5 Ways to Support a Loved One With an Eating Disorder on Christmas
Food, family and festivities. The 3 F’s that make Christmas the most enjoyable time of the year for many. Yet, it’s precisely these 3 F’s that make Christmas the most difficult time of the year for many experiencing an eating disorder.
I wrestled with anorexia nervosa myself for five years between the ages of 13 and 18, and I can remember distinctly dreading the arrival of Christmas, but feeling guilty as the reasons I dreaded this time of year were the exact reasons I “should” be excited for the season.
Food is probably an obvious one, even if you know close to nothing about eating disorders. But it’s not just the salience of vast quantities of foods that would send me in to a state of panic. A significant part of me really wanted to eat and indulge just like everyone else. But it was so much more about the whole ordeal that made the experience so much more stressful than it was for everyone else around me.
Firstly, the timing. Like many individuals who go through eating disorder treatment, I was on a meal plan that ensured I ate three meals and three snacks a day at specific times. Following this and going against my head was hard enough, but then comes along a day where it’s conventional not to eat lunch until 4 p.m., and this lunch consists of possibly the most terrifying collection of foods in the most terrifying quantities. To someone on a meal plan, deviating from this meal plan and yet still having to consume the same amount of calories to maintain my weight is such a stressful experience. It feels conflicting, out of control and the eating disorder starts playing all sorts of tricks to somehow avoid the situation altogether. Then, add family members who you’ve not seen since last Christmas. Having to eat in front of people and try and act normal was challenging enough. I used to find social eating unbelievably hard, and it was the last and hardest part of the eating disorder I battled. But throw in here the albeit well-meant yet horribly ignorant comments (even compliments?) from extended family members about my appearance, how “well” I was looking/how “unwell” I was looking, how much I’ve grown up… and having to pretend that you’re having a great time and that life is wonderful… it’s just cringe, hide and cry city.
But, it doesn’t have to be. There are things you can do to support your loved one this Christmas to make the experience a little bit more bearable for all. Here are my top five suggestions:
1. Help your loved one join in with the food experience without making it seem overwhelming.
Acknowledge its difficulty in advance and make an action plan with them that enables them to feel more at ease on the day. If this means having roast a little earlier so that they can have desert as their afternoon snack, so be it. If this means switching the times about a little but but assuring them that their intake will be the same, just at different times, work it through with them.
2. Try and avoid conversations about food, weight and shape.
This is difficult at any time, but is heightened when its already a day with a bigger focus on food. Talk about completely unrelated things that won’t be as prone to cause upset — like pets, hobbies, films, books… whatever does it for your family.
3. Be very careful when complimenting or remarking on your loved one’s appearance.
It may seem bonkers, but during my eating disorder days, the last thing I wanted to hear was, “you’re looking well, Rachel.” In my mind, well equalled weight gain, and this was not something I wanted to be reminded of or congratulated on. Comments like would actually affect my mental health for days afterwards. It is much better to remark upon something that isn’t to do with their physical appearance, such as “I like your earrings” or “those are pretty shoes.” Just, please, think twice before attempting to make a well-meant appearance-related compliment.
4. Ask your loved one if they would like to do anything on Christmas day that helps them.
They may decline suggestions, but offer. It doesn’t have to be special. If they pre-empt feeling overwhelmed and going for some quiet time by themselves to read, listen to music or go for a walk at some point, then come to some arrangement that everyone is happy with. Of course, this is dependent on their individual circumstances, but discuss it before it gets to Christmas day and don’t force of expect them to engage completely with every social activity.
5. Take the time to talk and listen to them about their worries before and after Christmas Day.
Even if they aren’t keen to share their thoughts with you, most would much rather you asked, listened and understood than simply assumed. Your loved one may have a very specific or different worry to those I have mentioned – everyone’s experience is distinctly different so acknowledge that. Acknowledge fact that they are still them – even though they are currently struggling with an eating disorder – they are still the same individual with the same incredible talents, assets and flair they always have been. They are still your loved one.
On a final note, notice that the descriptions of my own struggles are all written in past tense. Take hope, it is possible to overcome something like this. It is different for everyone, but there is life beyond an eating disorder.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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