Here's the thing about recovering from an eating disorder: there's no way to avoid food. You need it to live and, in many ways, food is how we show each other love, especially around the holidays. From shared meals to gift baskets, parties centered around a decadent spread, and pumpkin pie, turkey, and roast; food is a part of our celebratory, holiday culture. Which makes it a time filled with triggers for people in recovery from an eating disorder. People like me. Learning to survive the holidays with an eating disorder seemed like an unfair burden to shoulder.
When I was sick with anorexia and bulimia, shame engulfed me: Why couldn't I just be normal? All I wanted was to see my family and friends and feel part of their celebration. But my disease zapped my potential for joy, and I was filled with shame, rage, and envy. Envy of women who got to be thin and happy and who didn't (I assume) have their every thought consumed by food. Rage against my loved ones for watching my every move, trying to detect if I snuck off to the bathroom after a meal. Shame for doing this to myself. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I stop? My disease made me a selfish, gross, and ugly human, so far removed from the little girl who played carols on the piano with her kid sister keeping melody.
I wish I knew then what I know now — that it would eventually be OK. That I could learn to be good to myself, and that this torture was fleeting. I would soon become whole, healed/healing and managing recovery, in charge of my life again.
Maybe you're like I was back then, filled with anxiety and fear over how to deal with food over the holidays. I'm writing this for you, because I want you to know you can get through this and there are ways to survive the holidays with an eating disorder. I know because I'm surviving them, too.
Remember That You're Not Alone
There's a woman or man who's feeling exactly what you're feeling right now, and knowing that you're not alone in your pain is a comfort. The Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center offers online and phone counseling for people with eating disorders, as well as a comprehensive guide of in-person groups.
Your family and friends love you but, sometimes, you need someone who's living through your pain to feel less alone. So, reach out. I promise, you won't regret it.
It's OK To Say No To Parties...
Know your limits. If that office party with a fondue fountain is going to stress you out, skip it. I've never regretted self-care. Although people might act like they're disappointed you're not going, guess what, they'll get over it.
...But Resist The Temptation To Isolate
According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), people with eating disorders put themselves at-risk when they isolate, and are more likely to engage in destructive, addictive behaviors when they alienate themselves from others. So, although you don't have to go to every holiday party you're invited to, you don't have to lock yourself away either.
NEDA suggests you host a small gathering and serve food that you're comfortable eating, or eat a small portion of something you wouldn't normally eat. Small steps are crucial in this tense time, so do your best to socialize around food in a way that's a minor challenge. You can even strategize how to do this with a counselor. Don't be embarrassed or feel ashamed about your discomforts. They are part of your disease, and trained professionals have heard it all and make it their job to come up with solutions for you, especially during the holidays.
Participate In Non-Food Related Activities
Holiday celebration is about ice-skating. It's about arts and crafts. It's about volunteering for charities. It's about making snow angels. It's about dancing. It's about puppies. It's about whatever the hell you want it to be about, so it doesn't have to be about food.
Keep A Gratitude Journal
The organization Eating Disorder Hope reminds you that eating disorder recovery is spiritual. Eating disorders can become your bible, but that's the disease taking over your life. You're more than your disease; you're a spiritual being who can trust in yourself, the person you came into the world as.
Try to channel your spirituality by giving thanks for things in your life that make you happy. When I was sick, I would have moments of mindfulness when I wasn't thinking about myself, but rather the universe around me. In those moments, I felt free. Journal your way into a greater spiritual understanding of yourself, even if recovery sounds too scary right now.
Move Your Body
Another way to help you channel your spirituality is to quiet your mind. To stop the thoughts that can be all-consuming, move your body. Stretch, go for a walk to feel the wind against your face, take a yoga class; whatever helps you focus on the physical (and, in turn, not "focus" at all).
Remember, you can do whatever type of exercise as long as your goal is to channel mindfulness, not burn calories.
For those holiday dinners you can't get out of, I can't stress this enough: Plan ahead. According to Psychology Today, visualization can help you tackle stressful situations by helping you see what you want to see — and then making it happen. Have your answers to meddling family members ready, because while those family members have good intentions, their questions about your disordered eating are not helpful in the moment.
Visualize how you want to handle these scenarios. See it, manifest it. A mental health counselor can help you prepare for all kinds of situations you're likely to face. Armed with a plan — whether that means bringing food that makes you feel comfortable to a holiday dinner, or how to handle the feelings that drive your disease — you can survive the holiday dinner. You might even enjoy yourself.
Have An Exit Strategy
You might want to have an exit strategy in mind. Phone your host beforehand and let her know that you're dealing with a lot of stress, and ask if she could she offer you a quiet space to gather your thoughts if you're feeling overwhelmed. Although you don't have to exit a party for good, it doesn't hurt to have a sanctuary in mind in case you get triggered for the occasion when things begin to trigger you.
Tune Out The Media
The "most wonderful time of year" is also filled with ads about how to lose those holiday pounds, even before the last bite of roast is digested. Consider all of this white noise, people. These ads have nothing to do with you.
Have Yourself A Merry Little Holiday
Although the holidays are a time to connect with your family and friends, you can and must use this time to connect with yourself. Whether it's time out to take a hot bath, schedule an extra therapy session, reflect on your progress; self-care practices are nurturing to your body, mind, and soul. Self-care is a choice: a choice you're making for you. When you remember that you are driving your body, mind, and soul — and not the other way around — you will feel stronger than ever, eating disorder and all.
And you know what? That's the first step to recovery.