It’s December. The world is preparing for Christmas in terms of purchasing presents, arranging travel, and planning social events. For a person suffering from an eating disorder, however, a whole different sort of planning needs to be done.
Christmas is fun, right?
Not if you let an eating disorder ruin it.
Eating disorders ruin Christmas for the person suffering from them, but they are also pretty effective at ruining the season for the whole family. For that reason, if you have a person with an eating disorder in your family, it is in your interests too to help them plan for success. Many of you who are partners or parents of a person with an eating disorder know this only too well.
Christmas involves food. Anything that involves food is disablingly difficult for a person with an eating disorder. What does it feel like? Okay, so I often compare eating food to confronting your worst fear. Imagine if the approaching holiday that everyone in your life was so excited about meant that for a week you had to sit in a snake pit at least three times a day. Think of something that really scares you — that is what it feels like when someone with an eating disorder has to eat. Now can you see why a person with an eating disorder may be dreading Christmas?
That is the reality, but I tend to like action. Nobody has to be a victim to an eating disorder. Planning, strategy and precedence can help you and the family overcome.
How to Handle Christmas with an Eating Disorder:
1. Recognize that the stress is here already
For those of you who are reading this and do not have an eating disorder yourselves, one thing that most sufferers will try and hide from you is the sheer level of anxiety and stress they are dealing with right now — three weeks out from Christmas day.
To understand, imagine something really scary — I don’t know, something like a heart bypass, or a large operation, or whatever your worst nightmare is —, and imagine that is it posted in your calendar about three weeks from now. I doubt you would be able to put it out of your mind, would you?
For a person with an eating disorder, the stress is already here. The looping thoughts around Christmas dinner, seasonal snacks, having to eat with family, are already in the sufferers mind — even if they don’t tell you about it.
If you are suffering from an eating disorder yourself, your role in this step is vital. You have to talk to someone about the thoughts and feelings you are having. I don’t mean you have to go to therapy (unless you want to), I mean that if you are working with an Eating Disorder Check Person (EDCP) — a friend or family member who is helping you with eating disorder Family Based Therapy — then you have to proactively sit down with them and tell them what is going on.
Sometime next week I am going to publish a Christmas with an Eating Disorder Planning Meeting example agenda and some other pdfs that you can download to help you with this. In the meantime, you have to start the conversation. I know this is tough because your eating disorder hates you to talk about it — but you have to if you want Christmas to be anything other than a anxiety-ridden mess this year.
Caregivers/Parents/Partners Tip: Recognizing that the anxiety and stress is already present allows you to sit down and have a frank discussion on how to reduce this stress.
2. Don’t indulge the thoughts
An eating disorder creates a barrage of negative thoughts and anxieties around an event such as Christmas. While you cannot control the thoughts that are generated (these do go away with recovery through) you can control your reaction to them. You have to become very disciplined in that you are not allowed to indulge these dumb-ass eating disorder thoughts.
Here is an example. A couple of weeks before Christmas, your eating disorder will start to chime in with thoughts like “you should start exercising more now in order to prepare for all the food you are going to eat at Christmas.” Or, another little gem is “you shouldn’t eat as much now to prepare you for all the food you will stuff your face with at Christmas.”
Your reaction can either be:
A: Shit shit shit shit shit OMG Maybe I should exercise more. Maybe I should eat less. Maybe Shit shit shit shit shit etc etc etc.
B: Eating disorder you are not the boss of me.
I strongly recommend that you start to practice option B. Better still, add a clause “and just for annoying me I am going to eat an additional mince pie today just to piss you off.” That will teach your eating disorder that you mean business and it better pipe down and leave you alone.
This is hard at first, but it is a perfect opportunity to start practicing shutting your ED thoughts down. It’s like that annoying younger brother who is constantly poking you with a stick, but like your mother always said you don’t have to let him get to you. When you feel yourself starting to panic, or you notice that you are thinking about Christmas again: take a deep breath, become calm, and turn your attention to something else.
Indulging in eating disorder thoughts will not help you. All that will happen is that you will strengthen the neural pathways that these thoughts run along. The more you indulge your eating disorder the stronger it becomes.
Caregivers/Parents/Partners Tip: Assume that the sufferer is having anxiety around Christmas and be sure to check in on a regular basis. Especially if you think they have seemed quieter than usual or anxious. Remember that often the eating disorder will not allow them to volunteer information about it, so inquire. With kindness and compassion ask them if they are worried about anything and see if you can get them to talk with you.
3. Divert Thoughts to Something More Interesting
So you told your eating disorder to sod off. Now what? You’ll have a moment of blank space in your head where the eating disorder’s obsessive thoughts were. Unless you fill it with something else your ED will start to chime in again.
Be proactive. Have something more important to think about queued up. There are a million more interesting things to think about than whatever it is that your eating disorder is dictating to you. Winter is a lovely time of year for reading, so one tip is to have a book handy that you pick up and read a couple of pages of when your eating disorder tries it on.
Another tip is phone a friend, as Christmas is a great time to check in with people with whom you have not spoken to for a while.
Exercise: Be prepared with a thought diversion. Some more ideas are:
- Write out a motivational list of all the reasons you want to recover and keep it with you to refer to when your eating disorder tries to pull you into a mental battle.
- Have a mantra prepared that you repeat in your head to push the eating disorder thoughts away.
- Download a puzzle game or crossword app on your phone and pull it out whenever your eating disorder nags at you.
- Join an online support group such as the one I set up for you here so that you can instantly have a gang of people on your side to counter whatever it is that your eating disorder is poking you about.
Caregivers/Parents/Partners Tip: Pay attention, if you think that your sufferer is looking preoccupied with ED thoughts, think of something distracting to talk to them about.
4. Stick to the meal plan. Every. Darn. Day.
The eating disorder will try and make you default on your meal plan in order to “save up” for Christmas. Don’t get sucked in.
Reducing your intake or skipping a meal gives more power to your eating disorder. Do not be fooled — the eating disorder will try and bribe you by telling you that if you eat less on the run up to Christmas it will allow you to enjoy Christmas Day. This is an outright lie.
All that will happen if you eat less running up to Christmas is that come Christmas the eating disorder will be supercharged (because remember, it fuels up as you go into negative energy balance).
Oh, and this applies to exercise too. Don’t you dare allow your eating disorder talk you into exercising more. Exercise is a symptom of an eating disorder and for many of us it is as disastrous as restricting food or purging in any other way.
Caregivers/Parents/Partners Tip: These weeks leading up to Christmas are vital. Make sure the sufferer is eating and not exercising. Also, watch your own behaviour and language and that of those around you. Talk of overeating at Christmas or “saving calories for the big day” by friends and family should be discouraged. If you do hear such things mentioned in the sufferers presence by unknowing friends, be sure to counter it immediacy by saying something that supports eating normally up to Christmas and is anti-diet behaviour. Then when you and the sufferer are alone next, make sure that you check in with them and reiterate that so-and-so’s comment about restricting food was stupid and not to be paid any attention to. This, of course, takes sensitivity and care.
5. Reduce Christmas spending stress with crafting
I found spending money almost as stressful as eating. It was horrid. Proper panic and fear at even the thought of buying someone else a present. Then a ton of guilt because I couldn’t understand why I was so mean and tight.
Turns out, now that I am recovered I just love to buy things for people again.
Some sufferers report binge spending behaviour, so we differ in our expressions of this affect of the eating disorder in the same way that some people binge eat and others purely restrict etc.
Anyhow, this is relevant as it adds more stress to this particular holiday than any other. Part of your recovery efforts may be to challenge this affect and set yourself minimum spending limits. However, if you simply cannot tackle the food stress and the spending stress (if it exists, as not all sufferers experience spending stress) at once, then you can compromise by crafting presents this year instead.
Crafting presents is amazing because:
- It is therapeutic to make, build, create gifts.
- It acts as a distraction.
- It reduces your overall stress level if spending money created stress for you.
- It is something that you can do with other people.
- Your friends and family will be very touched at such thoughtful gifts.
Caregivers/Parents/Partners Tip: If you think that spending anxiety may be a problem, consider bringing it up. Remember that most sufferers have no idea it is a symptom that many people with eating disorders experience so have one of the blog posts above at the ready to back you up. Often the sheer process of recognizing and talking about it is a relief in itself for sufferers.
6. Be frank about the impact that a Traditional Christmas may have on your recovery
Sometimes you simply have to weigh up the potential stress against the potential benefit. If you are underweight, weight gain is a priority that trumps everything else. Sit down with your EDCP or partner and have a frank discussion about where you are physically and mentally and if you might consider skipping the traditional Christmas this year altogether.
If you had cancer, would your extended family blame you for skipping the Christmas Day meal if it was counterproductive to your treatment?
Eating disorder recovery needs to be the priority. You have to put weight restoration and your mental health first. If you skip the family meal this year and opt instead for a quiet dinner with your partner at home because you know that is all you can handle then think of it as an investment. By putting your recovery first, you are increasing the chances that next year you will be in a solid place of recovery and you will be able to really enjoy that big ‘ol family Christmas.
Also, that’s not to say that you can’t celebrate Christmas. You can, just make it a smaller affair with less pressure.
Caregivers/Parents/Partners Tip: Make it very clear to the sufferer that their recovery is a priority and whatever you do, if you think that a smaller quieter affair is what is needed then you make the call to veto the big family gathering. Take lengths to make sure the sufferer doesn’t feel guilty for “ruining” your Christmas (because the eating disorder will pull that one on them). You can actually turn this into a really special and different day by planning something much smaller and more intimate at home.
Be Proactive. Plan. Conquer!
As adults with eating disorders we have to advocate for our own recovery. While it is not your fault if you have an eating disorder, you and only you can control your recovery. A victim mentality will not get you into recovery, and it will not make Christmas an enjoyable event for you this year. You have three weeks to focus and put your effort into not only making this holiday an eating disorder victory for you, but also using it to motivate you to take bigger steps in your recovery process.
Share with me how you are planning to conquer over ED this Christmas in the comments or you can tweet at me. I want to know what you are doing, where you are struggling, and how I can help.