“Christmas”…. one little word that can strike sheer terror and deep nostalgic sadness into the heart of anyone with an eating disorder. A time of year, those of us with eating disorders long to enjoy in the carefree and relaxed way people around us do and in the way we did before we became ill, with just the ‘normal’ everyday stresses of the season to endure. But Christmas is a time of year that can make life even tougher than it already is for anyone in or recovering from the depths of an eating disorder.
Since becoming sick with this illness, too many Christmases ago, this time of year has been HARD. A time of year I loved before developing anorexia – even in my adult pre-illness years, I loved Christmas: the magic, the time with others, the chance to relax and have fun and dare I say it, I loved the food too and did not think twice about eating it! Then the illness came along and changed all of that.
During the years of having an eating disorder, I have spent Christmas in different ways but generally trying to avoid it! Unfortunately I did spend a couple of Christmases in treatment, but those years aside, I have always tried to push the season away by being the one to volunteer to work over Christmas and new year (as much as I could!) or I even tried going to the other side of the world to escape it.
This year, I am in a better place (mentally and physically), having worked hard on my recovery over the past 6 months or so and I am feeling stronger to do Christmas this time around… but let me tell you, it still is not easy. It is better and I am better, but I am not there yet and this yuletide might be an improvement on its immediate predecessors but it is not as good as I am longing for future festive seasons to be!
But WHY is Christmas so hard when we have an eating disorder?
For those around us, I don’t think many even begin to understand why this time of year is as hard as it is for those of us with eating disorders. People naively assume it is, ‘about the food’ and yes, it is about the food in part… but that is a small part. Christmas with an eating disorder is hard for more reasons than food alone.
Christmas is an incredibly emotive, stressful and tense time of year for us all and here are a few reasons why….
- Christmas involves changes to routines… with an eating disorder, we can become creatures of routine, more so than your average person and changes to routine in any way are hard to deal with. At Christmas, routines can change in just about every way. And with this, of course mealtimes move around, which if you do have an eating disorder can be difficult as many of us get VERY rigid on mealtimes… how we eat, what and when. Changes throw this out and can feel chaotic. And yes, of course the different foods and often more ‘challenging’ foods at Christmas do play their part here too!
- Alongside the routine changes with meals, are changes in routines to other weird disordered behaviours or compulsions we might have. Exercise or movement routines (and no, we shouldn’t be exercising in recovery!!) get disrupted, leaving us feeling more anxious, more agitated.
- Family dynamics… At Christmas, as a population on the whole, we are suddenly expected to spend time with our nearest and dearest in intensive ways! Suddenly, we face the expectation to spend several hours, often around a dinner table, in the company of family members, with whom there might already be tensions (argh!)… This is stressful to people without an eating disorder but with an ED as the elephant in the room too, this can merely add to what is already a pressurised time.
- Christmas and New Year is often a time of reflection. When you have an eating disorder, reflecting on the big picture that is our life is rarely easy. At this time of year, all that our lives are or all that our lives are not can seem to be magnified and zoomed in on, not just to us, but to those around us too. We see even more, all that the eating disorder has taken from us and that can create sadness, grief, despair, frustration….
- Money spending!! At Christmas there is a need to spend more money than we normally do… Most people with an eating disorder have difficulty spending money, due to the scarcity mindset and doing so can actually be very stressful. Just another way this time of year adds to our stress and feeling of chaos!
- Loneliness. Having an eating disorder is already a lonely experience in many ways. At Christmas, feelings of loneliness can be made much worse, even when and actually sometimes more so, when we are surrounded by other people. Christmas is a time that we are shown images of loved ones being together, happy, harmonious…. Many of us with eating disorders have isolated, will spend the day alone, or if we are with others, it might merely highlight how little we do have in our lives, beyond the illness.
- Facing potential ‘diet talk’ or the ‘I’ve eaten too much’ statements. Yes, this time of year is the time of year that the rest of the world eats a lot and then talks about why they shouldn’t eat a lot and why they need to starve themselves from here on in. Those of us with eating disorders know it is all bollocks… diet talk is all bollocks and if they did starve themselves, we can generally testify to how miserable it will make them. But listening to this conversation matter when you are struggling to face food that day or facing disordered thoughts yourself of having eaten ‘too much’, then hearing this from those around us is less than helpful.
- Reminders of the past. Tying in with the fact Christmas is a time of reflection, it is also often a time of nostalgia and it can bring back memories of childhood christmases or happier years and feelings of loss and sadness over the lost innocence of those days gone by or perhaps a grief for people who were in our lives at those times who are not here now.
So, Christmas with an eating disorder is tough for many reasons and rarely is it the “most wonderful time of the year” for us… Therefore, first and foremost, if you are struggling to find much joy this Christmas, give yourself a break!!
The extra stress, emotions and pressures at this time of year will all make recovery and the eating disorder 100 x harder as resorting to the eating disorder has become our way to cope with stressful times for years, so the illness will naturally be stronger right now. Expect it and don’t be hard on yourself because it is.
And then when you have had a little cry and given yourself an internal hug, use the fact this year is as hard as it is as motivation to push ahead for next year. It does not have to be this hard every year… but it takes tough recovery work to make future years better – it won’t happen by wishing for it alone (trust me, I tried!!).
Plus, if you think about it – Christmas is actually very pro-recovery.
For many, it involves eating a lot, sitting around and relaxing… All the things in recovery we should be doing daily!
This Christmas might be a write off… but start spending every day from here on, acting, eating and resting like it is Christmas Day and next Christmas, it will be so hard wired in your brain to spend time in that way, the stress really will be nothing in comparison!
NB – I did not write this post to tell you how to survive Christmas… that I am not an expert on and there are well meaning and not always helpful posts in cyberspace about that if you want to find them. But my thoughts are that getting through Christmas when in recovery from an eating disorder is stressful… Ultimately we know what we have to do for recovery (if you are unsure, I have written enough about that!). Doing this recovery work under extra festive pressure is even harder than at any other time, that is a given. So, in my eyes, each moment needs to be about protecting recovery this Christmas so that future years are bigger and better. If something is going to stop us eating enough or stop us achieving what we need to for recovery, then perhaps it is about taking the pressure off ourselves this year and maintaining focus on recovery… Getting into negative energy– that is not a good place to be, so we need to do all we can to avoid it!
But, however you spend this Christmas and New Year, try to find a little fun where you can… And keep that eye on the future – a future that can be better, brighter, more full of love and more colourful than now. It will take hard work but that future is out there waiting for us all – that is my Christmas wish for everyone and I believe that it is possible.