Thanksgiving—a holiday that tends to, in America, revolve highly around, well, food.
To be fair—we try real hard to make it about gratitude and being thankful and all that stuff, and I think we’re getting better at it as each year goes by. You’ll find “30 Days of Thankfulness” challenges and “How to Be More Grateful” articles on all the trendy health and wellness websites.
See? Evidence we’re trying. But at the end of the day (no literally, like, at dinnertime) it’s the biggest food holiday of the year.
Now let’s talk about the stress that comes with that for someone in eating disorder recovery. I’m gonna talk about it from the perspective of someone new to recovery, because that’s me—new to recovery.
Thanksgiving Day will be my six week mark of being ED behavior free, and while six weeks is something I’m proud of, and I know it’s a victory and all that and I’m not discounting it, it also means I’m still on wobbly baby deer legs in the forest of recovery. Baby deer legs that need to quickly learn how to navigate a holiday surrounded by food and people talking about food and people eating food and people judging my food and me judging other food and basically everything you can think of that has to do with food.
So, I’ve put together some tips about getting through the holiday newly in recovery and how to deal with that landscape, at that dinner table, when that aunt insists you have another helping of whatever-it-is food and you suddenly want to punch her in her Thanksgiving face.
Hopefully they can help you too.
One: realize you are in control.
There is no one else who has the power to a) put food on your plate or b) put food in your mouth. Or, if we’re being really thorough, c) decide to no longer put food in your mouth.
You decide what you eat, how much of it you eat, and when you’re done. And that is a magical power you’ve gained control of through your introduction to recovery, so don’t give it up now. What anyone else says, does, or thinks has nothing to do with you and your food behaviors. Ultimately, you have the freedom to do what you want. Doesn’t that feel liberating?
Two: choose ahead of time what your goals for the day will be.
This doesn’t have to include specifics like “my goal is to eat three ounces of turkey with my dinner,” this can be as broad as “my goal is to not restrict,” or, “my goal is to not binge on leftovers once the guests leave.”
Tailor these to your recovery and write them down in a journal ahead of time to root them into your consciousness. You’ll be amazed at the pride you feel when you go back to your journal at the end of the night (which you’re going to do as follow-up) and realize that you’ve met those goals. Recovery full circle.
Three: have conversation topics for when sh*t turns to food.
This is a big one. God knows why on Thanksgiving we can’t all just sit around and eat our own food and mind our own business when it comes to our own food, but it’s a widely known fact that there’s always pushers at Thanksgiving dinner.
You know, pushers. Pushing you to have seconds of this, pushing you to eat that, pushing you to clean your plate, pushing you to have dessert. Pushing, pushing, pushing. It’s a Thanksgiving epidemic. People can’t leave you to your own devices, it’s as if they think you’ve somehow forgotten how to feed yourself in the time it’s been since you saw them last.
Having a few conversation topics ready will help you steer conversations in a direction you’re comfortable with when pushers try to highjack them. You can easily say to Aunt Millie, “No thanks. Did I tell you about my new job?” and, in-the-most-basic-of-terms-but-meant-lovingly—shut her up. Which is to say, you don’t have to travel down the hellhole of a road that pushers like you to travel with them, leading to a land where they know how to feed you better than you know how to feed you.
Four: be prepared with your tools.
As anyone who’s ever been to therapy will tell you, a toolbox is an essential part of life. Consider Thanksgiving your biggest construction project yet that requires all the tools you have.
Quiet time. Excusing yourself to go to the restroom or, if at an appropriate time, take a short walk or step out for some air, is one of the quickest ways to return to center. You can immediately disconnect from the stimuli that has you needing a moment to yourself in the first place. I owe this one to one of my old therapists who taught it to me prefacing a rough Thanksgiving two years ago.
Deep breathing. While you’re taking your alone time, or at any point during the festivities, deep breathing is one of the main tools to use because it goes unnoticed by anyone around you. Get control of your breath by breathing in for seven counts, then out for seven counts, through your nose if you can. It only takes a few seconds of this to trigger neurons in your brain located deep in your brainstem telling you to relax.
Essential oils. On the topic of breathing, having an essential oil with you that calms you can up the ante. Try lavender or peppermint, you can find them online or at natural food stores. Put a few drops in your hands and rub them together then cup them against your face and breathe in. To be more conspicuous, put a few drops on a Kleenex and use it on your nose whenever you need to. (I had a fellow passenger do this for me on a particular flight-from-hell once and it was a life saver.)
A hot beverage. Find out if your host can offer you a cup of hot tea, hot chocolate, coffee, anything warm. There’s something about holding a warm beverage that gives us some tranquility and calms the nervous system. It goes all the way back to having a warm bath as a kid—warmth equals calm.
Lifeline. If you have a friend you trust with your recovery, enlist them to be your lifeline. Sometimes we need to get the actual sh*t out of our brain through our mouths (or texting fingers) and to another person in order to re-center ourselves and carry on, and that’s okay. Find a friend or loved one that can have your back if you need a few moments of connection and companionship.
Five: return to your journal.
Process. This is an important part of getting through the holiday and doing it in a way that you can not only learn from what you went through, but also give yourself the proper credit for the things you did right, which is a huge part of recovery—celebrating the victories for the victories they are.
So, pull your journal back out when you get home, or when you get into bed, and jot down how the day and night went for you. Did you meet your aforementioned goals? What kind of thoughts did you have? Were they your own or did your ED voices join you for the holiday? What kind of triggers did you experience and what tools did you use to get through them?
Exploring these things can give you a better understanding of how you showed up for yourself—and that’s what recovery is all about. So be selfish here. Toot your own horn. Include every detail. Process through the experience you had so you can pat yourself on the back for what you’re proud of, learn what you can from what you’re not proud of, and then store the memories properly in your brain and move forward in your recovery instead of lingering on what you should or shouldn’t have done.
Always remember you have gotten this far, you can keep going. You can get through whatever is put in front of you—yes, even a Thanksgiving dinner—as horrifying as it may sound early on in recovery. I believe in you.