For families and individuals affected by eating disorders, the holidays can be extremely stressful. Everywhere you turn there is food, food and more food. Every holiday gathering seems to involve food and the expectation to eat “like everyone else” is intense.
Extended family may say things that are extremely triggering and loved ones may yearn for “just one day” that isn’t focused on the eating disorder. 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 holidays can be a complete gong show for families affected by eating disorders.
So, how can we re-write this holiday narrative?
Acknowledge the eating disorder exists, that it’s real, and that it’s not a choice. Like other serious illnesses, it can’t be postponed or put off for one day, or one week or one holiday season. 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”.
Develop a plan as a family (or as a couple or as friends) to deal with the illness over the holidays. What days/events/meals are the likely to be the most challenging? What plans can be adapted, changed, modified or avoided to reduce the likelihood of exacerbating the illness? How can we make this holiday season more focused on being together and less focused on food?
If you are the person with an eating disorder, review NEDIC’s suggestions on strategies for coping with the holidays. You may want to put some extra supports in place in anticipation of the season. As well, this article also has some excellent suggestions of way to prepare for the holidays. If you are the person hosting a meal which will include someone with an eating disorder, you may find this article helpful.
We understand that disclosing about an eating disorder is difficult, but eating disorders thrive on secrecy. That’s why we suggest, in advance of the holidays, 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. (Resources included below)
Develop a Back Up Plan. 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 the back up plan kicking into action. Knowing this safety net exists can be very comforting for everyone involved.
Start new traditions. What events or activities can you add to focus the holidays on the joy of being together without including food? Can you go for a walk to look at the Christmas lights? Attend a Christmas concert? Have a snowball fight, go skating or tobogganing? Help a senior decorate their house with Christmas lights? Drop off clothing for a women’s shelter? Make paper snowflakes with children? Have a scrap-booking night or puzzle night or game night or home-movie night? There are many ways to show and share love that have nothing to do with food. Choosing to add these to your family tradition can be a tangible way to support your loved one with an eating disorder and show that you “get it.”
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Review this document on ten steps to build self-esteem. Whether you are the person with the eating disorder or the loved one who is supporting them, remember this season is all about love and love starts with you taking care of yourself.