Tis the season to be very stressed about your eating disorder: Christmas and Eating Disorders

Disclaimer: this post discusses eating disorders, and eating disorder behaviour.

It has been no word of a lie that this year has been one big let down. A year full of stress, and despair for many of us. A year where our routines have gone out the window, progress has been undone, and we’ve generally felt a real lack of control.

Now, as we come to Christmas, there has been such uncertainty in the rules surrounding coronavirus restrictions. However, recently, the national governments of the United Kingdom and of Ireland have set out rules for the festive period, which will allow us to form support bubbles with our family and peers to celebrate. This is welcomed news for the general public, as we can finally have a sense of normality within our lives, even for a brief few days.

But, for those with eating disorders, this is one of the most stressful and unfamiliar periods of their lives. The guidelines could be possibly argued as being even more distressing, as we essentially hunker down with the same people, and these may be people who we have not seen in a while. This may be alien to those who have not had experience of an eating disorder, but there is a particular level of distress surrounding it and Christmastime. And, that is quite evidently the lack of control and limitations in our eating disorder’s own supposed right to maintain itself.

This is not a post full of advice in how to cope, but rather some awareness of what can be stressful at this time.

Christmas can trigger so many overwhelming situational responses, and it can be a complete disruption to a disorder that has become ingrained in the person’s mind and body. This is especially true when the person is surrounded by people who are in a constant close proximity with them, and their whole routine is disrupted in so many ways.

Regardless of your stage of recovery, whether you are in treatment or not, you might have a more regimented schedule in your eating in that you have to eat at certain points, or a certain number of times a day. If you’re on a meal plan for treatment purposes, then Christmas Day, and the festive days surrounding it, may threaten to throw this off course. People often eat their Christmas dinner around mid-afternoon. They may eat breakfast late and then have dinner a few hours later. They may miss lunch due to the timing of dinner. There is no real timings of meals and snacks at Christmas for most, so this may be distressing for the individual as they attempt to engage and establish a path to recovery. Particularly, as they wrestle with control of their body and behaviours from the eating disorder. Not only is it difficult for the individual during recovery, but for an individual who has not approached recovery yet it can be overwhelming, due the rules their eating disorder has developed with them. Some people may have rules in their eating disorders where they can only eat at a point in the day, stop eating or start eating at a certain time etc., So, with Christmas, the lack of stringent scheduling can be incredibly upsetting to the individual, with guilt and shame being consequentially at the forefront.

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During Christmas, the preparation and cooking of the meals can often be taken over by one person or there becomes an element of teamwork. The meals are usually one option i.e. a turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings. It’s not really a cater-to-one-individual affair, especially if there is a number of individuals there. It’s not usually feasible to have separate meals, and it is not logistical to have entirely different meals on the go in the kitchen being cooked by different people. People with eating disorders, like the ones following restrictive patterns, need to have that control in what they are eating, and usually like to be the sole person behind their meal preparation. When I was unwell, I was heavily involved in the cooking and preparation of my meals. My mum did cook some meals, but they had to be what I deigned followed my eating disorder, and also ended up being the same few meals, so there wouldn’t be any threat to my control over food. And, this followed me through Christmas, where I took control of my meal one year.

By exerting control, they can see every ingredient that goes into the meal, and can monitor the portion size, the calorie content, the nutritional value, the purity… At Christmas, this is not really possible, as I mentioned, as the food can be prepared prior to the main dinner. There are lots of people to cater for. It’s expensive to cater individually to everyone, and the kitchen can be busy, with too many people cooking at once. There is little to no way that an eating disorder can be maintained as ‘best’ as possible. And, we know it, and we know our eating disorder is waiting in the wings to bully and abuse us for failing it.

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A problem I encountered around the Christmastime period is the vast quantities of food that would surround me, as my eating disorder featured binge-purge behaviours. If you’ve ever been in a house around this time, you’ll know that food gets stockpiled. You’ll hear don’t touch that food, as it’s for Christmas every time you open the fridge or the cupboards. If there are guests staying, more food may be purchased. There are more junk types of food lying everywhere. People are gifted food as presents. And this can be so incredibly daunting if you carry out binge eating behaviours. Not only this, it can be a worry, and it can be frustrating for the people who care for those with this element of disordered eating. Because, there may be moments where food is there one day and then gone the next. And, it can be hard to keep track of the food that is involved in a binge, as it can happen quickly and often in secret. Therefore, food may be replaced but then disappear again, because the individual has the resources for a binge readily available. I have worked my way through Christmas food quickly and in vast amounts until I felt nauseated. Because it was available to me. I would try to fight the temptation, but ultimately my body would be so starved of food, and I would be so distressed that my instinct to eat to comfort my intensely overwhelming negative emotions would take over, and I would binge. Until, the eating disorder would rear its head, like it was catching me in the act, and I was laden with so much guilt and shame. I was brought back to my ‘reality‘ and fear struck me over the knowledge of the considerable amount of food lying within my stomach. So, I purged until I felt I had righted all that was wrong.

This is a reality for people with binge eating behaviours and disorders. Many are coming into the festive period, knowing that food is building up in their homes, and knowing that this is heightening the risk of a binge. They do know this food is meant for their families, not just them. I did anyway. But when the need to binge took over, I couldn’t get out the trance.

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As I mentioned above, during this festive period, we are allowed to form a bubble of three households, therefore we may be surrounded by family for around 4-5 days, and this may be in close and constant proximity. This can stir up anxiety for the person with an eating disorder for a number of reasons. One, in which, being the inability to carry out eating disorder behaviours, as there is very little privacy to do so. And, if you are in the company of people who know you have an eating disorder, regardless of stage of recovery, there may be more eyes on you. This may also be particularly true if you are an adult who has gone home for Christmas, after having the opportunity to access complete privacy and secrecy to maintain the eating disorder. Now, it has been compromised.

Family meals create a barrier in our attempts to restrict, as there may be comments passed, exchanges of glances from family members, prying questions, and a limited amount of alone time. If you have features of purging in your behaviour, it may prove to be difficult to hide evidence that you are carrying out this behaviour. There may be a keen observation of your every move, which can be exacerbated if they know of your eating disorder. Everything you do you feel questioned, interrogated. You don’t have that ‘privilege‘ of privacy that you have been ‘afforded‘ during every other day of the year, where you don’t have family around you 24/7, where you can carry out the disordered eating with less attention drawn towards you. And with that you are not able to complete the behaviours, which help you cope in stressful and upsetting moments, which ultimately helps you cope with the eating disorder burdening you with guilt and shame, making you hate yourself continuously, making you feel like you are failing. I know that during times like these I felt like I wasn’t able to be ‘good‘ at my eating disorder, as I couldn’t continue the behaviours as thoroughly and routinely as I hoped. My eating disorder would make me think that I was failing it, and that others would be able to carry out the disordered eating despite the barriers. And, this brings forth the bullying and abuse, and we know we’re about to pay for it when we return to non-festive days.

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Christmas stirs up several strong emotions in people, and they can be negative and they can be positive, and they can be stirred up by different cues. However, it’s important to note that not everyone will be looking forward to every aspect of the Christmas period. For people with eating disorders, it’s a time where control is unwillingly relinquished, and fear grows of the consequences following those days. It’s a time where our eating disorders convince us that we are about to be tested, and that we are failing that test. It’s a time where we so desperately want to enjoy the festivities and being with our families or peers, but we’ve got this horrendous thing looming over our heads, demanding we listen to it. We don’t know where to turn to cope, and are frightened to turn away from the disorder, because it has convinced us that this is the only strategy that will offer some comfort and solace in our lives.

Christmas is, unfortunately, something people with eating disorders have to cope with, despite our want to enjoy and celebrate. But it’s important you, the reader, understand why we have to cope, and what are the reasons behind such distress. And, in doing so, it can help you to understand what carers, families and peers experience too, as they also so desperately want their loved ones to enjoy and feel free from the eating disorder during Christmas. Christmas isn’t only about food, but, to someone like me, it was all I could think about.

There can be so much pressure placed on you to perform to both your family and relations, and your eating disorder. And, it can be overwhelming as you get a sense of not doing anything right. But, the most important thing for you to consider is your health, both physical and mental. Your eating disorder cannot take away a day of relaxation and togetherness from you, whether you are with your family, or your friends; virtual or in person. If you are comfortable to, reach out to your family to help them understand what you are concerned about coming up to Christmas Day celebrations, and try to work through some solutions that does not allow for the enabling of behaviours, but does not put you in a position of distress and discomfort. However, remember that Christmas is one day, and these COVID Christmas rules are only a few days. Have a plan, but don’t fret if the plan goes out the window. That’s the way things go.

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I hope you have a lovely Christmas, and enjoy and cope as best as you can.

If you are worried about your eating disorder at Christmas, please visit Beat for further information and support groups like SOLACE during their 12 Days of SOLACE.

Merry Christmas x

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