I have never been “big,” at least not in the conventional sense. I am small in stature. My breasts are tiny and my waist is thin and my highest weight was when I was pregnant. I tipped the scale at 132 pounds. But that doesn’t mean I am healthy, nor does it mean I have always been healthy. In fact, for years I was sick — very sick — because I suffered from an eating disorder.
My distorted relationship with food (and myself) began when I was young. I was just 12 or 13 years old. I wore oversize shirts and baggy jeans to conceal my body. I spent hours looking in the mirror scrutinizing my stomach, my thighs, my hips and my ass. And every evening, I read about food, diets and the various ways one could lose weight.
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I began trolling boards promoting anorexia and bulimia… but that’s not all. I skipped breakfast and rarely ate lunch. I started carrying food everywhere, not to eat but to store and hoard — because it felt safe. Because I was obsessed, and I learned how to say I wasn’t hungry even when I was.
When I did eat, I did so alone.
Of course, I didn’t see my behaviors as odd. I was still eating — albeit smaller meals. I wasn’t binging and purging, and I wasn’t throwing up, which in my young mind meant I was OK. I was “well.” But by the time I started counting calories, I was already bony-knee-deep in EDNOS — eating disorder, not otherwise specified.
And while I have been “recovered” for many years — my sickness is more than a decade behind me — I still have triggers: all-you-can-eat affairs are difficult. Weddings can be trying, and the holidays are hard.
I struggle from Halloween through the New Year.
So how do I cope? How do I survive? Well, these tried and true methods have helped me for the last 10 years.
Establish a support network
If you have or have had a serious illness, one of the best things you can do is establish a support network. This network can help counsel you. They can help comfort you, and they can support you with understanding, empathy and (sometimes) tough love. And while your network will undoubtedly differ from mine, strong support networks often consist of a wide variety of players, including doctors, therapists, dietitians, mentors, life coaches and/or recovery coaches — and, of course, family and friends.
That said, if you find yourself alone during the holidays, do not fret: The Eating Disorder Referral & Information Center offers both online counseling and phone counseling for individuals with eating disorders as well as a comprehensive guide of in-person groups.
Self-care is a broad term, and for good reason. According to PsychCentral, it is “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional and physical health.” Of course, that may seem vague, but in truth, it isn’t; it is just personal. Very personal.
Some people find reading relaxing, while others meditate to unwind. (For me, self-care involves writing and/or a good, long run.) Whatever you do, make sure it nourishes you physically, emotionally, psychologically and/or spiritually — as it is imperative you fill your heart, body and mind.
Have a holiday coping plan
Food is everywhere during the holidays. It is the central focus of Halloween — and Thanksgiving. It is present at every kids party, every work party and nearly every other social event, and in December, food just seems to “appear” — on your doorstep, in your office and in your kitchen. (I’m looking at you unsolicited cookies, chocolates and gift baskets.) So what can you do? How can you participate in the holidays and cope? You do it with a food plan — and a backup plan.
Make no mistake: I’m not talking about limiting your caloric intake or practicing restrictive eating, as these behaviors are particularly dangerous for someone with an eating disorder and/or recovering from an eating disorder. Instead, I am suggesting you arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible to make the event as comfortable as possible. For example, ask your host what they will be serving. Visualize how you will handle the meal and/or event in advance. Offer to bring a dish, especially if you are in the early stages of recovery and on a restricted meal plan, and — most important — be prepared to leave if or when you become overwhelmed, as the greatest plan is the “knowing yourself” plan, which brings me to my final point…
Know your limitations
Recovering from an eating disorder is a lifelong process, and only you know where you are in said process and what you can handle. As such, you shouldn’t force yourself into a situation if you’re not stable, comfortable and/or secure. That said, you shouldn’t be completely shut in or isolated. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, people with eating disorders put themselves at risk when they isolate. For that reason, the NEDA suggests hosting small gatherings in your home and serving foods you’re comfortable eating.
“If a huge party seems scary, host a smaller-scale event with foods you feel comfortable around,” Riyanna M., a Seattle-based clinical psychologist who overcame an eating disorder in her youth, told NEDA. You can also “make a point of enjoying a portion of a food you love but normally won’t allow yourself.”
The point isn’t what you do; it is how you do it. So know yourself. Love yourself. Honor yourself, and be proud of your progress — no matter where you are.
If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline.
A version of this story was published in November 2018.