How I Learned To Survive Eating Disorders And The Holiday Season

Toa Heftiba

The holidays can be trying times for those who have a faulty relationship with food. It seems as though family, friend, and work gatherings are centered more around what is on our plates and less around what is in our hearts. Company parties and family dinners can be riddled with anxiety-provoking scenarios, especially for those of us who face a daily struggle with what to, or rather, what not to eat. And while the research on eating disorders is clear in that that illnesses are not about food, but rather complex emotional systems, that still does not detract from the fact that being faced with a multitude of food choices can be, to say the least, nerve-wracking.

Some of us who struggle have adopted strategies to implement when the holidays roll around, while some of us are still trying to recover from last years gatherings. I’ve been down both roads as I battled Anorexia for ten years. I know what it is like to have a strategic approach to sitting down with family and I know what it is like to attend work gatherings where food options are often subject to uncertainty. Whichever ground you currently stand on, I hope that these tips can help buttress you against this coming seasons dinner dilemmas, and provide you with some comfort knowing you are not alone.

1. Find Strength In Numbers

There is some reassurance knowing that you are not the only one who finds holidays emotionally stressing. Food is a touchy subject for many more of us then one may think, but in the midst of social gatherings, we may be inclined to believe that it is only ourselves contending with this inner conflict. Knowing that food-based fears are not relative to only yourself, can alleviate some of the stress that comes from thinking we are all alone in the struggle. There are thousands of others sharing a meal that are experiencing the same apprehension. One of which is writing this article for you. The first holiday season after my inpatient stay for Anorexia was emotionally intense. The family was aware of my return home from treatment, which brought with it a compulsion to show that I was “recovered.” As we sat down to eat, I thought back to the other patients that shared similar food fears. Remembering that I was not alone in this struggle, but that others were experiencing the same feelings of trepidation on that same day, gave me the courage to get through the meal. In essence, shifting focus from myself and thinking of others who were struggling, helped quiet the voice that attempted to prevent me from enjoying the holidays.

2. Formulate a Moderation Plan

Having armed yourself with a strategy for how to navigate the holiday season can be an emotional lifesaver. While we certainly cannot predict menu options (unless made aware of in advance,) we can create a list of skills to pull from that may prevent emotional meltdowns from occurring in the event of unforeseen circumstances. One such approach that I have utilized in the past is meal preparedness. Last year, I knew that Thanksgiving dinner was going to be a vast array of gourmet sides and rich desserts. In planning for that evening, I made sure to eat sensibly during the day. I engaged in a moderate approach, making sure that I had eaten earlier in the day to prevent overeating later that night. Eating sensibly and formulating a logical plan, I was able to go to dinner and enjoy some of the foods offered to me. Taking this “moderation plan” one step further, I allowed myself to enjoy dessert, without feeling as though I had to eat a slice of each pie. Being rational in my decisions, both prior to and during dinner, allowed me to be present in the moment and experience a joyful gathering with family.

3. The Reason for The Season

Being present in the moment leads me to the third survival strategy for holidays. As I mentioned previously, it seems as though society tends to place greater emphasis on the actual meal and less on the meaning behind the occasion. For those of us who are religious, the traditions behind the holiday season are really the fundamental aspects of what our familial gatherings mean. The spiritual element of Christmas can often be overlooked as we become focused on gift giving and food preparation. But for those of us who are not religious, the very gathering of family and friends in presence of food, offers to us a spiritual element. The dining table is a place of community, an environment in which we can come together and share our stories. I recall one year at a holiday function, as I gathered with coworkers for dinner, we opened up to one another, sharing personal stories that were not typical discussions had during the workweek. We learned stories of each other’s families, why it is we chose mental health as a career, and what it meant to be a working professional with a family at home. In that moment, I forgot the angst I had felt sitting down to order, and instead was able to enjoy the time spent with colleagues.

This holiday season, remember you are not alone. There is someone in this world of unique individuals, facing the same fears as you. Some people, including yourself, may not have a support system in which they can call upon. When reassurance from others is lacking, look within. Find in yourself, the creativity to devise a strategy for how to handle the days that may seem overwhelming. I have always found journaling to be helpful in gathering my thoughts in a logical manner. Come up with a reasonable plan and make a conscientious effort to stick to it. Most importantly, remember what the purpose is of the holiday season. Whether or not you are religious, gathering around the dining table creates an environment which affords an opportunity to develop new bonds. Historically, sharing food has been one of the many ways communities were built. Learn something new about a friend or family member and share something intriguing about yourself. Try your best to make the most of these experiences by taking a deep breath and remembering, every moment is a gift. That is the best present you could ask for this holiday. TC mark

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