put into them at holiday time, except when my eating disorder would ask me, “What the hell they would think of this grotesque lump I saw in the mirror?” I told myself I would get to the presents once I looked the way I needed to. Of course, I never got to the thinking of others part and my family didn’t care how I looked. They wanted me well and that would be the best Christmas present of all.
One Christmas while living in London, I had booked my plane tickets to return to Australia for the dreaded family holidays. They were looking forward to seeing me, even though the year before they wondered why I even came. I was always tired, didn’t want to participate, grunted when being spoken to, and picked at the meals they had spent hours preparing. But this year my illness had kicked into another mode. I was bingeing on a whim and my body was telling on me. My bloated face and stomach were telling a story of loss of control. When my dad called to check on my flights I broke down. “I’m fat Dad! Do you still want me to come?” Silence came. That silence was my dad on the other side of the world petrified that his daughter, who he profoundly loved and was worried for, was expecting him to answer that question.
Holiday time has such great expectations for any family who partakes in them. But for those suffering from eating disorders and their loved ones, holidays become a time to “just get through.” When I got into early recovery there had to be a strategy to remove my attention from my eating disorder and engage with my family and put food and eating in its place. I now know that I was not alone. For this reason, Espra Andrus, LCSW and I wanted to bring you some concrete tools to help you get through the holiday season and move toward eating disorder recovery.
Let’s get started helping you take your power back from the eating disorder by coping ahead for your holidays. Here’s Espra:
My clients, like Robyn was, are petrified when the holidays are approaching, often saying that they would prefer to disappear than have to show up at events. Therefore, I spend many therapy sessions during the weeks leading up to the holidays preparing them to cope with the feelings of overwhelm, guilt, and shame that their eating disorders bring to holiday events, interactions, and meals.
The key to taming the holiday terror is to, one step at a time, build a coping plan to help you stabilize the eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. This plan can help you show up for your life and the holidays instead of allowing the eating disorder to exclude you from the connections that you ultimately desire. To help you feel empowered over the holidays, here are some tools you can use:
Before:

  • Catch the eating disorder voice, check the facts and prepare to talk back: Make a list of things you can predict that people might say or do that will trigger your eating disorder thoughts. Next, list what those eating disorder thoughts might be. After making your list, write down factual, pro-recovery responses to those eating disorder thoughts. My clients often write statements on their arms or an index card to read. Keep a card to remind you of reasons to leave the eating disorder out of this meal.
  • Take back your power by structuring your schedule and surroundings: Plan ahead of time when to arrive and what activities to do. Plan when, how, and who can support you to take breaks at regular intervals to help you stay centered. Prepare to interact and engage with others by writing out a list of topics to discuss when you need to redirect or keep conversations going. This limits the opportunities for the eating disorder voice to convince you that you should isolate with it because you do not belong with others.

During:

  • Sit with support: Decide ahead of time, if possible, where to sit. For example the “kids’” table or by someone who is not critical of foods or bodies and provides comfort. Plan to engage in conversation with family by having topics and questions prepared AND by listening to stories and things you can learn about others. Show up for the conversation, not the eating disorder.
  • Give yourself the gift of enjoying your meal: Plan ahead of time, with your dietitian, which food options and serving sizes you might select in the event that you can only hear the eating disorder’s voice telling you what or how much to eat. If you can hear your body’s wise voice about what it needs and wants at the time of the meal, it is perfectly acceptable to go with that instead.
  • Limit your time at the dining table: Once you have finished your plate, put down your fork and knife and tell yourself you are “done” until the next meal. Sit at the dining table for only the one meal and one hour.

After: During the first hour after a meal you are extremely vulnerable to the eating disorder. Plan ahead to fill that time.

  • Involve your family: During the day practice engaging with others, using your prepared conversation topics, activities, and intent of listening carefully. You might set a goal to learn two new things about everyone you speak with.
  • Take home a doggy bag: If you wish you ate other things that were not on your plate during mealtime, ask for a doggy bag! Save it for your next allocated snack and/or meal. Do this by reminding yourself that you don’t have to eat everything because it will be there for you to enjoy later, when your body can use it for nourishment and enjoy it.

After ten years of recovery I still don’t get the fuss and food surrounding all the holiday seasons. But I now understand the importance of family and what it means to my own sense of self and to my loved ones to have me engage, be present, and be part of especially in the time that we allocate to come together. Focusing our attention on how we can change our behavior and perceptions for the upcoming holidays is a great start in learning how to get through them and maybe even enjoy ourselves with little interruption from the eating disorder.

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