Navigating Christmas With An Eating Disorder
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
It’s just one day.
It’s nothing. A blip.
Plus, it’s not even really a whole day. I mean, when I was ill I did a lot of sleeping. And you can sleep late and go to bed early, so then that cuts it in half, doesn't it?
I know for me, it was the bit in the middle that I worried about. The bit that everyone else likes best: Christmas dinner.
It’s just one day. One meal, really. It’s nothing.
But however much I said it, the fear didn't go away.
In the UK today, there are approximately 1.6 million people living with an eating disorder This is likely to be an underestimate as we know there is a huge level of unmet need in the community. (1) and of course,they can be builders,athletes, teachers, students, accountants, police officers, grandparents. People with eating disorders are as varied as, well...people
Some of those 1.6 million people will be dangerously thin. Some will be, clinically speaking, 'overweight'.
But whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever their unique pattern of distress, they have somethings in common.
They’re stressed out by big occasions. Of attention. Of social pressure.
Which means they dread Christmas.
My mum and siblings all knew the way it worked. They knew not to ask awkward questions. They knew to leave me to it.
But my step-grandmother didn't.
We didn't see them all that often. On this particular Christmas, it had been a year since my diagnosis and we'd (mostly) tacitly agreed to include my illness in the general denial of all things bad in my family. My step-grandmother, and to a lesser extent my granddad, were blunt speaking, no nonsense people, and no one had thought to let them know. I knew from experience their response to most problems in life, including some terrible things that they had experienced themselves, was to just toughen up and cope with it.
I was terrified of what their response might be to my eating disorder.
I started making lists of all the questions and comments I thought might come from them that I feared the most; I practised them and rehearsed them over and over in my head to try and separate the sense of panic from them.
"You can take one day off, can't you?"
"There's next to nothing on that plate"
"A few more potatoes won't hurt you"
"You looked prettier before, you know"
"Young men don't like it when you're all skin and bones.."
People with eating disorders plan and prepare obsessively. What will I eat today? When will I eat it? When will I exercise? I made so many lists and tables. I am still exceptionally quick at mental arithmetic even though I am rubbish at maths in general. Despite all this planning, I worried. I worried about everything I could find to worry about, and if by some miracle I woke up with nothing to worry about, I would start worrying about what I'd forgotten.
Part of what makes Christmas so difficult is the lack of structure. It’s a completely unstructured break: there’s nothing on the to-do list but eating, drinking, and being merry. And if you have an eating disorder, you’re terrible at all three.
I would try my best. I would prepare and research every detail I could. I made special trips to the supermarket to check out the calories and nutrient content of every special Christmas snack food I might be 'surprised' by; the whole holiday is filled with surprises. Surprise visitors, surprise presents, surprise trips. It reminds healthy people about the joy of living in the moment. It mystified me how anyone could enjoy spontaneity, and just reminded me constantly of how differently I was wired, and how lonely that made me feel.
I helped with serving up the main course, so I could control what was on my plate. I had the checklist of numbers in my head for two medium roast potatoes, one roast parsnip, five sprouts. a slice and a half of the roast.
I got through the main course, just. There was too much talking and laughing to notice my struggle. So caught up in the illness, I couldn't enjoy my granddad's stories and Sid James laugh, or my mum's quick, surreal humour, or just listening to the wonderful noise of the family all together.
I felt like I'd made it, but then it was time for pudding. Mum had gone to so much trouble. It was homemade. It was already blazing as she brought it in. I had thought I would be able to be alone in the kitchen to cut some off and weigh it . That's what I'd prepared for, but mum was happily serving everyone. My panic increased, I was trying not to cry, but I didn't want to draw attention to myself. I didn't want to ruin everyone's day again. I watched that serving spoon, I heard the pleased, appreciative comments. and because I felt trapped, I began to feel angry.
As I just watched that spoon and ball of calories getting closer to me, I heard my brother saying "I'll have hers" and mum trying to reassure me "I'll just give you a little bit" I tried to smile at her but then heard my step-grandmother's comment "I hope you're not on a diet-you're all skin-and bone" And I then I lashed out, knocking the bowl away from me, breaking it against the wall.
And I panicked and ran out of the house. And I walked alone. For hours.
I still feel incredibly uncomfortable writing about this, about that day I ruined, even though I've been recovered for so long now.
I thought I'd finish this post with some tips about surviving Christmas and those days in limbo leading up to New Year: the days when families come together, food is everywhere and things come to a head.
A few ways to survive Christmas
1. Planning Things
Needing to plan isn't what you're aiming at in recovery. It can help you navigate those Christmas, though. I mean, you're so good at this. You make plans every hour of every day, and at Christmas, you can use the laser like focus this illness has created and turn it against it. Structure your day: Watching a film, listening to music, taking a bath, catching up on your reading, can be planned in to give you some time alone.
You can also plan what or how you're going to eat. Don't feel overwhelmed because everyone's talking about eating more, but decide you're not going to eat any less. It's also a great time to challenge yourself and set yourself a new 'baseline' . You can push your intake more at this time knowing that everyone is eating more; maybe go for seconds (or thirds!) and try to see the pervasive guilt or shame for what they are: feelings that will pass.
You can plan activities with others, like watching a film or playing a board game around the times your anxiety usually really gets out of hand or you feel that you're more likely to fall back on negative behaviours like purging.
2. Include Your Family And Friends Plans are more likely to work if you include your loved ones. It can be really hard, depending on your situation. And sharing really doesn’t come naturally to any of us with eating disorder wiring. but it can make you feel supported, understood and can increase accountability. It can really help if your parents or spouse or housemates understand why you want to play a board game or watch a film straight after dinner. Your supporter doesn’t necessarily have to be at home with you. You can phone, text , set up a Zoom call with them, whatever works for you, but let them know in advance that you might call on them
3. Practise And Visualise At Christmas, normal food rules don't tend to apply . People might eat profiteroles for breakfast, or drink bucks fizz and graze on party food all day. If you have an eating disorder, this can be really scary. Practising can help. Try eating the foods you’ll eat on Christmas Day before Christmas Day. Try snacking. If you have guests on the day itself, rehearsing the whole meal beforehand can really help. Visualisation is a powerful alternative. Visualise in as much detail as you can, the table laid out, the smells, the sounds, and visualise yourself feeling calm and anxiety free. Visualisation can be really effective but repeated practice is important.
4.Change The Conversation. Even more than usual, every festive conversation seems to be about food. What you’re having for Christmas dinner. or for Boxing Day. Or for New Years Day. Whether we should get a big tin of Roses, or Quality Streets. What roast you're having and how big it needs to be for 6, 10, or 15 people. Of course there'll be sprouts, but what other veggies-and how many mince pies will we need? the talk is seemingly endless and I remember how anxious and drained it made me feel. And of course in January, the talk and the media focus shifting to diets and weight-loss and 'new year/new you' nonsense, creates another set of problems, but that's a subject for another post.
But you can change the conversation. Drawing on number 2, (including your family and friends) You can tell your family that it would help you not to talk about food, or ask them to help you make a list of other topics to bring up when your aunt starts agonising about her fourth mince pie, or how stuffed she is. Try discussing favourite Christmas songs, or the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, or what book everyone has just finished. or , I don't know, if animals could talk, which would be the rudest?
5. Have An Escape Plan
Socialising can be hard with an eating disorder at any time of the year. It means breaking routines and having to risk food you didn't choose or prepare yourself. These are reasons why you really should go. But don't be too hard on yourself. Give yourself a minimum time you have to stay, (mine was always 45 minutes: I often found the urge to bolt passed by then and I could stay longer). Have a reason you may have to leave ready, just in case.
If you've agreed to go and later realised you really can't face it, or if you've reached your 'get-together' maximum, don't beat yourself up. Keep your reasons vague ( 'I'd love to come, but I can't') and try not to feel too guilty. Eating disorders are associated with a higher degree of social obligation, but people aren't going to hate you if you say no. Just promise yourself you'll show your face at the next one.
6. Remember To Enjoy Yourself
A weird part of having an eating disorder is the guilt we feel about almost everything. About not getting your project finished immediately, or not spending time enough time with your friends, or spending too much time with your friends and not enough on your study, or a million other things we make ourselves feel bad about. Well Christmas, if it’s about anything, is about doing traditions. You have the right to make your own traditions and start them at any time. That might mean going for a solo paddle in the sea on Christmas morning, shutting yourself in your bedroom and listening to country music, or learning a new skill like drawing, watching cute animal videos or playing Minecraft. Make sure you allow time in your plan for whatever you like doing, and try not to feel guilt about doing it.
7. Accept It Won't Be Perfect
People argue. Even more people argue at Christmas. Lots of people cry and lots of people shout. I doubt if anyone has ever had a 'perfect' Christmas day. If things go wrong, it’s OK. If you cry, or someone shouts, or you find yourself having a 'big' conversation and someone else cries, it’s OK. Take a breath, take some time, and start again.
Again, remember, it's only a day. Hold on to the fact that, no matter how bad it is, it's temporary. The next day, you'll wake up and realise you got through it. If it's been really tough, use the impetus to make sure next Christmas will be better. Plan little steps in your daily life to improve things, like returning texts to keep lines of communication open with friends, Go to your GP, reach out to your partner, parents, friends, find a therapist or coach. Recovery is easier with support. It will still be bloody hard, but it is possible, and it can happen for you. You do deserve health, happiness, intimacy and,yes, maybe next year, a much happier Christmas.
(1)Joint Commissioning Panel For Mental Health (www.jcpmh.info/wp-content/uploads/10keymsgs-eatingdisorders.pdf)