If ever there was a season closely associated with food, feasting, and edible indulgences – then Christmas is certainly it.
That’s fine for many, but how do you navigate this tricky timeframe if you’re in the grips of an eating disorder, or are trying to support someone who’s suffering?
You know the drill. December is upon us and everywhere you turn there’s another reminder that the festive countdown is as much about food as it is about mistletoe, Santa and stack loads of presents.
Every supermarket shelf is brimming with seasonal-specific extras; every coffee shop is boasting its latest version of a hot chocolate Chrimbo concoction; every restaurant is expecting us to book in for festive friendship meals, and every family member or friend is shoving another Quality Street or mince pie in our freezing cold hands.
This might sound a wonderful thought if you’ve got a great relationship with food and love the idea of this special time of indulgence – but what if you’re challenged by eating behaviours, or live your life through the prism of a diagnosed eating disorder?
Thousands of eating disorder sufferers – and indeed their families – will enter this time of year absolutely bound up in fears, dread, emotional conflict and anxiety.
It stands to reason then, that, if allowed, the ferocity of this mental health illness could so easily serve to destroy a happy yuletide….but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Anticipating the season, having the right conversations with those you trust, and bringing in ‘manageable’ strategies for dealing with more obvious ‘foodie occasions’ can really make a huge difference to how the Christmas season plays out.
First, let’s look at some of the measures you might want to implement or consider if you yourself are currently battling with disordered eating:
This tip applies throughout the season, and centres on the importance of being authentic with those who you love, and who love you. Your eating disorder will want you ‘all to itself’ in lonely isolation. Closing down conversations with friends and family means another win to the eating disorder. Instead, talk to those who care for you. Explain what you’re fearful of, what might help, and how you’d like your Christmas to look if it were ‘free’ of the eating disorder’s influence.
Allow some meal planning.
If you know you’re due to have a festive meal with friends at a restaurant, there’s no harm in finding out in advance where that will be, and taking a look at the menu. No, you don’t want to become obsessive, but it can help ease the social anxiety on the day if you know you’ve already got a good sense of what the place serves and the dish you might like.
If it’s the family Christmas Day meal which troubles you, chat in advance to the host. Discuss elements of the menu. Ask if you can assist with any preparation.
Often being involved and contributing can really ease the way you feel about the ‘occasion’.
No, we don’t want you ‘running away from’ your eating disorder thoughts and feelings, but particularly with something like a Christmas Dinner, it can be really useful to have discussed or considered things which may play a part in the day’s proceedings and avoid you ‘wallowing’ in thoughts after eating.
Days of this nature are perfect for a short chilly walk with family, or for playing a silly board game or getting involved in cringe-worthy Christmas karaoke.
Be prepared to not be ok.
Naturally, we want you to be enjoying every moment of your Christmas and unaffected by your eating disorder on the day in question, but let’s be realistic and know that it may not go to plan. Allow yourself to feel your emotions, and always have on hand someone you can call, visit or video-chat with, if you need any kind of support. The worst thing you can do is retreat into isolation, so stay kind and accountable to yourself.
For those who may be supporting someone with an eating disorder, here’s a few tips for you too:
Understand it’s tricky.
Realise that although you may not fully understand the disease, your empathy
and compassion for that person’s battle are one of the best gifts you can give.
Gifts of food are not necessarily off limits.
We understand how challenging it is to know whether you should gift someone some food or invite them to a meal you might have with other friends, but to not do so, could just as easily make the person feel alienated. If in doubt, for goodness sake ask.
‘Host’, don’t ‘hide’.
Many a time we’ve heard from people who said they feared offending a person with an eating disorder so much at Christmas time that they’d hide boxes of chocolates as that person appeared, or not bring out the mince pies, and not suggest a mug of hot chocolate during an afternoon visit. Stop with that. Keep it normal. Your friend is hopefully ‘trying’ to battle their eating disorder. Having small snacky festive items might be enough to encourage them.
If you’re hosting them for a bigger meal, consider chatting in advance about what makes it easier for them. Many with an eating disorder will say that a buffet approach to serving themselves is slightly easier than having a plate piled high by the host.
Be a listening ear.
Whatever you do, remember that, just as we all find Christmas tricky because of relationships, gift issues, family conflicts, financial burdens, travel traumas, and excessive expectations, someone with an eating disorder has their own reasons for finding it an awkward period. Enable them to talk, shed a tear or vent their frustrations – just as you’d hope
they would do for you.
Debbie Watson is founder of Wednesday’s Child, a social enterprise business supporting people with eating disorders. You can find out more about their support and recovery programmes, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Carefully curated gifts from Wednesday’s Child make perfect festive gestures. Visit www.wednesdayschild.co.uk