Tips: Getting through the Holidays

Surviving the Holidays When You Have an Eating Disorder

While most Texans are grateful for the cooler weather and being able to enjoy the outdoors without the threat of heat stroke, there’s a significant number of people (Texan or not) for whom cooler weather brings dread. Cooler weather harkens winter holidays, and winter holidays are TOUGH! I know… I’ve been in recovery from anorexia and bulimia for 22 years.

I remember all too clearly how I dreaded the holidays, stressing over how I was going to compensate for the extra calories or make excuses and hide my behaviors. And I know I’m not alone.

“It’s estimated that 30 million Americans have struggled with an eating disorder at some point over their lifetime,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. That breaks down to 20 million women and 10 million men.

In American culture, the holidays revolve around food. We gather with friends and family around the table and break bread. We bake cookies and pies and wrap them up in pretty little packages to give to coworkers and teachers. We host and attend potlucks and parties where cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and buffets of food provide the centerpiece of what sometimes feels like forced togetherness. Twenty-two years later, solidly in recovery, I can see that food is a tangible way for us to show each other love and nourish our bodies together, but not a single year goes by that I don’t remember how intense the struggle was when everything seemed to be about food. Those of us who have struggled with eating disorders know that food can sometimes be a threat and is almost always pretty scary.

Holiday means are often used as a way to show love and enjoy the company of those we love. But if you struggle with an eating disorder, these gatherings can feel like a land mine.

The point of this blog isn’t to wax nostalgic about my own recovery, but instead share with you all the lessons I have learned from all sides of an eating disorder…from being in an eating disorder, to being in recovery, to being an eating disorder therapist. I often tell my clients to focus on their feelings and not the food, and that’s never more true than during the holidays. When someone bakes for us or cooks a nice meal, they aren’t doing it to manipulate or hurt us, they are doing it because they care. Go back and read that sentence again. If you find yourself shaking your head no, I encourage you to explore what that’s about. Is food easier when we make it? And is that because we don’t trust what others are going to put in our food? Does our fear of food take away the sentiment of the person who made it? Are we giving our eating disorder the power to negate caring gestures from well-meaning friends and relatives? 

These are not meant to be easy questions, but they are important to ask ourselves because the notion of choice is often lost in our eating disorders. So even though the radio sings out joyful holiday music and ambient lights and decorations fill our city streets, there is no rule that says we aren’t allowed to struggle during the holidays. It is OK if this isn’t your best Christmas or Thanksgiving and it’s ok to be IN THE PROCESS of recovery. But what isn’t ok is to give up on yourself or your recovery!

Tips for getting through the holidays

  • If you have the option, spend the holiday with people who truly support you and your recovery. If that’s not an option, keep those lines of communication open with your support system.
  • Come up with a meal plan that feels safe and doable. Then fall back on that meal plan if intuitive eating feels overwhelming.
  • Give yourself permission to tune out those family members who worship diet culture or have offensive political beliefs. Of course, there’s always the option to educate and advocate for health at every size, but right now it’s not your job to change society, it’s your job to get through the holidays.
  • When everyone else skips breakfast because they want to have a big Thanksgiving lunch, remember to do what you need to do and take care of yourself by following a meal plan.
  • Do not rely on alcohol or other substances to make this experience easier. It’s OK to enjoy yourself as an adult, but be careful not to rely on an escape.
  • Remember that in recovery we are changing and sometimes that means the dynamics of our relationships change. You do not have to accept being the identified patient or any other role that your family of origin might want to put you in. And remember that these rules usually are not assigned in an intentional way, so allow you and your family some grace to build a healthier dynamic.
  • You have fought hard and worked so hard for your recovery, but none of your family members are mind readers and some of them are going to assume that you are still sick. The only power you have is in your reaction to that. Focus on actions over words and remember that you don’t have anything to prove. 

You are good enough just as you are.