A look at how Christmas can be a massive trigger for those of us with eating disorders.
There are many topics you’re not supposed to bring up over a festive meal: Brexit, existentialism, your uncle’s weed problem, and – my personal favourite – your eating disorder. The festive period is when, for many, eating disorders are the most difficult. Food is always the centerpiece: festive meals, holiday drinks, baking gingerbread and hot chocolates, to name but a few. It’s overwhelming, to say the least. The only difference between the holiday season and the rest of the year is those same intrusive thoughts are now in the tune of Jingle Bells - maybe louder than ever.
Efforts to fully join in with the festivities were often rendered futile. 13-year-old me lay doubled over on the floor of a toilet cubicle, clutching her stomach, the pain consuming her. She didn’t want another fun family outing consumed by her eating disorder. Some festive menu special was stuffed into a stomach, so beaten, worn, shrunken after all its starvation. She tried so hard to resist this thing - and now her body was rebelling. Eating disorders don’t take a holiday, even if we want them to.
Worst of all, society knows this. Indulge yourself, go on it’s Christmas, be a little naughty – all these messages telling us to enjoy food come with the snide whisper that certain foods are “bad”. And so, we’re made to believe we’re revolutionary in merely eating them. Really, these companies are just capitalising off our insecurities. Food has no morality. Not even during the holidays. Accepting our bodies and ourselves, all year round, is the most radical and subversive thing you can do – not eating Quality Streets.
But food is rarely a solo activity, at least not at this time of year. A fear of others seeing me eat is one of a few hangovers from my mainly dormant eating disorder. The feeling of eyes on me, glances following my hands as I reach for a mince pie, my plate loaded with the unwarranted comments of others – it never gets easier. It’s a minefield.
And those eyes burning into me, whether real or imagined, are that of your family. To say I’m blessed with my family is an understatement, but even still, this season brings back some tricky feelings. My eating disorder didn’t grow from a deep-rooted fear of cake but rather a child’s effort to manage difficult family relations. Being pushed back into that family setting, assuming once again the status of a child, is a difficult feat. That stifling, suffocating powerlessness comes back full force. Older family members bustle in the door, bringing in a bitter coldness as they thrust you their coat – and their baggage. You answer all the usual questions about what you’re doing, who you’re seeing, how you’re looking. Pursed lips and judging eyes remind you that it’s not enough. You’re not enough. Your sister is skinnier and prettier, your dad would never approve, your cousin is more talented. As they flippantly pass the cranberry sauce, they recall estranged or dead relatives, forgetting the little kid in you hasn’t yet processed this loss, can’t yet talk about it. As they chew on another roast potato, you’re left choking on the lump in your throat you’re no closer to swallowing than when you were 10. All your childhood trauma stuffed into one dinner. Indulge in that.
And so, self-care is vital during the holidays. With already patchy mental health services (thank you kindly, Tory government), the festive period often means an altogether halt of any help. Those struggling are left untethered, grappling with their ongoing illness at one of the most difficult times of year. Amongst the festivities, it’s hard to escape for a few moments of solace. The mechanisms you put in place, so carefully, so meticulously, all come crashing down. For me, reading, yoga, connecting with my body, cooking, solo underwear dance parties, having time alone - it all slips away. We become so enthralled in this season of togetherness we forget to be alone.
But that’s the thing. We’re so blessed to be surrounded by our loved ones and so, really, we should utilise that. Seek comfort in those around you. Make sure your nearest and dearest know what you need. A quick whisper to my mum that I need a breather amongst a hectic family meal soothes any food guilt. An anxious dance with my sister calms my heart rate. A phone call with my best friend reassures me I’m okay. If you’re not surrounded by those you seek comfort in, I’m sorry. Know your limits. Don’t push yourself. Take time out. Set your boundaries. Your people are only a phone call away.
So really, I think we’re going to be okay. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, reach out. If you’re not, reach out to others. It’s a season of loving – let’s do our best to love ourselves and each other.
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