by Alison E.
As the holidays approach, I often think back to what it used to be like - how my favourite season became marred by the angst, pain, and sometimes crippling fear fomented by anorexia. If it hadn't been for the incredible patience and support of those who cared for me in treatment, I may never have recovered either my health or my Christmas spirit. To pay this miraculous gift forward, I wrote the following reflection, that it might offer even a glimmer of hope to those struggling with an eating disorder this season.
Christmas has been my favourite time of year for as long as I can remember. The smell of cloves, the twinkling lights, traditional carols telling tales of ages past—I even looked forward to watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life for the hundredth time.
In my family, Christmas has always been an entire season of piano recitals, pageants, ski trips, and parties, not just a single day of presents and feasting. However, not even the magic of Christmas was immune to my obsessive disease. Once anorexia had made its nest in our home and poisoned my spirit, the holidays seemed to be cast, in its shadow of fear, angst, doubt and despair. I withdrew from the festive gatherings I once loved, recoiled from merry greetings, and ran from any occasion celebrated with food. I became completely disconnected from the part of me—the real me—that came alive during the Christmas season.
When I entered treatment for my eating disorder, it was the hope of regaining that true authentic sense of self that motivated my recovery. Needless to say, it's hard to be genuine and fully present in any situation with a brain that's completely obsessed with food, exercise, body weight and shape. I couldn't stand the cold, heart-sinking distance from things that truly mattered any longer. So when, after a few months of treatment, I was offered the chance to go home for the week of Christmas and New Year's, I felt simultaneously excited and completely terrified. A week away from the routines I'd come to rely on as safe modes of eating and coping scary. But I so desperately wanted to reconnect with the traditions I'd once loved and feel the comfort of home again, so I agreed and threw "caution" (read: fear) back in anorexia's face.
In the weeks leading up to my "vacation", I was graced by the immense patience and empathy of the counselors, nutritionists, and other practitioners surrounding me in treatment, who worked closely with me to prepare for the holidays. I opened up and spoke honestly about what scared me the most about going home for Christmas: the sheer quantity of especially rich food, the social settings in which I would be expected to eat, the tension between me and my parents who were so worried about my health and diet, and the daunting task of fitting the eating structures, coping tools, meditations, and self-awareness that I'd finally grasped in treatment into a completely unpredictable holiday setting.
Together we, along with some of the other residents in treatment for eating disorders, talked through countless scenarios and formulated many plans for "staying on the wagon" while outside in the "real world.” My dietician helped me figure out how to equate offerings at Christmas dinner to what I normally ate for an evening meal, and how to ensure there was at least one manageable dish at every gathering. My counselor guided me through my plans for the week, talking me through potential pitfalls and reminding me that what I really feared most was fear itself: that awful voice that punished me for taking any chance at happiness. Thanks to all that support, I left for Christmas feeling much more confident—and much closer to my old Yule-loving self.
Of course, eating disorders are pervasive, insidious diseases that no amount of planning can entirely subvert. All the foresight in the world could not have prevented the discomfort (and sometimes paralytic panic) I experienced while I was home for the holidays. But let's face it—I was an anorexic newly in recovery, with an eight-year career of obsessive dieting and exercise behind me - an eating disorder doesn't disappear in a day. I was bound to feel uncomfortable—I rarely felt comfortable anywhere at that point. If only it was as easy as leaving anorexia at the door, crossing the threshold of every Christmas party without my relentless punisher dogging my footsteps.
But there were some miracles that Christmas. By taking a quiet moment alone beforehand to centre myself and gather the strength I'd found in recovery, I faced every meal and came out the other side, still present in the celebrations. To my amazement, I even enjoyed some of the dishes I'd feared for so long. When I experienced anxiety or depression, I reached out to family and supportive friends for reassurance and reminders of what truly mattered. I took time to jot my thoughts, however riddled with doubt or fear, down in the form of letters to those I recognized as sources of strength. I slept when I was tired or emotionally drained, sipped lots of comforting herbal teas, drank in the crisp winter air, and cried when I needed to. Against all odds, I actually caught a glimmer of Yuletide sparkle— and hope for recovery—through a tiny crack in my anorexic shell.
This teensy glint of hope I carried with me back to treatment for eating disorders, and it grew like a carefully sewn seed as I shared about my week with the others in treatment. Sure, I was convinced that I'd gained about 300 pounds over that single week - an illusion that was quickly dispelled—but somehow, I still felt lighter than I'd felt in ages. While in treatment I'd been operating on nothing more than blind trust in what the practitioners there were teaching me, but going home for the holidays gave me the chance to see it work for real. I came back with faith in my recovery—something I believe is possible for anyone in recovery. Today, that faith is stronger than ever.