Eating Disorders & The Holidays: Advice From a Former Anorexic

This post previously appeared on my blog Honestly, Libby in November of 2015. In preparation of the holidays, I decided to re-post in hopes that someone might find it valuable. 

This week, I’ve seen a number of articles circulating the internet with tips to help navigate/survive the holidays when you have an eating disorder. This particular topic struck a chord with me, having struggled with both anorexia and bulimia since I was 9 years old.

Living with an eating disorder was, and still is emotionally exhausting. Although I’m older and living mostly in recovery, I remember being in constant fear of gaining weight, and trying to suppress hunger on a minute to minute basis.
Although everyday with an eating disorder was difficult, it became increasingly hard to manage my fear and anxiety during the holidays. I followed a strict diet, and at the height of my illness, the idea of being around food or even watching other people eating was terrifying for me. I would often decline invitations to family dinners or parties with friends to avoid straying from my routine and leaving the safety of my house.
At Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, my appearance and eating habits were often a topic of discussion. In an Italian family, it was an insult not to eat the food prepared for you. I would sit with my family, and try to deflect their pleas for me to eat something. At one point during my eating disorder, if I did give in to their coaxing, I would begin to binge. I’d eat plate after plate of food, and then excuse myself and go to the bathroom to purge. I’d come back to the table, help myself to dessert, and continue the cycle for the rest of the night. There would be times a family member would try to stop me from going to the bathroom and sternly ask me, “Not to ruin the holiday.”
With the holiday season approaching, I thought I would compile a list of suggestions based on my own experiences* to help those with eating disorders and their families navigate the holiday season.
If You Have an Eating Disorder …
Schedule extra appointments  
If you have an eating disorder, you know first hand the anxiety of having to attend holiday parties and family dinners. If you’re already working with a team of doctors towards recovery, be sure to book extra appointments with your physician, therapist or psychologist close to the holidays. This is something I STILL do. Having that time scheduled to discuss your fears and anxieties is a welcomed release, and these trained professionals will develop coping skills and small goals to help you get through the busy holiday season.
If you haven’t yet spoken to your family doctor about getting help for your eating disorder, I encourage you to make that brave step! You can do it!
Find an Ally To Your Health 
When I was in high school, during a particularly rough period of bulimia, a teacher was perceptive enough to inquire about my health. I told her that after school was my worst time to binge, because there was an hour where I was home alone to do whatever I wanted before my Mom got home from work.  My teacher sat with me everyday for an hour until 4 pm when it was safe for me to go home to a house with people in it.
 Whether it be a family member or a close friend, confide in someone about your fears for the holiday season. Letting someone you trust know how you feel before heading into a party, or sitting down to a family meal can makes a world of difference. Ask that person to be your lifeline or ally for the day/night.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, having that one person there who is aware of what’s going on can be a life saver. They can run interference for the tough situations or difficult conversations and can provide support to help you work through your feelings.
Follow Your Meal Plan, Don’t Skip Meals 
Recovery is scary. I remember bursting into tears the first time I was given a meal plan in treatment. However, just because I was on the path to healthy eating,  I knew that I wouldn’t all of a sudden be able to overload on turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cookies and eggnog.
During the holidays, meal times are spread out, sometimes people eat early in the day, sometimes dinner is pushed back to later in the evening. If you are following a meal plan STAY on course.
It can be difficult to attend family dinners and parties when you have an eating disorder.  If you’re unsure whether or not there will be food you can eat, bring your own healthy options. If you feel comfortable enough, ask your family ahead of time what will be on the menu.
Think BIG PICTURE.  Don’t skip meals. Stick to your plan and trust your program.
Say something! 
There is nothing wrong with standing up for yourself when people pressure you to eat. If a family member or someone is hounding you to take a second helping of food, or help clear dessert so that there are no leftovers, it’s OK to politely say, “No thank you.”
If that person doesn’t take your first no for an answer, you don’t have to fly off the handle (although you may want to ). A simple, but firm, “I’m doing the best I can, please be understanding” will often suffice.
Take 5 
When things get too heated with family, you sense a trigger,  or you’re feeling particularly anxious, take five minutes to get some fresh air. Removing yourself from the situation is an easy way to regroup and let your feelings settle. Go for a walk or listen to some calming music – anything that can help distract you and give you time to process your feelings.
Remember, just like the holidays, these feelings come and go.

For Family and Friends  …

The onus isn’t just on the person suffering from an eating disorder to survive the holidays. There are ways family members and friends can help make the season easier for their loved one that’s struggling.
Plan Ahead
If you’re hosting a family dinner, but know one of your guests is struggling with an eating disorder, consider including a healthy option in your menu.
Depending on your level of comfort with the person, you can even phone ahead under the ruse of needing ideas for what to serve. A simple, “I’m taking requests for Christmas dinner, is there anything you’d like in particular?” Can help ease the anxiety of your loved one on the day of the event.
Don’t Comment On Appearance 
It may come from a good place, but comments like, “Eat something, you’re so skinny!” Can really affect someone with an eating disorder. Depending on your loved one’s frame of mind, you can be unknowingly rewarding them for their illness, and encouraging them to continue their unhealthy habits. I used to take comments like these as a personal victory, and proof that I was succeeding in my illness.
Likewise, saying things like , “You’re looking so much healthier” can be translated to someone suffering/recovering from an eating disorder to mean, “You’ve gained weight. You look fat.” Be sensitive to your loved one’s illness and refrain from commenting on physical appearance altogether.
If another guest is bringing the topic of conversation into a sensitive area, or singling out your friend or loved one, the kindest thing you can do is change the subject. When you have an eating disorder, the last thing you want is to be under a microscope, or feeling different from everyone else.
Timing is Everything 
 Christmas dinner is not the time for an intervention for someone’s eating disorder. If you have concerns for the health of someone you know, wait until dinner is over, the dishes are cleaned and the Boxing Day sales are over to privately inquire with your loved one on their health.
Be prepared: You may be met with hostility, but at least you gave them the courtesy of not embarrassing them on Jesus’ birthday in front of their entire family.
Be Patient – Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day
It’s important to be understanding of your loved one’s illness. The road to recovery is long, winding, and will often include some relapses.
Give someone with an eating disorder the freedom to make their own decisions. If you notice a loved one eating more than usual, and are suspecting they’re about to binge, do not intervene.  Instead of saying to someone with bulimia, “Are you sure you want to eat that? Don’t you think you’ve had enough? ” Gently check in to see if they need anything, and invite them to come to you if they need something throughout the night.
Be patient with your loved one, and try to be empathetic to their struggles. Eating disorders are so much more than vanity, and although it’s frustrating to see your loved one unhealthy, the best thing you can do is be sensitive to their feelings, offer support, and show love.
*I’d like to stress that I’m not a doctor or certified in any way to treat people with eating disorders, I’m merely basing my advice off of my own personal experiences with anorexia and bulimia. I encourage everyone suffering with an eating disorder to talk to their doctor about treatment and begin the road to recovery as soon as possible.
To learn more about eating disorders and recovery, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.

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