When you have an eating disorder your mind can read in to anything anyone says and make it the worst possible scenario. ‘You look really healthy’ turns in to ‘I look really fat’ and as we approach Christmas with the endless family gatherings (normally around food) the panic for people living with eating disorders, however far through their recovery they are, can be hard. The panic hits you like a ton of bricks and then it gets worse and worse, then the slight comments made about food or appearance can have a huge impact. But that definitely isn’t to say getting through Christmas has to be this hard. And getting through Christmas and surviving is one hundred percent possible. I am living proof of that!
If I am struggling at Christmas it is important that people use words wisely for their sake as well as mine. I don’t have all the answers but here are a few things that you could try this Christmas to help someone with an eating disorder navigate the turmoil of family, friends and food activities.
1. ‘It will be okay’
When I began doing my first Christmas meals at home I did find them a challenge. I felt suffocated by all the food that was around and so scared of eating too much or too little. By those four simple words it helps defuse my mind when it is going off on a massive tangent in my head. It helps break the cycle if I am staring at a plate of food, worrying about the calories I am about to consume. It interrupts that anorexic voice in my head and helps me come back to the room.
2. ‘You are doing really well’
Small words of encouragement help acknowledge to the individual that others round them know they are struggling. I know when I first started enjoying food and eating at Christmas I was met with this guilt in my head. But we can challenge that guilt with your help but helping us feel that what we are doing isn’t a bad thing. And that we don’t have to show you we are not okay by not eating.
3. ‘I am here if you need me’
A quick reminder goes a long well in helping us to not feel like a burden on others. I know I sometimes feel so bad when I struggle and it should be a really nice happy time for everyone. Then because I feel bad about it occasionally I stop talking,
4. ‘I know Christmas can be really hard and there is lots of food around but you don’t have to eat it all’
This may seem like a silly thing, but seriously it is such a good reminder for someone in recovery. The amount of food around at Christmas and the expectation to eat loads is at times hard. So this small reminder helps us feel in control again.
5. ‘Let’s go and stretch our legs’
A healthy walk on Christmas Day is never a bad thing and for those of us who may struggle with exercising compulsively this does help. It also helps us to not ponder over how much food is sitting around in the house.
6. ‘Do you want some help with portion size?’
Portion size is a minefield! And 9 years in to my recovery there are still some portions I struggle with (I only eat portion sized yogurts, porridge and pour my pasta out of a 500gram packet) – all sounds so ridiculous but portion sizes are a challenge. When you are in recovery you don’t want to eat too little or too much so this question allows us the chance to accept we might need some help.
7. ‘I know this is hard for you but we can talk about it after’
That acknowledgment that Christmas isn’t easy helps us to talk about it.
8. ‘What can I do to help?’
Sometimes it feels like whatever you say or do won’t help so just ask and then we can do it together.
9. ‘Let’s do an activity’
Distraction is always welcome on Christmas Day and away from food – whether it is playing a board game or watching something on the TV together can always help.
10. ‘Christmas is only one day – hold on in there!’
Yes, and as patronising as this sounds. It is one day and you can do this. We can do this together. We can manage our eating disorders and get through it. It might be hard and feel like a struggle but if once we have done it we can be so proud of ourselves and then have an easier day on boxing day.
Christmas isn’t easy and I am not going to pretend it is but it is possible to survive it and I know actually enjoy it. If words don’t seem to be helping simple squeezing my hand under the table always does the job! So why not try that if you feel lost for words.
BIO: Hope Virgo; author of Stand tall little Girl; suffered with anorexia for over 4 years, before being admitted to a Mental Health Hospital in 2007. She lived in the hospital for a year, fighting one of the hardest battles of her life. Since being discharged, she has fought to stay well. She now wants to use her experiences of mental health illness to champion the rights of others, inspire them to get well, and help break the stigma of mental illness. You can see what she is up to here @HopeVirgo