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

Loving Yourself Through Old Photos

This weekend, I stopped by my parents’ house and had the urge to look through some old photos. It’s always hilarious to remember your old Halloween costumes, the year you had no front teeth, or (if you’re me), the fact that you seemed to exclusively wear bicycle shorts for your entire childhood. I guess hating pants is something you’re born with.

During my little excavation, I came across a photo of my 5 year old self at gymnastics class. I am standing next to two of my kindergarten friends in nothing but our leotards. My arms and legs are entirely exposed, and yet I don’t seem uncomfortable at all.  I’m not worrying about whether or not my friends think I look fat or telling myself my thighs are too disgusting to show people.  I wasn’t a large child by any means, but my thighs were actually the largest out of all my friends. The thing is, I don’t remember ever thinking my thighs were better or worse than theirs, just different.  It makes me wonder: when did I start ranking my body with others’?  When did I decide that the body that allowed me to run and tumble and do cartwheels was worthless unless it could be thinner than others’?

I would never tell that little girl that her thighs were disgusting or needed to be more toned. I would never pinch at the skin on her arms. I would never tell her to harm herself or make her skip dinner.

But I am that little girl. Those are my arms and my thighs. And I have told myself these things for years. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to envision this girl within me every time I have the urge to call myself ugly or “fat.” I want to love myself the way I love the spunky little gymnast in that photo.

Another thing that was interesting was to see that my relative build is the same as it is now. I mean, I’m an adult woman with curves and such, but you can see the same framework in my childhood pictures. It was a cool reassurance that I have always been designed this way and that this is the way my body is made to look.

If you’re ever interested, I would totally suggest looking at some pictures of yourself as a baby or toddler. Try insulting your adorable chubby cheeks or your tiny baby fingernails or your toothy smile. I bet you’ll discover a newfound compassion for yourself.

Healing Through Photography

A big piece of recovery, at least for me, is learning how to find peace in living in the moment. When suffering from a mental illness, especially with anxiety or eating disorders, you spend a lot of time living in your head. Endlessly flipping through a mental catalog of numbers, worrying about what you did or consumed, figuring out if this cookie you’re eating now will make you gain 5 pounds later, nervous about what you’ll have to eat or if you’ll be able to exercise later–forever caught between replaying the past and agonizing about the future. You completely miss the here-and-now.

It can be nice (and I’d argue, necessary) to find something that brings you away from that, that shows you what living is meant to be like. For me, one of those things is photography.

forrest

My handsome cat and often un-enthusiastic model when I need something to shoot.

I always had an interest in photography growing up, but never knew the logistics of it or even had a real camera to work with. Then, about 3 years ago following a massive breakup, I decided that I wanted to do something for myself. I wanted to follow a passion and not worry about failing or being laughed at. I decided I would finally buy myself a camera. I did some research and pooled all my money from Christmas and the Target giftcard I had and set off to buy a Canon EOS Digital Rebel. I knew nothing about photography except that when I started taking pictures, I lost all track of time and didn’t care about anything else in the world.

vik

To be fair, taking pictures in Iceland makes it very easy to take amazing pictures 🙂

I spent the next few years teaching myself how to use my camera by just going out there and doing it (I got to take a photography class in undergrad too, which I loved!). Trial and error. Taking pictures of anything–books in my room, my backyard, my cat. Studying photos I loved. Did I become I pro photographer? Not by any means, but that doesn’t matter to me.

I developed a particular affinity for nature photography. When I was out hiking in the woods, I felt a connection to the earth and it helped me remember that I was a living thing too, created as special and strong as the trees around me. I felt beautiful when I could feel the sun shining down on my back, my hands and knees smeared with dirt from crouching down to get the perfect shot of the moss on the logs. I was removed from my disordered headspace and the toxic culture that can often surround us–these trees didn’t care about my weight, whether I was wearing makeup or not, what my job was, how many friends I had, or what calories I had eaten. They simply existed in the now. They just were, and that was enough. And so when I am there, I am able to let go of those things too. I am able to just be.

logs

Found in a forest near my childhood home.

Find something that makes you happy to be alive. Find an activity that you can lose yourself in, that you do just for the happiness and satisfaction it brings you.  Don’t worry about whether or not you’ll be good at it. It doesn’t have to be anything swanky. You don’t need a fancy camera or high tech cooking equipment or the oil paint collection of Van Gogh. Dare to be a beginner at something. Dare to follow your passions.

Stop Waging War on Yourself

Image via The Love Yourself Challenge

Image via The Love Yourself Challenge

“Waging war on yourself won’t fix the pain someone else caused you.”

The first time I saw this photo/quote, it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Like, literally I gasped at my desk at work.

You’d think after years of living in recovery and countless hours of therapy and telling my stories, I’d have realized this by now. I guess on some levels I did, but I never truly saw it spelled out like this. When entering recovery from eating disorders/self harm, my initial framework was that I should stop these behaviors because they were “bad.” Purging was dangerous and unhealthy. Restriction and weight loss led to malnourishment and heart stress. Bingeing made me feel gross. Self-harming was dangerous and physically hurt me.

All of the above are true for me, but I was missing a huge piece of the puzzle: none of these behaviors “fixed” whatever was going on. Sure, they provided a temporary distraction or relief from awful feelings or painful memories, but once I was done bingeing, purging, self harming etc., the feelings and memories were right where I’d left them–now accompanied by a huge wave of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Great coping mechanisms, amirite? Not.

Don’t punish yourself for the pain someone else has caused you. And furthermore, don’t do yourself harm when you are upset over something you’ve done. We’ve all made mistakes, and learning from them and choosing to improve is lesson enough. Hurting yourself won’t make the pain go away, especially not in the long term.

My advice? Start talking about what hurts. Find a friend or a counselor. Begin a journal. Start creating art. Make music. Start looking for how you can move past the pain in a productive, long-term way. Let it out, but don’t take it out on yourself.