For families and individuals affected by eating disorders, Thanksgiving dinner can be extremely stressful.
Extended family may say things that are extremely triggering and loved ones may yearn for just one day of “normal”. High expectations and the hope of a Hallmark version of the holidays set everyone up to fail. Shame and intense pressure to measure up can trigger a downward spiral.
In short, the dinner that is supposed to be about giving thanks and enjoying being together can turn into a dreaded event. So what can we do to get through it?
STEP ONE: Acknowledge the eating disorder exists, that it’s real, and that it’s not a choice. Like other serious illnesses, it can’t be put off for a special day. You wouldn’t ask someone with cancer to change their diagnosis for the holidays, so it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect someone to stop having their eating disorder “just for one day”.
STEP TWO: Develop a plan as a family (or as a couple or as friends) to make the dinner as easy as possible. Ask the person with the eating disorder, what you can do to help. What can be adapted, changed, modified or avoided to reduce their distress and discomfort?
STEP THREE: We understand that disclosing about an eating disorder is difficult, but eating disorders thrive on secrecy. That’s why we suggest that you inform other members of the family of the illness. If Aunt Bertha and Grandpa are completely in the dark about eating disorders, educate them. Give them concrete examples of what to say and what not to say. Dispel any myths or misunderstandings they may have about eating disorders. (Visit EDSNA.ca or NEDIC. ca for resources)
STEP FOUR: Develop a Plan B. Even with the best-laid plans, unexpected situations may arise. It’s a good idea to have an exit strategy to allow the person with the eating disorder a safe way to de-escalate or manage the symptoms. You may want to establish a private signal that the person with the eating disorder can give which lets you know they are experiencing a lot of distress, so that you can support them. Knowing this safety net exists can be very comforting for everyone involved.
STEP FIVE: Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Whether you are the person with the eating disorder or the loved one who is supporting them, remember this holiday is all about giving thanks, and that starts with taking care of yourself.