This might be a surprise to you, or you may have heard it before, or you may be living it right now. For some people the holiday season is not an easy time in fact, holidays are very tough for people struggling with mental illness. Thanksgiving, is particularly rough on my clients who suffer with eating disorders.
Food, family time, breaks in routine, and expectations can be a recipe for disaster when you are recovering from an eating disorder. Whether you are a person struggling or a loved one, I think the biggest thing you can do is to realize the struggle is there, name it for what it is, and practice good self care. Here are a few ideas for how to do to get through Thanksgiving or help a loved one:
Recognize Holidays are Hard. Yep. There it is. Validation. This is not just you. Your family may be particularly brutal. Your recovery may be especially delicate. But I want you to know, you are not alone. Many people struggle on this day. Sometimes it becomes a trap, to have tough feelings on a day you are “supposed to feel…” I hope knowing you are not alone, helps you side step that feeling of guilt. Because guilt has no place here.
Walk Out on Diet and Body Talk. My recovering clients worry so much about how people will feel if they don’t react well to hurtful comments. Sometimes it frustrates me, I wish others would worry as much about the hurtful things they say to my clients. Here is your full permission to put your recovery first. If Aunt Ida (sorry..if that is your actual Aunt’s name) is talking about the diet she plans to start right after her pie or if your cousin is talking about her bikini competition this Saturday and that is putting your recovery on the line, get up and walk out. Even if no one knows about what you are going through, step outside for fresh air and walk back into the room when you feel ready. Don’t beat yourself up for not saying anything or having the right words. Today is just about doing whatever it takes to stay on track in recovery.
Eat. Don’t meal skip in anticipation of the “big meal” or restrict to make up for what you ate. This will only set you up for relapse. Give yourself permission to have not done things perfectly. If you got off track, learn from that and then do the very next recovery thing. Every set back is an opportunity to learn something about yourself and strengthen your recovery for the future.
Increase Support. As an eating disorder therapist in East Texas, I am keeping my door open every day but Thursday the week of Thanksgiving. If your therapist and dietitian will be out of town for Thanksgiving, increase your support this week or plan appointments as soon as possible afterwards. We know this time of year is tough and most support team persons will plan accordingly. This is not the time to skip appointments or vacation from them. I often offer phone or Skype sessions to check in with clients who will be traveling. Talk to your treatment team and let them know if you need additional support.
Pack Your Diaper Bag. What?!? This is sort of an inside joke between me and several of my clients. If they are reading this they are all at home chuckling and nodding. It sort of flew out of my mouth during support group one night and stuck. Here is the premise. As a mom, I know my toddler is going to need some things when I am out and about with him. I’ve learned from a few too many errand runs where a diaper blow out happened or a snack crises created a giant melt down, we can’t just walk out the door. I have to plan. Your recovery is like your very own baby. It has to be planned for, thought about, and considered every time you walk out the door and every second of the day really. Pack snacks, pack coping skill items (journals, pens, calm down jar, headphones for mindfulness exercises, a book that is really equipping you in recovery or providing self care, anything you need to get through the tough stuff), and have at least one person you can reach out to if you are struggling. Plan a code word with a loved one where you can communicate “Help. I am struggling.”
Ditch Expectations. This day can look like whatever it needs to look like. Think back ten years ago and remember that Thanksgiving. You can’t? Neither can I. That’s because in the scheme of things it is just a day. You will have so many more. If this is a day you need to let go of having the nicest china out or the perfect dessert cooked to keep yourself in recovery, give yourself permission to do just that. The people who really care about you will understand.
Stick to Your Values. I know, I know. I always bring up values. You can’t go wrong with this. Write a list of the things that you truly value about this day. Is it family? Down time? A delicious meal? Playing board games with kids? Get clear about what matters to you and keep that in focus.
I know holidays can be very difficult. I have sat with so many clients who have this struggle and I have experienced it first hand. This is not your fault, no one would choose to struggle like this. You have come this far in recovery and you will make it past this difficult season too. Don’t give up. Recovery is one of the hardest things you will ever do but it won’t always be this hard. Someday, you will again be able to enjoy the holidays you once loved. Do whatever recovery thing you need to make it through this day!