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Reflections From Someone With an Eating Disorder After Thanksgiving

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It’s a few weeks after Thanksgiving 2016, a day which also has marked a series of “firsts.”

This year was the first holiday that my family has had the privilege of sharing with my little brother’s girlfriend (who, originally from England, does not normally celebrate the typical American holiday.)

This morning, I experienced my first encounter with serious credit card fraudulent activity, which, thus, called for a special visit to the bank to file a police report.

This warm Florida afternoon was the first time I have hit a baseball bat to a tennis ball in more than 15 years, attempting to bring out the little 8-year-old girl still hiding inside.

Today was the first time in a long time I have awakened the morning after Thanksgiving full of peace, rather than hoarding the feelings of anxiousness, guilt or regret.

Allow me to explain.

For someone like me, a person with a history of disordered eating, a day centered around stuffing food into overflowing tummies and onto crowded plates is something just short of a nightmare. All sorts of anxiety kindles in the growing fear of what the “food holiday” will entail: Fear of getting sucked into the gluttony habits. Fear of unintentional triggering comments from company. Fear of being pressured into eating the “decadent indulgences.” Fear of being judged by the amount of food on my plate. Fear of binging on odd foods. Fear of gaining weight, but mostly, fear of falling under an uncontrollable imbalance of thoughts and behaviors, which I normally can keep on a tight chain.

I have experienced some wonderful Thanksgivings with my precious family, but many of those priceless quality moments have then been ruined in my eyes by my “mess-ups” of binging or guilty food behavior. In these circumstances, I wasn’t able to compartmentalize my relationship with food from my relationship with my loves ones. For years, this first relationship overpowered my ability to interact and invest in others I cared about. It always seemed to dominate my thoughts and proceeded to rob me of the present.

I remember last year’s Thanksgiving being a true turning point for me in my recovery. I made it my goal to focus on relaxing in the present moment and on the relationships with my family surrounding me. I realized, even though the day is traditionally focused on what is on the dinner table, I could choose to focus instead on the smiling faces around the table and caring hands slaving away in the kitchen.

I still ate more than I would on a typical day, but didn’t beat myself up about it. I laughed, I reflected and I reminisced in all of the cheerful childhood memories shared with these people who were huge influences in my life. I sat and remembered what it was like before, life before my “disorder” took over my being. Before I knew how to pinpoint and direct my feelings, I found comfort in these loving connections of friends and family whenever little anxieties started to emerge. I was an anxious child by nature, but when I was in the vicinity of those with whom I felt comfortable, those insecurities seemed to disappear.

When I felt safe enough to let my guard down, I was loud and even obnoxious at times, but most of all, I was present. Last night, as I practically slid off the sofa in my family’s living room from belly-aching laughter, which filled the cozy nostalgic air, I was so thankful. I was happy, but most of all, I was present.

I told myself before Thanksgiving last year this day was going to get better. Though each year is different in its own special way, last year my mindset (in my eyes) was in fact better than the previous years of mental battles. This year, I had no doubts going into the usual overwhelming atmosphere. Maybe it was the new accountability I have acquired as an eating disorder mentor and a health coach. Maybe it was my own encouragement in a recent presentation about redefining nutrition. Maybe I truly am far enough in recovery to be able to hold my strength or maybe my body is finally able to calm down after physically starving and feeling unable to catch up. Whatever the cause of this new feeling of contentment, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I feel physically satisfied, mentally sharp and emotionally stable, three areas which are vulnerable to falling out of balance. I worked up an appetite from my annual Turkey Trot early that morning, but I was not ravenously contemplating every chance to divulge in a meal. I wasn’t restricting my allotted feeding time or quantity thereof. Instead, I filled my plate with what I wanted and how much I wanted, and didn’t think twice about it.

I might have only chosen the dishes which I considered to contain familiar ingredients, but just like everyone else, I chose my meal based on my personal likes and preferences. I left the table satiated after clearing my delicious, colorful plate and continued to relish in the opportunity to socialize. I didn’t fret about all the workouts I would have to do the next day or the “special occasion” foods I wished to binge on later, hidden from everyone’s judgment. For once, I felt like a normal human being, simply enjoying the holiday.

I think what many people fail to realize is just how difficult social gatherings centered around food can be for someone struggling (or who has previously struggled) with any sort of disordered eating. If you think about it, then it is essentially a built-up event, which requires the affected person to publicly walk into a room enveloped by a cloud of their biggest fears.

Curious eyes can be intimidating. Foreign foods can be terrifying. Conversations can be awkward. Misunderstandings can be degrading. Comments can be embarrassing, and worries can be piercing. Until we have one positive experience to serve as our new home base, each invitation to converse over a meal in an unfamiliar environment is a challenging dilemma rather than an exciting opportunity.

Yet, I do believe that in situations like these, the only way to conquer these frightful feelings is to face them. As I mentioned, all it takes is one positive dinner with friends or one successful relational Thanksgiving to serve as a tremendous confidence-booster. It provides a new reference point, and the positive feelings following such an accomplishment are so much stronger than the old “safety set” of eating disorder retreating habits.

The initial decision to step into the territory of interacting with a new perspective may not be easy, and the sequential steps may not be perfect. However, just as I have mentioned before, these series of successful steps will continue to grow. They will provide the staircase toward a wonderful life of freedom.

It’s taken awhile, but now, I eagerly welcome the invitation to converse over a meal. I look forward to the quality time and the primary nourishment from cultivating genuine relationships, while sharing wholesome physical nourishment. So the next time we meet up for lunch, consider it my privilege to be able to partake in such meaningful moments together. Letting others into the depths of my past is not a task I take lightly, and your trusting presence is something I highly value.

As I reflect on all of my many blessings this holiday season, I am thankful for the present. Yet, even so, I am thankful for my past, my struggles, breakthroughs and this new position of strength. I am thankful for my company and my connections along this road of self-discovery, especially with my loved ones and acquaintances, yet also with myself. I finally feel welcomed inside my own skin again. I feel loved, appreciated and valued in my own teary eyes.

I am thankful for the love that taught me what it means to love and the love that has given me a reason to be thankful. This love is the love that has kept me going. This is the love that now shines to keep me glowing. I now remember what it feels like to actively cherish, while humbly stepping back in awe of thanksgiving. Grateful for the patience and the opportunity for a second chance, the choosing does seem to get easier year after year.

I now choose family, forgiveness and freedom.
I choose patience, perseverance and peace.
I now choose laughter, liberty and life.
I choose to be forever filled with thanks.

~1 Thessalonians 5:16-17

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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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: December 5, 2016
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