For nine years I waged war on my body and my weight in the form of anorexia and bulimia. For me it was a year-round battle, but the Holidays were especially hard. But “hard” isn’t even the right word, the Holidays were a time of anxiety, fear, guilt and depression. The Holidays were a perfect storm for me: all the food that I was fighting against right there in front of me from the end of November to the first of the year. The more I tried to control the less control I had. I would disengage with the people who loved me, trying to go unnoticed as I slipped into the bathroom. I’d lie to my husband when he tried to keep me accountable: the one person, who more than anyone, loved me and wanted the best for me. I pushed him away and in the process alienating myself in my struggle. I would continually beat myself up over my behavior, feeling guilty and helpless.
Weeks of beating up my body would come to a head on New Years Eve where I’d resolve to not have an eating disorder, to lose weight, to exercise more, to fit into such-and-such clothes. Things would get better for a few days but ultimately I’d return to the same destructive habits.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, but where I am now is so far. So Far. From where I was then. I am in a place now where I can embrace the Holiday season as a season of feasting. I have little concern for whether or not I will gain weight and I carry on with my normal exercise routine because I enjoy it, not because I’m trying to burn calories.
One of the things that allowed me to come to this place of peace with the Holiday season is that I admitted I was powerless and I let go of control. And that seemingly gave me all the control in the world. Whether or not you struggle with an eating disorder you may find these tips helpful:
Let go of Control.
For the longest time I lived in extremes. Either, or. There was no in between. I was either binging or starving. There were acceptable foods or forbidden foods. It was all driven by fear that I would gain weight. Nearly every decision about food or exercise came from a place of fear and that fear drove me to control everything. I tried every trick in the book to avoid eating at holiday gatherings: I brought my own food, ate before hand, vowed to eat nothing, chewed piece after piece of gum nothing worked. The more I tried to control the food, the more power it had over me. I gave it so much importance that it dominated my life, preoccupied every waking thought, dictated how I felt about myself. Letting all that go is scary, but brings freedom.
Embrace the Season.
All of life is cyclical. Humans are cyclical, we function best when we move in and out of seasons of hard work and rest; seasons of discipline and seasons of feasting. When I started to embrace the season for what it was: a time of feasting, I noticed a greater peace. I’ve embraced the fact that the holidays are a time of year where I tend to eat more. I may gain weight during the holidays. But it doesn’t elicit the fear that it used to. Now I know that as I return to my normal eating and exercise patterns after the holidays that weight will most likely come off. More importantly my ability to “eat clean” doesn’t define who I am, it is something I can move in and out of as the year cycles past. I’m not denying the importance of a healthy and balanced diet, or suggesting the holidays are a time to binge. I’m suggesting that there is value in a season of feasting, to find what that value is for you and see if you can embrace it.
I used to go to Holiday parties and family gatherings with a list of what I was “allowed” to eat and what was “off-limits”. I’d tell myself I’ll only have the veggies. I won’t have any desserts. I won’t eat the cheese. Now I try to be as open as possible. There are no foods that are off-limits. My focus is on being as in tune with my body as possible. I want to be intuitive in the way I eat. Sometimes that means saying “yes” because the pumpkin cheesecake looks amazing and sometimes it means saying “no” because if I eat more crackers and cheese now I won’t be hungry for the meal. Instead of telling myself what I can’t eat I allow myself to eat what I want in moderation
Don’t “Eat Before You Go.”
I used to eat before going to parties: I’d fill myself up on fat-free yogurt and carrot sticks to try to avoid having to eat at a party. Inevitably I would binge at the party. The best thing you can do during the holidays is to stick to the normal timing of your meals and snacks. If you do, you will remain more intuitive with your eating. So if a party happens to be at a meal or snack time, then eat at the party. But if not, listen to your body and eat before or after. The same goes for skipping meals to “save room” or “save calories” for what you will be eating at the party. Trying to out-smart your stomach or trick your body into not eating or eating when it isn’t ready will always backfire.
Focus on the People.
When food becomes the focus you lose sight of the people around you. The more I focused on not gaining weight the more disengaged I became with the people around me. Now that food is no longer my focus I am free to engage fully with my family and friends who I see throughout the Holidays. If your focus is on the people around you, food, body image and weight gain or loss will lose their importance and ultimately their power. Make engaging with others the goal of your Holiday gatherings.
Both literally and figuratively, it is best at times to step away. There are moments when I still feel drawn in by a disordered and obsessive view of food. I get very inwardly focused on what I’ve eaten, how many calories I have consumed and if I’ll have time to exercise tomorrow or not. When I get to this place, that’s when I need to step away. This doesn’t just happen to me at holiday parties, it happens when I’m at home too: when I start to go over in my mind what I “can” or “cannot” have. I’m at the point now where I recognize this disordered thinking as it rises up and am able to deal with it in a healthy way. If I’m at home I walk away and then come back to the decision later with a better mindset. If I’m at a holiday party I step away from the food and try to engage someone in conversation or step outside to collect my thoughts and bring the truth and reality back into focus.
Ask for Help.
I spent many years struggling alone. Partly out of embarrassment and partly because I really didn’t want to relinquish control and resented anyone who tried help. Asking for help, especially if you struggle with an eating disorder, is essential. The journey to freedom is not one that you can walk alone. But if you find that the Holidays are a difficult time for you and your self-talk becomes incredibly discouraging and negative, bring a friend or family member into that. Clue them into your struggle, bringing light to it will ultimately help you.
It has been a long journey, to go from fearing the Holidays to embracing them, but not an impossible one. If the Holidays are a struggle for you, they don’t have to be. It starts with changing the way you think, little by little, step by step.
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