I am bracing myself for the annual onslaught of phone calls we receive after Thanksgiving every year.
Social events where food is present are often difficult for people struggling with an eating disorder. Something about the holidays is super hard. I usually spend this time of year writing to clients about how to stay in recovery during this season. Now I want to focus on how loved ones can help family members.
Here are a few ways you can help a person struggling with an Eating Disorder Survive the Holidays:
- Be willing and curious about what your loved one might need in recovery. Most people in recovery feel like people are awkward around them and don’t know what to say. Sometimes this can leave them feeling like they are non-human. This is probably because people ARE awkward around them and don’t know what to say. I think it makes things worse when we don’t want to admit that. It’s okay to say “I know you are struggling and I don’t know what to say but could you tell me a little about what you are going through and what you need?”
- Please don’t judge, shame, or talk negatively about your food or body- on this day or any day. When you say “I really shouldn’t have had that pie.” Your loved ones eating disorder will be screaming loudly in their ear “YEAH AND YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE HAD THAT PIE EITHER!!!!” If you knew how Herculean of an effort it was for your loved one to eat this day or any day it would amaze you. Every comment you make about your food and your body is being heard and twisted inward on the client by their eating disorder. The eating disorder has enough ammo in his arsenal; please don’t be the person in your loved one’s life that supplies more.
- Plan some other activities on the day of your holiday get together. Sometimes events and parties that are all about food can become overwhelming. It can be really beneficial to have a non-food tradition on this day as well. Going to see a new movie, playing a fun game, or serving the community in some way. These are all ways to help your loved one connect with what is truly meaningful about this holiday-loving others and spending time together.
- Help your loved one plan appropriately if you will be traveling. You know when you are rushing through the airport and you think “man I don’t have time to stop and eat…I guess I will have a late lunch when we land?” Yeah, your person in recovery can’t do that. Please don’t even suggest it. They have to be intentional about planning for that event and sometimes they need help. The eating disorder will take total advantage of this situation and is probably even hoping things will get so hectic the skipped meal or snack won’t be noticed. Help your loved one pick out some options to have on hand in case life happens and try to plan your trip with recovery in mind. This means scheduling enough downtime to eat meals and snacks and talking with your loved one’s treatment team about any physical activities you are planning.
- Know that your loved one is not his or her eating disorder. This is not your loved one just trying to ruin the holidays for everyone. They aren’t “just trying to get attention” They are in there and they truly wish that they weren’t struggling this much. Seeing them for who they truly are, their healthy self can be hard at times but look for those moments and cling to them.
- Know that you are not alone. Reach out to professionals who can link you to support for people who have loved ones in recovery, sometimes it’s nice just to know you are not alone. I have a handful of parents and loved ones who are always willing to talk to and listen to someone who is walking a person through the tough road of recovery. There are support groups for loved ones, both virtual and in person. Reach out, you need support too.
I want to say; while I have heard some Holiday horror stories in my time as an Eating Disorder specialist. I want to believe every family is doing their best and this article is intended to help and guide not blame and chastise.
We have all done and said things that are harmful, it would be impossible not to. If you read something and feel convicted about something that was said in the past, take the time to address that with your loved one. It’s okay to say “I am so sorry if that harmed your recovery, I want to know how to help you better.”
It’s a brave thing to walk alongside someone during the tough times in his or her life. Have self-compassion and take care of yourself. Those are the greatest things you can teach a person in recovery.