A lot of us just spent the holidays with family.
For some, it was a time of joy and connection. For others, it was frustrating and disappointing, another season to be around those who drive us the most amount of crazy in the least amount of time.
For most, it was likely a bit of both.
Holidays and other get togethers used to be a huge struggle for me, eliciting tremendous anxiety.
Because I had a secret eating disorder.
The fact is that gatherings are, let’s just say…complicated for those with disordered eating. If you’re traveling, it can mean staying in a spare bedroom, away from your routines and comforts. Most events include food or “goodies,” which most people expect you to eat. Shopping for special days like Christmas and Valentine’s Day, can feel like you’re auditioning to be a gladiator. Plus, family get togethers are when you see (or feel obligated to see) family members you dislike, never choose to spend time with, or associate with past abuse.
All these things cause stress. And when we experience stress, eating disorders love to come out and play.
It took me a long time to figure out how to cope. I went through a lot.
Hopefully I can save others some of that pain and anxiety by sharing these tips to ease the stress during gatherings:
1) Recognize your triggers.
If you’re not already, use social events (particularly those with family) as a way to research your own self. Learn to detect what specifically happens with family or friends that triggers your desire to binge and purge, or exercise, or whatever else you do compulsively. You may not necessarily change anything at first; you may still engage in the habit. The point is just to notice what happened right before you had the urge to cope. What are your trigger points? How do they affect you?
For example, chats with Aunt Nancy or your coworker Janine may always seem to leave you in a triggered state. When triggered, you’ll feel a compulsive desire to act on your eating disorder behavior.
The reason that’s good to know is that then you can plan ahead. Identify and be mindful of people or things you already know trigger you.
Avoid or limit the time you spend with “problem” people, or enlist a support person. Let’s say my husband was my support person. He could come with me to talk to Aunt Nancy, or if he sees Janine about to chat me up at the office party, he could join our conversation or say he “needs me,” so I can exit the conversation.
There is power in being conscious around our disorders. And you have the right to limit your time with people or things that trigger you.
2) Answer on your terms.
When you have an eating disorder, there’s often only so much you can do to hide it. Particularly if you’re very thin, people notice. It’s also hard if it’s more in the open that you struggle with one (i.e. your family, friends, or coworkers are already talking about it, or you’re in treatment or have been in treatment).
We’ve all experienced the family member, friend, or party guest who makes a “stupid” question or statement.
For me, things like these really got to me:
- Immature, joking comments like, “I wish I’d get an eating disorder for like a month!”
- Well-meaning things like, “How could you possibly think you’re fat?” or, “You’re too thin. Here—have a piece of pie.”
- Invasive personal questions like, “I know you’ve had a few issues around food; is it hard to be around all this food?” Or if you’re in recovery, “Oh, I’m sorry, is it okay to eat these cookies around you/talk about this recipe?”
Pretend people mean well—or at least give them the benefit of the doubt. But keep the ball in your court by answering on your terms.
For example, you could say:
“I’d rather not spend this time chatting about [food], [my body], [fill in the blank], but I was wondering … about your vacation to Bermuda. Did you have any interesting experiences there?” “… how your knitting class was going?” “… how the heck Marbles the cat is doing?”
Turn the tables on them by asking something about their life. People love to talk about themselves!
“Those comments don’t make me feel very good, and I want to celebrate tonight.”
Then, again, ask a question about them. You don’t need to shame them, just take control and steer the conversation into more peaceful waters.
“Aunt Nancy, your pie looks amazing and I’d love to take a piece to go. I know it was made with love.”/ “Thanks, Janine, I’m sure the boss’s birthday cake is delicious. At the moment, my body is telling me I’m full, and I want to respect that signal.”/ “Thanks for the offer, Janine. I’m actually seeing a nutritionist right now, and it’s important for me to stick with my meal plan.”
Whatever you say, be honest, polite, and firm. Repeat the same sentence if necessary, and don’t be afraid to add a smile to disarm the person. Because that’s the goal: to disarm them, take away the weapon that could harm you.
Again: You have the right to your choices. You have the right to limit your time around your triggers.
3) Act with tact.
If you’re one of the millions of family members, friends, or loved ones witnessing others struggling with disordered eating, you probably don’t know what to do. You may notice that your niece, coworker or friend has lost a lot of weight, or that they’ve visited the bathroom multiple times. You may be worried but don’t know how to bring it up, so you try to force her to eat pumpkin pie at Christmas, have a huge piece of the office birthday cake, or watch her with hawk eyes the whole event.
If you’re concerned, please don’t announce that concern in public, or try to fix it with food. Instead, wait until that person is alone, or until a later date. Tell them you love them and that you’re concerned they may be struggling with a food disorder.
Be prepared for a defensive or curt response—that’s okay. The goal isn’t for you to “fix” them, it’s simply to let them know that you love them and that you’re worried.
Years ago, when I still had my eating disorder, a family member took my husband aside at a Fourth of July party. He expressed concern for some of the patterns they’d seen in me that night. I was f’ing livid because I was ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know about my struggle. But looking back on it now, that was one of the fundamental steps that got me into a recovery program. I’m now grateful that this family member had the balls to approach my husband with love for me, and us.
The brain of someone with an eating disorder becomes patterned very specifically. Think of the gutter lane in a bowling alley. As a stress ball begins to roll, it finds the well-worn groove we’ve already used hundreds of times. It falls into the gutter of our eating disordered thoughts and patterns.
When we repeatedly respond to stress by acting out our addictive or compulsive behaviors, neural pathways form. Over time, our brains wiring responds to stress by automatically acting on our negative behaviors. The more we stimulate the pathway the more likely we’ll choose that pathway the next time. We are, in fact, teaching our brains to choose and use our eating disorders as coping mechanisms.
But here’s the good news: Neural plasticity has proven that the brain is malleable. We can create different grooves.
It’s also important to remember that an eating disorder serves as a protection mechanism. It offers a way (although destructive) to silence anxiety or numb uncomfortable emotions. When a certain person or conversation triggers us, we could find ourselves in the next room loading our plate with appetizers, stashing candy bars in our desk drawer, excusing ourselves to the restroom to throw up, or limiting what we eat (i.e. restricting).
That’s where the grooves are right now. Until we make different ones, it’s is a way for us to self-soothe, to help get rid of pain or anger that could be overwhelming otherwise. It helps to recognize that in some way, we are trying to take care of ourselves, even if it’s destroying us from the inside out.
If this article speaks to you, know that you’re not alone. I vividly remember what it was like when I was in the claws of my eating disorder, traveling, visiting family, going to parties, and attending events. My feelings of heightened anxiety kept me from being present; instead of enjoying people and making new connections, I was obsessing about how I would avoid eating with them, or where I could possibly go in this tiny house full of people to throw up in peace.
If there’s anything I could have said to my younger self, it would have been this:
Love and accept yourself exactly where you are right now. This is where we start from.
Know that full recovery is possible. You won’t have to live like this forever.
As much as possible, choose to make positive memories and new connections with loved ones right now, instead of with the eating disorder. Remember that one can support you—the other lies and is trying to kill you.
It takes time to create different grooves. Education and determination help—so do good therapists.
Here’s wishing you happy—or at least trigger-free—family gatherings in 2016.
Author: Z Zoccolante
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Laura Lewis at Flickr