You know how "everyone's Irish" on March 17? Well, I have a theory that everyone has an eating disorder around the holidays. And I choose to find comfort in this: as someone in eating disorder recovery, the holidays are the time of year when everyone is right there in it with me.
Think about it.
Let's start with Halloween. More than a few people over-indulge on Fun-sized (fun, to who?) candy bars. All throughout the next week, you hear people talking about how they must atone for their sugar-coated sins by upping their workouts or eating only salads. This year, a yoga teacher actually even added an extra portion of ab work to a class for "if you've been hitting the kids' candy like me". Yoga should be a shame-free place, but it's often not.
Then comes Thanksgiving, a day when we are not only encouraged but expected to overeat. So across the nation, we're all engaging in a binge eating episode. When I was bulimic, I was incredibly ashamed of my binge episodes and the amount of food I ate. I was pretty sure nobody in the history of the world had ever eaten as much as me on a binge. But these days, as I observe people eating on Thanksgiving, I have second thoughts about my (thankfully now long-ago) binges. I think there are some people, who do not have eating disorders, who could probably could have given me a run for my money.
And after the Big Binge Episode known as Thanksgiving? Here's what I heard this year. A few people are on juice cleanses. One person vows to run an extra 10 miles per week. All over the place I am hearing people say these words: "I feel sooooo fat". And part of me thinks this:
Aren't those supposed to be my words, my sentiments? Who is the one with the eating disorder here?
Then after Thanksgiving, it only gets more pronounced as we enter the holiday season, where it's not one single day but basically a full month of excess, wherein drinks flow freely, cookies are in abundance, and it's not so much amuse buche as it is stuff yourself with bûche de noël.
The media gets in on the action: magazines are teeming with articles about how to stay fit during the holidays. Websites offer tips for not losing control during holiday feasting. Some try to remain virtuous during the holidays, with grim expressions and Fit Bits cemented to their wrist. Others indulge more than fully, knowing that there are lean days ahead, and this time of plenty will not last.They're making their resolutions even while having a third glass of eggnog. Come January 1, it's juice and exercise. Every day! Twice a day! No sugar. No gluten. No fun.
All of this sounds familiar to someone with an eating disorder, on both ends. The restricting, grimly avoiding all of the deviant pleasures and temptations that are all around. And on the other end of the spectrum, the binge and purge cycle, gorging now, making up for it later (or having the intent to). The obsession. The food.
It's like the entire world has gone on a massive, month-long binge and purge cycle.
For a lot of disordered eaters, myself included for a very long time, this was enough to confuse and send my recovery into a tailspin. Who's the one with an eating disorder here? If everyone's overeating, why don't I do it too? Or should I just avoid all of it because I might not be able to stop once I started?
In the life cycle of my eating disorder, I started out bulimic, and ended on the anorexic end of the scale, and now, I identify more with the restriction type of compulsions. During the holidays, I don't have too much trouble resisting temptation. If anything, it's easy to avoid overindulging, and in a typical anorexic mindset, to feel imperious. The little anorexic voice in my head applauds me, and says "you're superior and stronger than the weaklings who are chowing down on 12 cookies at a time."
To the anorexic still lingering in my brain, it's a fantastic time of year to prove just how much I can deny myself, which can be a trigger of sorts. But what really stresses me out about the holidays is the turmoil they cause in something very important to me--the structure of my days. There are holidays, my work schedule gets wonky, everything seems unpredictable. It's like the equivalent of being stuck in an airport in a snowstorm and not knowing when things will go back to normal.
I love a good routine, and the holidays throw it all out of whack. Just when I felt like I have figured out how social situations and people and eating together work, now all of the rules are different during the holidays. I hate not having a plan, a routine, knowing what the deal is.
But this year, I do have a plan, and I like it. I choose--boldly--to look upon this phenomenon with a bit of humor, and with a ton of compassion.
What the craziness around food during the holiday season tells me is that even people without eating disorders suffer from episodes of disordered eating.
While on the one hand I am tempted to be downtrodden about this fact - what does that mean for my goal of full recovery if non-eating disordered people are exhibiting disordered behavior? But then again, when I look at it from a different point of view, this can actually be a very uplifting thing.
It means that we're more the same than I thought. It means that opening up and saying "I'm really stressed out about this holiday party and I almost don't want to go because there are going to be fatty appetizers and creamy drinks" to someone is totally ok, because even if they don't have an eating disorder, they are probably feeling the food pressure of the holidays, too. If you're restricting, it also means that you're not the only one depriving yourself and remaining stoic in the face of peppermint hot chocolate with marshmallows.
For many who are suffering or in recovery from eating disorders, the holidays are a tremendously difficult time of year. I would never try to argue that or take it away from anyone.
But maybe, just maybe, we can change our relationship with the holidays. They could win. They could stress us all out, eating disordered and non-eating disordered alike. But nobody ends up happy that way. Why not embrace the fact that we're all all little stress balls of holiday meltdown waiting to happen? Once we recognize that we're all getting stressed out, together, and maybe find a little humor in that fact, we can start to let the whole charade go and just have fun. I'd go to a party with that theme.
Maybe that's the new holiday spirit.