The holiday season is especially hard for people with food issues. Here's how one woman found a way to cope
I've always been a perfectionist and pretty self-critical, but when I was in my mid-teens I started to struggle with depression and anxiety. School was really stressful, and it often caused me to lose my appetite so I started dropping weight really quickly. Then, all of a sudden I started getting a lot of compliments—people were saying how great I looked—and I realized, this is something I could be really good at.
That was the moment my weight loss morphed into anorexia.
A Dark Descent
I began really restricting my food, but I was in complete denial that I had an eating disorder. I continued on this way for over two years, watching my body get smaller and smaller. Eventually, my parents hospitalized me because it got so bad—and that's when the lightbulb went on for me again. But this time, I recognized I was destroying my body instead of making it better. It was the first step in a brutal recovery journey that lasted nearly 14 years. Anyone with an eating disorder will tell you that it isn't easy to come back from, and I was no exception. Right when I would start to do well again, I would relapse for some reason or another. It happened over and over again, through the rest of my teenage years and well into my 20s.
One of the hardest times of the year was, of course, the holidays. Everyone around me always seemed so happy, but my day-to-day life was anything but. When Thanksgiving or Christmas approached—holidays that are centered around food and family—I legitimately felt terrified, like a catastrophe was about to implode on me. I dreaded the season, and some years it was so overwhelming that I refused to attend any family events. (Speaking of, here's how to deal when you hate the holidays.) I'd actually have panic attacks when I thought of forcing my way through a day full of big meals and constant eating. It wasn't my family's fault; they are a tight-knit group and so loving, with such fun traditions. But it was a huge, ugly battle for me.
Road to Recovery
It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I was finally ready to get better for good. You have to actively want recovery, and until that point I wasn't really ready to fight (hence the subsequent relapses). But about three and a half years ago, I finally reached rock bottom. I was at Eating Recovery Center for the third time, and was so incredibly sick of being sick that I just wanted to give up. I'll admit that I was having suicidal thoughts, but I also told myself that I had to try one last time to get better. I would give it a full year and actually put in the effort. So I moved back in with my parents, got a full-time job as a nanny, and slowly started to feed my body and gain weight. I started to feel better, and by the time that one-year deadline showed up on my calendar, I realized that I wasn't just doing well, I was planning for the future—something I definitely hadn't been doing 365 days earlier. Finally, I felt like my life was worth fighting for.
The holidays were still tough when I was in recovery. But instead of letting myself get overwhelmed to the point of panic, I tried to stay focused on my healthy meal plan, stuck to my own schedule, and drove to family events separately just in case I felt overwhelmed and needed to leave early. That helped a lot; once I was there, I would eat when I was hungry, even if that meant not waiting until the big family meal was ready. I knew I had to just keep myself comfortable and not worry about pleasing other people—listening to and respecting my body was more important.
My family also started broadening our family traditions beyond food in an effort to support my recovery. We included fun activities like big family board games, and really focused on enjoying each other's company. And even though I am the only one in the family with an eating disorder, I've had several relatives, including my cousins, tell me they really appreciated taking the focus off the food. (Read about the epidemic of hidden eating disorders.)
A Healthy Future
I've been in active recovery now for a few years, and for me that means eating what I want when I want, listening to my body, and enjoying it for what it is—a tool to do all the things I want to do with my life. I've used my health to take steps toward all my hopes and dreams, like traveling the world and starting a photography business.
When I was in therapy, I made a collage of what I wanted my future to look like. Recently, I came across it and realized it's a true reflection of what my life looks like today. Getting healthy has allowed me to achieve so much. I've traveled a ton, have a full-time job, am growing my photography business on the side, and spend a lot of free time hiking and camping outdoors with my dog. (There are so many mental health benefits to hiking.) I see a therapist every other week, since I know that I have a high risk of relapse. But the sessions are more focused on helping me build a fulfilling life. My eating disorder finally feels like it's in my past.
And the holidays aren't such a big deal anymore. I know what my triggers are and I've learned to work around them. Yeah, I still cringe when people make comments about how much food we've all eaten after a big feast, and I struggle with all the commentary around weight gain and the holidays, but it doesn't control me anymore. I didn't eat so many of these special foods for so long that I get really excited now for my aunt's mashed potatoes and my grandma's Christmas cookies. Those foods brought me so much pain for so many years, and now I can finally enjoy them.
Last November, I spent the week of Thanksgiving in Iceland. After a day of walking on black sandy beaches and photographing giant waterfalls, I sat under the northern lights and reflected on what I was truly thankful for—the ability to spend the holiday respecting and appreciating my recovery.
Tips to Get Through the Holidays If You Have an Eating Disorder
The same factors that make the holidays stressful for everyone—packed schedules, heightened family tension, pressure for everything to be perfect—make it a particularly tough time for people struggling with eating issues, says Allison Chase, Ph.D., executive director of the Eating Recovery Center of Austin. "There's food everywhere, and it goes hand in hand with socializing," she says. "For someone with eating issues, these social events and activities at home and work can be particularly uncomfortable."
It's also a time when food issues can rise to the surface, so she advises watching for red flags, like finding yourself becoming overly obsessed with working out to compensate for what you've eaten, or having trouble coping with the loss of gym time due to holiday events. (Here's what it's like to have exercise bulimia.) And if you go to parties and can't stop thinking about the food or tabulating what you've eaten at the expense of enjoying the party, that's a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food, she says. If this sounds familiar, follow her tips for navigating the season.
Don't ignore your feelings. Pretending you're fine doesn't help anyone, so pay attention to how holiday events really make you feel. Tending to yourself sometimes means being honest and recognizing that it might be better for you to say no to certain invitations. If media around avoiding holiday weight gain is a trigger for you, do what you can to avoid it.
Focus on the socializing. If being by the buffet table makes you anxious and keeps you from having a good time, it's okay to step away and focus on conversations with family and friends instead.
Stick to your regular schedule. Not eating all day because you're going to a party at night is not a good plan. Continue to eat your regular meals, which will help keep you from focusing too much on the food come party time.
Amp up your self care. Battle seasonal stress and make time for yourself to balance out the craziness—whether that means a hot bath, a yoga class, or a small gathering with just a few friends instead of a packed party. "Give yourself an out for certain events, go to others just briefly, and let friends or family know what you're struggling with so they can support you," says Chase.