A Reflection on Christmas
I struggled with anorexia from around the age of 14 into early adulthood. I am now 24 and around 4 years recovered. I hoped that reflecting on my Christmases Past (when I was struggling with my eating disorder), and Christmases Present might be helpful for anyone who is currently going through similar difficulties. I know full well how challenging the Christmas period can be, so I’ve given some suggestions about how you can manage your stress that helped me and might resonate with some others.
At the time, I had very complicated feelings about Christmas. On one hand, I have always loved the festivities and spending time with family but the centrality of food to Christmas celebrations made me feel this horrible sense of dread in the run-up to the day. I also struggled with the disruption to my routine and being less busy over the holidays, as one way I coped with my negative thoughts was to ensure I was always occupied with something I felt was meaningful, e.g., studying, part-time work, volunteering, sport. I can acknowledge now that being constantly on the go and busy was a less-than-healthy way of dealing with things (and have no idea where I got all that energy from!), at the time I was left feeling worse about myself with less distraction.
To cope with this, I decided to really throw myself into Christmas preparations. I would take charge of festive activities to focus my mind on e.g., writing and hosting a quiz/decorating the house/organising a game. This gave me a positive source of distraction. It was also a good talking point which to some extent took the focus away from my eating and made me less worried that I would bring everyone’s mood down fussing over me at the meal part of the day.
When we got to dinner, I would often get overwhelmed by the pressure (whether real or imagined) to eat a certain amount of food, which, in the worst cases ended in tears and family arguments. This made me feel terribly guilty, as well as embarrassed. I hated appearing ungrateful for all the hard work that goes into organising Christmas dinner and making my family upset. So, I had this real internal conflict going on in my head, which made me shut off and not as lively and chatty as I would have liked. I would again feel like I was bringing everyone else’s mood down.
I can now see that while it must have been upsetting for my family, beating myself up did nothing to help. It is so important to remember to be kind to yourself during times like this and there is no shame in taking 5 to compose yourself.
Emotions are always running very high on Christmas day because of the pressure for it to be perfect. After one or two dramatic Christmases, I realised that speaking to my loved ones in advance about any of my worries and ways they could support me would help massively avoid upset on the day.
Having recovered, I am more able to involve myself in activities and be present in the moment rather than occupying myself with thoughts about food. This major positive I have found from recovery extends beyond Christmas and into all areas of my life.
I am much more flexible with my schedule and eating, making the lack of structure around Christmas time much easier to manage. My stress levels are also lower, so I can relax and enjoy the day more.
There are also little things that recovery has brought me that I wouldn’t have even considered the impact of when I was struggling with anorexia. I enjoy telling my mum, dad’s girlfriend, and grandma (the designated Christmas dinner chefs) which parts of the meal I really enjoy and seeing how happy this makes them.
How did I get to this point?
I was lucky enough to have some amazing practical support from the school nurse. She helped me to prepare for Christmas and other big events by getting me to think in advance what is one thing I can do to reduce my stress? in a given situation. We came up with small but easily actionable solutions relevant to the Christmas period like:
1. If I was going for a meal out and couldn’t find a main course I was comfortable with on the menu, then I would eat a small dinner before and then have a salad or a starter there. I tried my best to challenge myself, but most importantly focus on who I was with, and enjoy their company more than focusing on the food.
2. Identifying triggering topics and letting my family members know in advance that it is not helpful for me to hear discussions about those things, or discreetly removing myself from the conversation, or changing the subject.
3. Making a list of things to calm me down in the notes section of my phone to go to the loo and look at if I felt panicky. This included links to funny videos and my favourite song and short descriptions of happy memories.
These might only be relevant to my experience, but the lessons here are to get creative and embrace compromise. Think about what you can do to make your life easier in the Christmas period that still allows you to engage with the festivities.
As I started on the road to recovery, whilst I think it was helpful and necessary for my mum to strictly monitor my eating in the early years of my ED, at this stage I needed to gradually take control of my own eating. At Christmas, at my dad’s there was less explicit pressure to eat a certain amount and I would find myself more relaxed and would still serve myself and eat a decent meal. Then, when I went to university, I went through what I would consider the first major stage in my recovery – seeing food as fuel again. I am and have always been a massive nerd and I wanted more than anything to succeed at university, so I started properly taking ownership of my eating. At this stage, when I came home for Christmas, my mum would be happier to relax control over my eating which made the whole experience infinitely less terrifying for me!
I completely understand that my mum was worried about me and my health, but at the time I would feel angry when I felt like she didn’t trust me to look after myself. On reflection, I really should have regularly checked in with her about where I was and how much I could manage on my own versus how much support I needed. I think this is especially important pre-Christmas to set expectations for the day because you don’t want to feel babied, but you also don’t want to suffer in silence.
A few years later, I was starting to actively enjoy food and making choices about what I would like to eat on Christmas day. I will acknowledge that I got over my eating difficulties before my anxiety but with these things in place, Christmas already felt more manageable and enjoyable.
A last note - Christmases future
Christmas is a time for reflecting and looking forward. Recovery takes time and my gosh it’s not easy, but I hope that you can find some comfort in knowing that future Christmases can be brighter and lighter if you struggle this Christmas.