WITH the festive season so tightly associated with eating and drinking, it can be a challenge for those in recovery from or struggling with, an eating disorder. Campaigner Hope Virgo explains what people can do to protect themselves this Christmas.
’Why can’t I just eat this today? Why can’t I just be like everyone else?’ I stood there staring in the mirror, looking at my reflection, the reflection of a lost, afraid, child. I was 16 years old and it was Christmas Day. My family were all downstairs getting ready for breakfast, our traditional smoked salmon, pastries and eggs. I was upstairs in my room wanting the mirror to swallow me up. The last 48 hours played out in my mind, the arguments on Christmas Eve over dinner, the guilt over what I had eventually eaten… I was emotionally exhausted and I just wanted one day without this internal chatter.
Ever since I was 12 years old, Christmas had been a contentious topic full of so many mixed emotions. But this year, aged 16, felt slightly harder. Just a few weeks before I had been diagnosed with anorexia so everyone was on high alert, eyes watching me constantly.
The fear of what the day was about to look like in that moment became too much. I gave myself a pep talk; well the Anorexia gave me a pep talk and then I went downstairs to join everyone else knowing exactly what I had to do.
These feelings aren’t unique to me, but feelings that millions have each year throughout the entire Christmas Season. Eating disorders are not a choice, not something that a person can simply ’switch off’, they are not about being a certain size or shape, not a vanity exercise and they are not actually about food but a serious mental illness.
For the millions of people affected by eating disorders Christmas loses a lot of its fun as we enter a consumeristic season where people seem to have this over-indulgent time, in effect consuming as much food and alcohol as they can, followed by weeks of purging through diet culture or exercise. Feeling a whole heap load of shame, and guilt, before returning to some sense of normality.
I know for so many of you reading this, you will be consumed by fear for yourself about the festive period or fear for your loved ones.
Over the last year we have seen the number of people struggling with eating disorders increase, and I know for so many of you reading this, you will be consumed by fear for yourself about the festive period or fear for your loved ones. The truth is, I can sit here and tell you right now that it can be okay and it can be enjoyable but you need to start thinking about how you can make this work.
Firstly; having a game plan in place. This will look different to everyone, but might involve a plan with the food for the few days around Christmas. As well as timings being in place, it might be worth thinking of activities that you enjoy doing away from meal times so that the food doesn’t become the sole focus during this time.
Second; distractions are key! Whether it is washing up after a meal, playing a board game, or having space to journal know that distractions can help in those moments when feelings get overly intense. If you feel able to, identifying someone in your support unit who can also bring you back into a conversation over a meal time when you find your brain drifting and ruminating about what is directly in front of you with your food may also help.
Third; Be mindful of your social media consumption! Not only do we need to remember that what we are seeing on social media isn’t the reality but also take ownership of what we are looking like. I always go through my Instagram the few weeks before Christmas and just make sure the algorithms are curated in such a way that I won’t be inundated with diet messages afterwards, but also we need to realise if we are struggling it might be worth staying off social media so we don’t find ourselves down that rabbit hole of comparisons.
I realised about four years ago that one way to rid ourselves of this nasty illness is to embrace the pain.
Fourth, can you find a way to challenge the eating disorder this Christmas? I realised about four years ago that one way to rid ourselves of this nasty illness is to embrace the pain. We keep running from difficult painful situations but if we keep doing this we aren’t going to see what’s on the other side! It will take a huge amount to grow into this but if we embrace this pain, this fear it will help us closer to freedom and above all realise that it’s okay to embrace the pain because it passes.
Fifth, identify one person that you can say ’I am finding this hard’ to. Someone that you can just call the ’eating disorder thinking’ out to. Naming it and bringing it in to the light so that it loses some of that power!
And finally, we know eating disorders aren’t about food so ask yourself what is really going on. Is there some other fear that maybe is being projected through the food or some other purpose being served through the food? When you are triggered by a comment, or something going to plan, instead of allowing the eating disorder behaviour to kick in, ask yourself what do I need instead?
I totally get how hard Christmas is, how sticky this can feel, and I probably make it sound far too easy, but be kind to yourself. Plan ahead, be patient, set your boundaries and remember you can reset at any point in the season, simply by counting to 10 over and over again until those feelings pass!
If you or someone you know is struggling reach out for help with these links: