Fun is important. Don’t let ED take that away from you this party season!
When I was sick with Anorexia I used to dread the Christmas season. Up until the age of 18 it was my favorite time of year. But the onset of my eating disorder as I turned 18 meant that what used to be a time chock-full of fun turned into a gauntlet of parties to dodge.
It’s not just that I couldn’t eat. That was a large part, but not all. It was the anxiety generated around being at a party where everyone else is chatting and mindfully snacking and knowing that I would barely be able to control my shaking hands. That was the first year.
The second year was worse because by then my eating disorder had created a world in which I had to move at all times. I could not sit. Even standing still reeked of anxiety. One cannot go to parties when one cannot stop moving long enough to say “Hello, how are you?”
I’ve always hated that I have to use the word “anxiety” to describe what my eating disorder created in my head. Anxiety makes me sound like an anxious person. I am not. Pre-illness I was the most confident person in the room. Anorexia turned me unto a shivering wreak at the thought of being in 10-foot of a mince pie. It’s like anxiety, but worse. Crippling. Embarrassing — or at least it was then when nobody, least of all me, understood what was wrong with me.
Over the years of recovery from my eating disorder I worked out how to make parties work out. In the early stages I focused on survival, in the later years I was able to focus on actively challenging myself with fear foods. (Because fear foods love to hang out at Christmas parties. A party is like a snake pit in that sense.)
Stage One: Focusing on the meal plan
If you are at the early stages of recovery (detail on these stages in my recovery guides), avoiding going to parties might be the best option. I know this sounds dismal, but if you are in active recovery, then this time next year you should be on your way and going out. If you are focusing on weight restoration and still struggling to eat per your meal plan, then quite frankly throwing a party into the mix is not going to help you much. The anxiety generated could set you back, and weight restoration has to be your priority today.
If you had cancer would you feel bad about missing out on Christmas parties this year in order to have treatment?
Being honest and level with friends and family is important. You have a brain-based illness that you are treating and hence need to stay at home and focus on medication (your meal plan) this year. Nobody is going to argue with that. Nobody is going to think you are being selfish. If they do: fuck them.
If you put in the time this year and focus on your medication (your meal plan) then next year you will be at a stage where you can go to parties — and possibly even enjoy them.
Hey, and who says that staying home is boring. If you decide that this is the best option for you, then plan to stay home and plan to have some bloody good fun doing it. Movies, games, friends. Plan some fun!
Stage Two: Venturing out … curiously.
You’ve been doing well and have a solid meal plan that you eat at home with support. This might be the year to being “testing” how you respond to going out. It really helped me to think of my situation as experimental. I was just trying things out and seeing what reactions different situations brought out in me. Like an observational science study. This way, any reactions that I felt, I could say “hmm … interesting …” to objectively rather than get sucked into the emotion.
Mindfulness practices are key here. Separating the feelings that I felt from “me.”
If I walked into a party and my hands began to shake, I would look at them and think to myself. “interesting, my eating disorder is having an anxiety-like reaction to this situation. Rather than “OMG I am anxious.”
The major difference here is “I am,” or the absence of it. If I tell myself that my eating disorder is reacting, that is difference that telling myself that I am reacting. When is my eating disorder reacting, I get to step aside and decide whether or not I want to be involved in that reaction, or if I want to choose a different one. Most of the time, I want to choose a different reaction than the one my eating disorder is trying to drag me into.
This was hard at first, but gets easier with practice. Within time I was able to take this “separating me from ED” practice to the point that I could smirk at my eating disorder reaction and think something like “go ahead, make my hands shake, you still won’t ruin my evening.”
If you are at the venturing out stage. Here are some more ideas about how to get around your eating disorder this year.
Externalize the thought patterns ED creates
My eating disorder used to hate it when I told people about it. That’s probably why I never stop talking and writing about it now 🙂
It didn’t like me telling people about it because it knew that if anyone else had half an idea about how much it was making my life hell that they would try and help me get rid of it. It used to tell me that if I told anyone what I was thinking and feeling I would be locked up in a mental asylum.
Eating disorder lies. All lies.
Turns out, that when I was able to explain to my partner. “The reason I’ve been an irritable cow today is because I have an eating disorder that is creating a torrent of abuse and so much noise in my head I can hardly see straight and all because there might be cocktail sausages at the party tonight ...” what I got was compassion, understanding and a brainstorm session on what we could do to lower the volume of noise in my head.
Even saying it out loud and hearing how ridiculous it sounds to be freaking out internally over the potential presence of cocktail sausages was usually enough to shake looping thought patten that the eating disorder creates. When you externalize that thought pattern, you turn it into a manageable problem.
So much of eating disorder recovery is project management. Most projects require a team to manage them. If the problem is a mental illness, that exists in your own brain, you cannot project manage it without externalizing it. That usually means talking to someone about it.
Food is medicine. Eat to your meal plan.
In the first year of venturing out, I ate as per my meal plan before going out. This way, I was able to reduce the pressure of eating while out. I was still experimenting with going out. I didn’t know how I would react to the party at all, so it didn’t make sense to throw food into the mix. What if I had got to a party and been too overwhelmed to eat anything? Then I would have unwittingly skipped my medication. We cannot skip medication.
Additionally, for me, by going to a party in an evening I was breaking my usual Friday evening routine of either going to the gym or walking for hours at night. That alone was massive for me. Huge. Colossal. I had cold turkeyed on my extreme exercise routine that year, and I know I spent at least one Christmas season focusing on continuing to eat as per my meal plan and not only stopping all exercise, but also stopping the obsessive walking and moving. That year, the party goal was to be able to stand still or sit down and talk to someone.
I ate as to my planned meal before going out. Then when going out I could focus on simply being in the same room as all those people and those fear foods without knowing that I had to challenge further than that by eating. Unless I wanted to.
The interesting thing for me, is that I found eating beforehand and getting the meal out of the way before the party meant that at the party my levels of stress were so much lower that I was often much more able to tackle picking up a crisp or a peanut and eating it.
Have a canned response for the Nibble Passers
The goal with recovery is that one day you will be able to eat as mindlessly and freely as anyone else in the room. I can do that now, so you can too if you keep going with your recovery plan. In the meantime however, you might be at the stage where you want to go out, but you don’t because you cannot handle the thought of the Nibble Passers.
The Nibble Passers are people — often the hosts bribed children or family — who pass around nibbles at parties. The nibble passers were my arch enemies when I was sick.
My eating disorder would turn an innocent “would you like a vol-au-von?” into why don’t you want a vol-au-von? Everyone is looking at you wondering why you are not eating. They are eating. Why aren’t you eating? Everyone thinks you are a freak because you can’t even eat a hors d’oeuvre. Everyone is watching.
First off. People are not watching you. People are worrying if they have managed to eat a cocktail sausage without getting sauce on their chins. People are worrying that they just put their foot in it with so-an-so because they started talking about Brexit or the US election. People are wondering if anyone else has noticed that the host is pissed as a newt. People are not watching you.
Reduce the ED voice by having something planned to say. I am hoping that you already ate your meal plan planned dinner at home before you went, and so the perfect, truthful response is “Oh no thank you, I’m full.”
Don’t allow the eating disorder to stop you going to parties because it freaks about about being offered a prawn on a stick.
When ready, start to challenge fear foods
There will become a time in recovery where you are at ease enough with your meal plan and eating regularly that you have some energy left over to challenge fear foods. Parties can be a great aid here.
The reason I found parties helpful is because they don’t happen every day. One of the gems that my eating disorder used to lob at me with fear foods was that if I allowed myself to taste them I would immediately turn into the cookie monster and binge uncontrollably on them for the rest of my life. Yes, an eating disorder in the same moment can make you have a legitimate biological fear response to food and also tell you that if you touch that food you will never be able to stop eating it. I’ve given up trying to find the logic in that, and you should too. It’s a mental illness. Logic doesn’t apply.
One of my recovery aids was talking back to my eating disorder. (Be sure to do this in your head, not out loud — unless with very good friends.) When it began sprouting food lies at me, I would talk back. With the party situations, one of my backchat retorts was “Well, even if I do turn into a Filo Prawn Monster, I’ll only be able to be a Filo Prawn Monster and eat Filo Prawns uncontrollably for the hour and a half this party lasts.”
Because parties don’t happen every day — party food doesn’t happen every day either. For this reason, I found challenging fear foods easier at parties. The feeling of victory after a fear food is eaten often is overshadowed by the feeling of guilt and self loathing. The fear food hangover. Please plan for this when you challenge fear foods and have a support person ready to help you with that part afterwards. It’s a part of recovery, and if you keep challenging it reduces then goes away.
Party food can be great tester food
Okay, so I hadn’t eaten a slice of pizza for over five years. It was a huge fear food for me. Eating disorders do this very odd thing with what we refer to as “fear foods” that can be difficult to imagine if you haven’t suffered from one. Again, this is not rational. My logical brain knew a slice of pizza could not kill me. Try telling that to my eating disorder.
No, as far as my eating disorder was concerned, eating a slice of pizza was on the danger level of skydiving.
I found that party food — as served at parties — can be helpful here. You see, party food is served in tiny bite-sized portions. One party I went to had these mini pizza rounds that were being passed about. I had been wanting to challenge the pizza fear food for a while, but overwhelmed with the thought of a whole slice. I also didn’t want to buy a slice of pizza then only take a bite, as that felt like I was setting myself up for my eating disorder to win somehow.
Mini pizza rounds though. Now I could “do” one of those. I could try it and see what happened. The portion was small enough it felt achievable. And I did. I ate one. And I didn’t die like my eating disorder told me I would. That was the first step for me towards the large slice of Costco cafeteria pizza that happened a couple of months later.
When we laugh something wonderful happens in the brain. Laughter is healing. That is why we do it. Have you ever noticed that no matter how incredibly cross you are with someone, if they can make you laugh it is almost impossible to continue to be mad at them. My husband knows this too well.
Social situations were hard for me in recovery. But gradually I started to associate them with the positive feelings of laughter. Resultantly I begin to stop dreading them as much. I could even go as far as to say I enjoy them. Eating disorders don’t tend to be associated with laughter and fun. When you laugh, you allow the non-eating disorder you part of your brain to have a breath of air. Think of laughter as feeding the healthy brain.
Let me know how you get on this year. Be kind to yourself. Most of all, laugh and have some fun!