It’s that time of year again. Here in the United States, Thanksgiving is just a few days away, while around the world Christmas and other winter holidays are fast approaching. For most people, this means good food and time spent with family. But for those of us with eating disorders, the holidays can be a nightmare.
When you’re in early recovery, every day — every meal — counts. Each morning you might plan out the day (to the best of your ability) to make sure you eat well and avoid any surprises that might cause unwanted stress and anxiety. However, the holiday hustle and bustle often doesn’t afford the luxury of planning ahead. The minute Aunt Mildred looks at you with that tender expression and asks why you won’t try a piece of her famous pecan pie, you know you need to make a decision.
Yes, the holidays can be stressful for a person in recovery from an eating disorder. No, you can’t plan every event down to the minute. But you can prepare yourself and make sure you keep your recovery — and your whole self — first.
Here are some of the things that I’m doing to prepare myself for my first Thanksgiving (and other holidays) in recovery. Maybe they can help you, too:
A Holiday Survival Guide
1. Plan ahead as best you can: Have breakfast, have lunch, and then, when it’s time for the big holiday feast, have dinner. Don’t feel pressured to make that meal different from any other meal you eat. And if you want a second helping of Grandma’s famous mashed potatoes, then go for it! Your body knows what to do with that food. As for appetizers and desserts? Sound like perfect snacks to me!
2. Talk with your nutritionist and/or therapist ahead of time. Discuss any traditions (or relatives) that you know tend to cause you stress. Work with your treatment team to come up with a plan to cope with these stressors.
3. Have a support person at the ready. Talk to a friend, a family member, a therapist, a boyfriend or girlfriend ahead of time and let him or her know you may need extra support that day. Then, if the meal or a family situation suddenly feels overwhelming, call or text that person so that you can reach out to someone in the moment.
4. In addition to reaching out to others ahead of time, think about what sort of things bring you comfort or encouragement. For example, I’ve made a “recovery board” on Pinterest that is full of positive and motivational quotes and photos. When I start to feel anxious or overwhelmed, I go outside for some fresh air and read the quotes, reminding myself that I’ve gotten through far more difficult experiences than holidays.
5. Above all else, remind yourself that a holiday meal is just that — a meal. Nothing more, nothing less. It nourishes your body and offers a special opportunity to gather with friends and family.
Bring Merriment Back to the Holidays
There’s something else you can do in addition to making a concrete coping plan — and that’s to reflect on what you want to get out of the holiday. Outside of the food and merriment, what do you want the day to really be about for you?
For my part, I’m trying something different this Thanksgiving. I’m not going to scold myself for overeating or plan how I will burn off the food I consume. Instead, I am intentionally turning this Thanksgiving — the most food-centric holiday on the calendar — into a day to celebrate my recovery from anorexia. I am going to use the day as a reminder that food is about nourishment and gathering, NOT about achieving a certain body. I’m going to consciously enjoy every bite of the meal (including dessert!) and reflect on how grateful I am to be establishing a healthy relationship with food. And if someone says something negative about the meal — for instance, lamenting how much they ate or talking about how they’re going to “make up for it” tomorrow — I’m going to use their comments as a mindfulness bell: they will remind me to stop and quietly take stock of where I am now versus where I was last Thanksgiving, and to solemnly appreciate the long journey of recovery that brought me to this place.
So that’s what I’m doing this holiday. Who’s in?
About Joanna Kay
Joanna Kay is a writer in New York City and is recovering from an eating disorder. She is the author of The Middle Ground, a blog that deals with issues that impact people midway through the recovery process. You can follow Joanna on Facebook and Twitter, and additionally you can check out her blog The Middle Ground. Follow her HMC posts on Twitter with #AfterAnorexia