Managing the Holidays When In Recovery from an Eating Disorder

Well, it’s officially autumn and winter is fast approaching, which means that you probably will be celebrating some holidays soon! As someone who’s been there, I know how stressful and scary the holidays can be when dealing with an eating disorder.  And so, I have compiled a little list of things I have found helpful in my own recovery. Feel free to pick and choose what you feel might work for you—I know we all come from different places and have different struggles.

autumn leaves

Autumn takes pictures of Autumn!

Communicate. I can’t stress this one enough (and that’s not just because I was a comm major!). Don’t panic in secret. If you’re with a treatment team, ask them if they can help you create a plan to navigate the holiday season. If you spend a lot of time with your family on holidays, it might be good to have a talk (do it BEFORE the holiday, not on it/during it—that can be very stressful). Talk about what they can do to make you feel safe and supported. Support people can have good intentions but poor execution when they’re trying to help you. Tell them what WILL help you vs. what is triggering for you.

Have an outside support system. Ask a friend or family member (or even your therapist if possible) if you can call or text them throughout the day for support and encouragement. Sometimes a, “Hey, you can do this! I’m here for you” text can go a long way.

Remember, it’s just a meal—same as any other day. Thanksgiving dinner is really just like any other dinner; there are just more options!  If you need to bring one “safe dish” along with you to a gathering, I think that’s okay. But do challenge yourself to try some of the other foods there. You don’t have to have an entire plate of every single thing, but maybe you can sample some different foods and side dishes. Easing yourself into eating a little bit of something is a great way to overcome a fear food.

Have some coping skills in mind. If the anxiety gets to you, make sure you have a safe, healthy alternative so that you don’t get pulled into an ED behavior. Bring your journal, bring some knitting, do breathing exercises, call a friend.

Holidays are meant to be fun! Holidays are a time to visit with the ones we love. Don’t get too hung up on the food aspect of it. Sometimes we can forget all the other wonderful things that happen because we’re so blinded with fear on what will happen at mealtime. When was the last time you enjoyed holidays? Maybe it was a couple years ago or maybe it was when you were a little kid. Think about what you loved about them. Playing football in the yard with your cousins? Playing board games with your grandparents? Putting up decorations? Opening presents (hey, I’m just being honest!)? Plan a fun activity for that day or the next day to lift your spirits and give you something to look forward to, rather than dreading all of it because of the food.

Know that everything may not go according to plan—but that’s okay. My first Thanksgiving in recovery, I had done all the preparing I could: I debriefed with my therapist, went over my meal plan with my dietitian, brought a dish that was safe for me (I used to be very anxious about eating food when I didn’t know every ingredient), and had some girls from my support group to text. I was set! When I arrived at my grandma’s house, she said she had a special surprise for me: Since I was a vegetarian and couldn’t eat the turkey, she had cooked an entire pan of fettucini alfredo just for me! Fettucini alfredo was a HUGE fear food for me on so many levels at that time. I was horrified. Later, I recounted the story to my therapist. I said, “And then, she brought out this HUGE thing of fettucini alfredo, for only me to eat.” There was a moment of silence as we stared at each other, and then we both burst out laughing. My grandma had only been trying to help me feel comfortable, but it was a hilarious misfire.

It was basically my worst nightmare, but you know what? I survived. I still had a great holiday. And you can too! If it doesn’t go the way you hope, there’s always another tomorrow. You got this. I believe in you.

There are also some great tips for surviving the holidays at the following blogs:

Something Fishy-Happy Holidays

Libero Network-6 Tips for Enjoying the Holidays

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The Art of Self Compassion

Once again, I love everything from TheLoveYourselfChallenge.

Once again, I love everything from TheLoveYourselfChallenge.

The last blog I wrote talked about the importance of speaking up for yourself when someone else steps on your toes. This week, I learned a related lesson–how to apologize when you are the one who messed up.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait, aren’t you 23 years old? How do you not know how to apologize?” And the truth is, although I have obviously made mistakes and said “I’m sorry” before, I still have a lot of trouble owning up to things and making a direct apology. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel bad–on the contrary, I actually carry huge amounts of guilt and shame with me–but like I’ve said before, I tend to avoid people or shut down when things go wrong. Just as it’s hard for me to say, “Hey, you hurt me,” it’s also difficult to say, “Hey, I’m sorry I hurt you.” The vulnerability is too much to bear. Confrontation and I are lifelong frenemies.

Without getting too specific, this weekend I went out with some friends and ended up acting in a way that is not consistent with who I am or my values. Do you ever look at something you’ve done and think, “Who is that girl? I would never do that.” That’s kind of what this felt like.

Whenever I make a mistake, I have a tendency to internalize everything and send myself into a huge shame spiral. If you’ve ever read any of Brene Brown’s work on shame (highly highly recommended), you probably know all about this. She points out that guilt is saying, “I did something bad,” and shame is saying, “I am bad.” I never realized how steeped in shame I was until I heard this. Even the smallest mistake (like the one from this weekend), makes me feel like a monster. I still struggle with it. After this weekend, I sat down in my therapist’s office, told the story, and said, “I think I’m just a shitty person.”

“You’re not a shitty person,” she said. “You’re coming into your own. You’re still figuring out your boundaries and what your values are. It’s an ongoing process and you’re bound to make some mistakes, but that’s okay. You can apologize, learn, and grow from it. You’re a good person who did a less-than-good thing.” I realized that while I was feeling all sorts of guilt over how the other person must feel, I had forgotten to show a little compassion to myself. I know that everyone messes up and I can forgive others’ missteps, but I never afford myself the same empathy. “And furthermore,” she added, “Shitty people don’t admit their mistakes, feel guilt, or issue apologies to those they’ve hurt. The fact that you’re trying to make it right proves you’re a good person.”

And so I created a plan with her on how I would tell this friend I was sorry and learn how to check myself before I wreck myself in the future (haha).  I ended up apologizing to this friend in person (turns out I had blown the whole thing out of proportion in my mind, and she wasn’t even very upset), and although it was a small step, I really felt like I grew from it. I didn’t shut down. I didn’t punish or hurt myself. I admitted my flaws and vowed to do better. And that doesn’t make me a monster–it makes me a human.

Learning to Speak

This week, me and my therapist talked about the importance of speaking up for yourself. This is something I have struggled with my whole life. I am afraid to let someone know if they’ve offended me or bothered me. I am afraid to set boundaries with people or say no. I am also afraid to ask for things. My brain tells me that if I bring up something uncomfortable, it will escalate into a fight, push the other person over the edge, or result in the other person abandoning me.  It sounds silly to write it out, but when you’re in that awkward spot when you want to say something butjustcan’t, it’s easy for irrational thoughts to take over. And if you’ve ever spoken out before and gotten a negative reaction (as I have; as I imagine we all have), you might be hesitant to do it again.

My therapist asked me, “So, what do you typically do in a situation where you have to let someone know they’ve bothered you or stepped on your toes a bit?” and I replied, “I usually create a really elaborate plan to circumvent having to confront them at all.” She basically did a facepalm.

It’s sad but true–I am more apt to move around huge pieces of my life and create even more stressful situations, rather than just bear a minute or two of awkwardness. I also have a pretty avoidant personality. If something weird comes up, I will probably distance myself from you, cancel plans, skip a day of work, whatever. I’ll try to create passive ways to show you how I feel without ever having to say the words myself. If it’s something painful to talk about, there’s a good chance that I will turn it inwards and take it out on myself, which leaves me hurt and in the same place I was before. It’s as exhausting as it sounds.

But something I learned this week is that speaking up doesn’t have to be a big deal. Sure, there are situations where you’re going to have to break some big news (“I want to break up,” “You’re not the father,” etc.), but in everyday situations where you have to set boundaries or let your needs be known, it doesn’t need to be dreadful. If you are honest, direct, and respectful in the way you communicate it (“I felt hurt when…”), then you have nothing to apologize for.

Bearing a few minutes of discomfort is worth it if it means getting your needs met and letting your voice be heard. Would you rather say nothing and keep feeling weird/miserable, or tough it out for a few seconds and reach a resolution? You are allowed to have feelings. You are allowed to say that something wasn’t okay with you. Speaking up doesn’t make you annoying or needy. In fact, talking about things openly and honestly can help our relationships grow and improve.

I can tell it will be in baby steps for me, but I’m ready to start speaking for myself.