During the holiday season – whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah – it’s tradition to give thanks, just as a family, for each other, for good health and fortune, good food and math grades. A time to reflect, to pause and cherish all the beautiful things one has. Between the cooking and the eating and the holiday themed movie binge watching, religious or not, you say a quick prayer, to whomever or whatever, for all of your loved ones, hoping that they are happy and healthy.
Say a quick prayer for your loved ones suffering with an eating disorder, because this is a season full of triggers, and the wish to be happy and healthy may not be so easy.
They are not mythical, made up beings, these people who starve themselves in hopes of disappearing, the people who throw up hoping that they will feel something other than the ache. They are real people. They are the people you love – siblings, best friends, cousins, parents and significant others.
You would do anything to help someone you love, right?
Please understand – the words you say are important. You may think you’re being helpful, that your words have the power to cure an eating disorder. If only it were that simple.
Don’t guilt them by going on about how you slaved all day cooking dinner, that turkey is expensive, that food belongs in their stomach instead of a toilet bowl. This is their burden to carry – don’t make it about you. They already feel guilty that their eating disorder impedes so much on the lives of those around them. They don’t need a reminder.
Hold them a little closer when they reach their breaking point. Because they always reach their breaking point.
They are filled with the apologies that they just cannot say: “I’m sorry I threw up your turkey dinner.” “I’m sorry I can’t talk about what I got for Christmas, I’m too busy counting the calories in this eggnog.” “I’m sorry I can’t be like everyone else.”
Don’t ever make them feel like they need to apologize, like they had done something wrong. They can’t help that they are powerless to the voice in their head telling them that they are not good enough. That voice doesn’t go away for the holidays like we do.
Your loved one will hate how their eating disorder is a dark cloud cast over the holidays, but it’s too hard to talk about, so to avoid infecting anyone with their problems, they’ll distance themselves from you.
Don’t let them feel alone, but don’t smother them.
Help distract them. Watching a cheesy Christmas movie? Great. Celebrating Hanukkah? Spin that dreidel a couple of times. Is it time to open gifts? Let them open theirs first, get excited for them.
Do it all while silently reminding them that you will not let them withdraw further into themselves.
Keep in mind that they are not just suffering emotionally. Eating disorders are hard on their bodies. They feel weak from starving and the smell of freshly baked Christmas fruitcake is making them nauseous. Maybe their hands and throats are bloodied and sore from trying to throw up the three peanuts they told themselves they wouldn’t have. There’s always a chance that they’ll faint. Maybe they’ll have to be rushed to the hospital.
They are human – their bodies can only endure so much. Don’t expect them to be layered with steel when all they want is to be bones.
And for god’s sake, if they have enough courage to talk to you about their struggles this holiday season, listen to them. Eating disorders are not easy. They are hard to walk alone. If they have some semblance of strength to talk to you about it, don’t tell them that you don’t want to hear about it, that the holidays are for being happy.
Silence gives strength to eating disorders.
Instead, tell them that the holidays are a time when we should show and tell each other that we love them, and only wish for them to be happy and healthy. Give them your hand and tell them that you may not understand what they are going through, but you want to love them through it.
Offer to help them find a professional to talk about their eating disorder with. Promise that you will go to a session with them, so you can better understand their struggle. Tell them that they do not have to go through this alone.
If someone you love is battling anorexia, bulimia or other variations of eating disorders, be patient and sensitive.
They want to enjoy the holidays just as much as you do.