The time between Halloween and New Year’s can present a minefield of dietary temptations for anyone, but for eating disorder patients and survivors like me, it’s a latter-day Garden of (Not) Eatin’. Halloween is literally a holiday about candy, Thanksgiving is basically dedicated to the overconsumption of food or products, and the run-up to Christmas is full of office parties, cookie exchanges, and family gatherings. As January 1 rolls in, cue the onslaught of guilt-based marketing for dieting and exercise regimens. It’s enough to make one, uh, barf. (Too soon?)
I am fortunate to be working with a therapist on my third or fourth round of recovery. (Spoiler alert: you generally can’t “cure” an eating disorders. You can learn your triggers and how to manage them, you can love the beast into submission, but the possibility of relapse is always going to be there.) For most of the last 13 years, though, I ran the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s gauntlet alone and largely unprepared.
One year in high school, I received several packs of fun-size candy bars for Christmas. One of my friends also gave me a tin of homemade fudge, which I do remember being very delicious. I stashed these treats in my room to eat in secret, and felt deeply ashamed when my mom pointed out how quickly I finished them. This was the first instance I can remember of the secretive, shame-based eating behavior that would follow me into adulthood.
During my first year of college, I moved into the dorms and gained the freedom to truly restrict my eating. Ironic, I know. I first cut out meat, then dairy and eggs, then most forms of carbs. I declared that I was now vegan. My cardio and “strength” routines stretched from 30 to 60 to 90 minutes. I now realize that my eating disorder eliminated most of the dizzying array of choices that college life presented me. Focusing on my food intake and weight meant that I didn’t have to choose what to eat every day or which new friends to hang out with or how to spend my time outside of classes. The eating disorder made those choices for me.
Every year around Christmas time, high school friends would come home from their various universities and want to meet up. I had to scout out menus and nutrition information ahead of time. I would rehearse my stories for why I wasn’t eating meat, cheese, or grains (the prevalence of lactose-intolerance in Asian populations was a useful excuse). Afterwards, I had to calculate how long I’d need to work out later to accommodate what I ate. My most vivid memories of holiday breaks at home are of spending hours in the basement on my parents’ wobbly treadmill since the world-class recreation center at school wasn’t available.
One holiday bright spot during this anorexic period was baking loads of sugary, fatty, festive desserts (that I never ate myself) for various groups and events. (I did this year-round, but with particular vigor during the holidays.) Baking for others and watching them delight in my creations was a way to vicariously enjoy them myself. My current therapist has suggested that my brain’s reward-processing regions may not respond very strongly to food. This certainly fits with how easy it was to restrict my diet and how I had to find other ways to glean rewards from food.
The spring that I finished my undergraduate degree was the first time I pursued any kind of recovery effort. I attended a support group and generally felt confident and comfortable enough with myself to start reintroducing foods and bringing my exercise regimen back to a more reasonable level. My weight gradually returned to a healthy point.
But shortly after Christmas 2010, I began what most people in my graduate program dubbed Hell Quarter. That was when I started binging and purging. I lived alone, so it was easy to hide, though I’m sure the clerks at the convenience store I lived above thought something was fishy. This behavior continued pervasively for about three years before I met my now-husband. (I do not recommend relying directly on friends and family for eating disorder treatment. But my husband’s support was instrumental in helping me seek help a second, third, and fourth time. For that I am profoundly grateful.)
Our relationship and eventual marriage did, however, add another layer of complexity (and stress) to the holidays for me. Now I’m expected to attend other people’s holiday celebrations. It can still be triggering to be around unfamiliar food (and people). Last year we leveled up our adulting and hosted Thanksgiving for the first time, but that wasn’t a perfect solution either. While I got to stay in the comfort of my own home and direct the menu, preparing and serving large quantities of food for a large group of people is definitely not my idea of a relaxing holiday.
…or something like it
So this year we’ve started implementing some supportive practices around the winter holidays. This is particularly important in light of my latest, stress-induced relapse this past spring. As I started making a battle plan for the holiday season, I realized that even people who don’t have eating disorders might benefit from some of these practices.
On designated feast days, I make sure to eat lightly before the main meal. I think ahead to what and how much I can eat comfortably, and make sure to clear way leftovers promptly after the meal. We’re consolidating family visits and keeping lots of margin in our schedules. I’m on a bit of a social media diet and taking a break from client work. I’m doing short, high-intensity workouts. These give me lots of endorphins and a sense of achievement but won’t tempt me to spend hours doing cardio. Eating out is pretty safe for me now, but I may still suggest getting together with hometown friends at somewhere besides a restaurant.
I don’t expect or need everyone to tiptoe around me. Bring on the Christmas cookies and casseroles! Bring on your New Year fitness goals–I will cheer you on happily! (But I won’t buy your diet shakes or fat-shaming Saran wrap, thank you.) More than anything else, all I want for Christmas is to have as healthy and easy a relationship with food and my body as possible. And I wish that for you too.