An Eating Disorder Survivors' Guide to the Holidays

“The most wonderful time of the year” can be a nightmare for anyone dealing with an eating disorder. Here are some tips to cope so you can have fun!
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Kristina Headrick
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“The most wonderful time of the year” can be a nightmare for anyone dealing with an eating disorder. Here are some tips to cope so you can have fun!
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The holiday season is officially, inescapably here. For many this means breaking out cocktail dresses, flitting about like a social butterfly, and indulging in all sorts of yummy foods and cocktails. All rhetoric of "joy" aside, it’s a tough time of year for anyone who currently has or is working to overcome an eating disorder -- does one ever fully recover? My first purge happened on Thanksgiving in the 10th grade. Needless to say the impending Thursday feast triggers rough memories.

What’s no fun (and might I add completely unfair) are the feelings of dread that inevitably creep up during "most wonderful time of the year."

Being as they are centered on consumption, facing the holidays with an eating disorder can feel like meeting an armed enemy. Maybe you see Grandma for the first time in months and she inevitably pinches your cheeks, offering her signature unsolicited remarks on your weight. You dread the snarky comments -- “so happy to see you eating again!” -- about how little or how much food you’re putting into your own damn mouth. The temptation to down calorie-heavy martinis like everyone else at the company party makes your mind race. Perhaps the endless trays of appetizers, wrapped like little gifts, feel like a sick joke when you’re trying not to binge.

I now face this time of year like the warrior princess I fancy myself to be (in my head at least) and no amount of cheese trays or punch bowls gets in the way of my fun. I can honestly say I am recovered from years of bulimia, binge eating and intense restriction, but it took years of fighting. The real battle to stay healthy and not relapse takes effort and I’d like to share the weapons that work for me. Read below and share your own hacks in the comments!

(Please note that I am not neither a doctor or a psychologist. This is all based on personal experience.)

1. Have a buddy. While it’s true only you can hold yourself accountable, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to have a have a non-judgmental someone who knows my situation and is there to reach out to if shit gets weird. For many survivors there's an added layer of angst that comes with grappling over whether you should ask for support for fear of inflating the issue or making others feel awkward. Arrange to have someone you can text who’s out of your immediate situation in case negative thought patterns arise.

2. Be mindful. At the risk of going all Oprah on you I’m about to do just that. Imagine the scenario: You spot the artichoke dip and its attendant dipping bread. Instead of beelining and binging or running away, take a moment to breathe deeply. Take a moment to think about the situation objectively. Realize it’s just cheesy stuff mixed with artichokes and it's not out to get you. Yes, you can eat (and enjoy!) a normal amount without overeating or completely withholding. Let a few other people go for the dip. Take time to decide if you actually want it or if you’re just kind of drunk from downing wine after Aunt Marge cornered you with the whole “Why you aren’t interested in settling down any time soon?” conversation. Pay attention to your thoughts and try to slow down, it goes a long way when you’re literally battling yourself.

3. Don't believe the hype. Yes you might indulge in more slices of pie this time of year than the remaining 12 months combined, but remember the effect is not nearly as bad as you think. Studies show the average amount of weight someone gains during the holidays is far less than people think. Sure, every egg nog and baked brie may send flares of imminent disaster to your head, but remember that it’s just that -- something in your head. Wily marketers want you to think the holidays are a danger zone so they can sell unsafe supplements and hiked-up gym memberships to your impressionable self. 

Of course recognizing this is easier said than done when trying to keep the compulsive ED thought monsters at bay, but perhaps find comfort in the fact that almost everyone overindulges this time of year. Try to think of the last time you noticed that "everyone" had gotten "so fat" in such a small period of time. Don’t take yourself or the media hype so seriously! It’s unlikely a few overindulgences will wreck your routine.

4. Remove yourself from the situation! If you’re still at a point in recovery where the thought of facing any heavy hors d'oeuvres situation gives you crippling anxiety, remember you don’t have to go to every single party. Yes, food-centric events seem inevitable in our privileged culture, but who says you have to buy into that? 

On my first Thanksgiving in NYC I was too poor to travel home and decided on a whim to volunteer at a soup kitchen. I come from a huge ethnic family and this was weird to them, but that day I found myself surrounded by hundreds of volunteers (people whose spouses had passed, faux orphans like myself, hyper dedicated volunteers). It helped me realize that not only are there alternatives to dedicating an entire day to overeating, but a lot of people do it! 

There was valuable perspective to be gained in remembering many literally do not have the option to overeat (or diet, for that matter). If it seems like the right step in your recovery plan explain to your family or friends why you’d rather not face the holiday meal this year, and opt to remove yourself from the situation. There are alternatives! I am not trying to sound preachy at all but did want to point to a fulfilling alternative.

5. Exercise. For me, exercise is a part of my recovery and helps me to achieve that mindfulness I mentioned earlier. But company parties often lead to late nights which segue smoothly to snooze buttons. It’s a social time of year but that doesn't mean you should give up on your relationship with YOU. Prioritize your needs!

Remember that even though your grandmother says “you look too skinny” you don’t owe her or anyone any explanations. It's your body, your health, and your mental well-being. ’Tis the season to take charge and enjoy it.