The holidays are a stressful time for many people for many reasons. Buying gifts, navigating complicated family dynamics, all that damn traffic, Christmas carol fatigue, engagement season (to name a few)…and what seems to be a perpetual feast from mid-November through December’s end. And then, the “new year new me” diets begin.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get feast fatigue at some point, but it’s certainly an additional complication to navigate that landscape with anorexic thought patterns. Especially because I also binged when my eating disorder was at its most severe, going into this holiday season felt like reconciling the space between two extremes: the urge to eat as close to nothing as possible, and the urge to eat everything around me even after my hunger was satisfied. To be honest, just thinking about thinking about the start of holiday mealtimes is making my fingers freeze up as I type this.
I am fortunate to have a strong support system of people who want to help and be here for me; the challenge is that the strongest links in that support system haven’t experienced anorexia firsthand, so it can be hard to explain. Most people I know have experienced stress about mealtimes or body image at some point, but describing the thoughts that move beyond the “normal” pressure to look a certain way or eat a certain way is challenging. How do I explain to Boyfriend that mealtime is scary for me? That when I get frustrated that he won’t decide what to do for dinner, it’s not because I’m being difficult? That when I get frustrated that he made a decision about what do do for dinner, it’s not because I’m being difficult? There is often no “right” choice he can select, because no matter what I am terrified of eating, but I know I have to eat.
It’s hard to describe the obsessive fixation on food that defines much of my experience with anorexia, and how it’s different than being stressed about the prospect of overeating or making the decision to go on a diet. Numbers and calculations and compulsions and violent words consume my thoughts until there is literally no other space for anything else. And then the frustration of loving food but not knowing how to exist with it in a way that doesn’t hurt comes in, and there are many times that I excuse myself to the bathroom at a restaurant to cry in the stall for a few minutes to release a bit of the magnitude of what I’m feeling.
The holiday feasting season kind of feels like that restaurant experience, except all the time and you don’t get to go home at the end of the meal because you are home. Add all those other holiday stressors and it can become a feedback loop of feeling out of control, seeking control, and falling into disordered behaviors to cling to the illusion of control. I’ve spent a lot of time researching coping strategies on the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) website…but it is really, really hard to implement them effectively when you’re in a situation. But if recovery was easy there probably wouldn’t be eating disorders, right? These are some of the things I’ve been trying to practice when I’m in those situations where I want to run to the bathroom and cry:
Focus on each bite. This is something my therapist has reiterated to me since I began my recovery process. Especially when my all-or-nothing mental narrative takes over and switches from “restrict” to “binge,” I struggle to enjoy what I’m eating and pay attention to my body’s signals that it’s had enough. I also get trapped in thoughts like “you’ve already overeaten, so you should eat four more rolls” or “you need to make this overindulgence worth it, so keep eating.” Switching from a fixation on things like guilt, calories, and the lies anorexia tells me to a focus on each bite has allowed me to better enjoy the indulgent foods of the holidays and recognize the cues of fullness.
Have a safe person. Honestly, having a safe person may be the most critical thing on this list. I am not yet at a point in my recovery where I can go a full day without disordered thought patterns distracting me and interrupting the flow of my day. It has become easier to refocus, but in high-pressure situations (which for me include restaurants and meals with extended family), I often need a source of support outside the situation to call on so my increased stress does not lead to acting on those compulsions. Like I’ve said, I have the incredible gift of a strong support system so there are many people I can find safety in. A friend from work (who has become one of my closest friends in the just-over-a-year I’ve known her) is exceptionally good at offering herself up to be that “safe” person when I need a minute to escape and release frustration.
Seek control in constructive ways. Anorexia, for me, often comes back to control: a need to have it or a perceived lack of it. I am working on finding constructive ways to regain agency when I am faced with out-of-control situations (because let’s face it, life is kind of one big out-of-control situation). I try to find control through the compulsions in a different way; my disordered thought patterns lie and say control is in the act of restricting, but I can choose to assert my control by recognizing the lies of anorexia and nourishing my body instead. This is much easier said than done (obviously), but using the desire for control toward a positive outcome helps give my mind the satisfaction of order and agency it craves.
Take it one meal at a time. One of the first thought patterns I found myself developing was the idea of “saving” calories for future meals (or days). Sometimes the anticipation of a larger, indulgent meal will set off a desire to restrict to “balance it out,” and sometimes one unhealthy or overindulgent food choice will set off a desire to binge and “make it count” since I’d already made a perceived misstep. Focusing on each meal on its own has helped me maintain control over my choices by listening to my body in that moment, rather than worrying about future meals or feeling guilty over past ones. It can be really difficult (especially when that holiday bloat sets in…) but this has been helpful in making sure I stay focused on food as fuel instead of food as punishment or reward.
Remember: food does not have a moral value. My “safe” friend shared a post with me several months back that talked about this, and it’s something I try to remember when I get trapped in thought patterns of “good” and “bad” eating. Food itself is neither good nor bad, it’s just food. Framing dietary choices as “good” or “bad” has led me to avoiding entire food groups because they are “bad,” rather than learning how to indulge in moderate amounts and enjoy all types of foods. When my anorexia was at its most severe, I was entirely avoiding bread, pasta, dessert, and cheese unless I was in the middle of a binge (and anyone who knows me knows those are some of my favorite foods). It has been hard to unlearn the good/bad dichotomy set up in my brain surrounding the foods I eat (or don’t eat). Remembering that a cupcake is neither good nor bad, it’s just a food choice, has helped make it easier to enjoy those indulgent moments without leading to a binge.
Accept (and celebrate) my humanity. Anyone who is a longtime member of the Keystrokes family knows that accepting my humanity is a huge challenge for me (the curse of being a perfectionist, type-A, anxious mess). It’s easy for me to be compassionate toward others and encourage self-compassion…not so easy to practice. I am still learning how to take it easy on myself when I give in to compulsions to restrict or binge, and even with run-of-the-mill overeating. Rewriting the narrative of control and worth in my head is a big task, but learning to be okay with the fact that I’m a human person who doesn’t make perfect choices is helping release the pressure of living with anorexia.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, there are plenty of resources to use! Something that has been helpful for me is the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) website. I used their online screening tool before I began therapy, which was one of the things that encouraged me to seek out support. The NEDA website and toll-free Information and Referral Helpline, 1-800-931-2237, provide extensive resources nationwide.