Let’s stop sugarcoating how to deal with holidays

Ah, Thanksgiving Eve.

There are always a million of pro-recovery, pro-love, pro-gratitude posts swarming around this time of year. These tend to include steadfast tips for enjoying the holidays, as if a 10-itemed list can accurately identify and provide you with all the answers to keep your eating disorder at bay at a time where your biggest vice- food- is what the entire day is all about.

I’m not knocking those lists. I’m not even knocking that advice. I dole it out to my clients on the regular. But here’s what we’re missing.

Yes, there’s family, and family is so important. Yes, there’s gratitude, and that’s even more important. We know this. I don’t have to tell you it.

While I appreciate the efforts to focus on what the holidays are really about, I find it dangerous and concerning to push down the reality of the food component, as if gratitude and connection with our loved ones will alleviate us from the stressors that come with our eating disorders.

Here’s the thing. Food is always going to be here to stay. Food is social glue. Food is there multiple times a day, in every setting, and is necessary for, you know, living. And I can rattle on and on about how we can’t change situations, how we just need to accept that fact, how we can’t let it defeat us. And while all that is true, we also cannot deny that Thanksgiving and the holidays alike can be kryptonite.

My piece.

I love my family. I fucking love gratitude. And for about ten years, I hated holidays surrounding food. I still struggle with them.  My point is, they are not mutually exclusive. Any holiday around food, no matter how actively I practice recovery, brings up some anxieties, desires to engage in old behaviors whether it be overeating or undereating, and general discomfort. I spent many dinners judging the plates of others, keeping score of how “good” I was doing until I inevitably “fucked up” and swore myself I’d start over again tomorrow. I can remember my weight on most Thanksgiving mornings, and most of the Fridays after. I can remember which Thanksgivings became full-pie, midnight binges and which ones entailed daylong fasts until I “allowed” myself a few bites.

This year, I’m doing two Thanksgivings. This year, like every year, there will be a lot of food. Food that “feels” scary and unsafe. Food that I don’t eat everyday. Food that has the capacity to create anxieties and stressors that, even when I know are irrational, suck to have.

I consider myself in a high phase of recovery. I am relatively happy with my body, the way I eat, and how I take care of myself. It’s not perfect. Far from it, but part of the recovery is also accepting the imperfections. With that said, the fall-winter season is still difficult.

I’m not here to write lengthy advice today. You’ve probably seen all the cliched suggestions, anyway. There is no right advice for navigating tomorrow, except for the notion that it’s one day, and one day never has and never will define us and our recoveries.

My only advice for you all tomorrrow? Don’t guilt yourself if you can’t fully stay present with your friends, family, and gratitude. It’s not always that easy, and I’m applying that same forgiveness to myself. Just do your best, reflect afterwards, and know that you’re chugging along, doing what needs to be done. There are no real mistakes, only lessons along the way.

 

 

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an eating disorder isn’t unique

Dear Bee,

We are all a little strange. Obscure in our own ways. Normalcy is just a fallacy, and who would ever want to be deemed a term as derogatory and boring as normal? I sure wouldn’t.

Some people let their illnesses define them. They wear them with badges of honor. I don’t discredit these people. Some of them are our greatest spokesmen, inspirations for future generations, living proof that one can live a full and leading life despite the myths. I think it is important to have these kinds of role models. We need evidence that we are not alone, that other people have walked paths similar to ours.

I used to think I wanted to be a big advocate for eating disorders. One of those I-did-it-so-can-you figureheads who could somehow change the world by virtues of my own story and own recovery. I’m not that hellbent on using myself as a change agent anymore. I want to help people change, yes, but in their own ways. I don’t think I discovered some magical formula that assures mind-body-soul balance. I don’t want to be known as the girl-who-had-the-eating-disorder. I’d rather be known for much greater and larger things. Like my sense of compassion and creativity, my intuition, the way I treat other people, my humor, the passion that seeps through my every pore.

I’d rather not be another I-did-it-now-so-can-you storytellers. I thought I did. Now, I realize, the eating disorder represents just one fraction of a vibrant and colorful life.

Recovery has taught me that I don’t need to be malnourished to be loved, and I don’t need to be stuffed to feel love.

I don’t need a number on the scale to be successful.

I’m unique, but not because I have or had a diagnosable mental illness. I’m unique for the way I see the world, for the way I interact with others, for the way I choose to live.

And that’s much more meaningful than a coded medical number. 

 

Let the fear work for you

Dear Bee,

I had a really good therapy session this morning. I didn’t think I would, because I had a session just last week, but it was extremely useful. We are still processing recovery and what that looks like, especially now that I’m working in the field, containing the emotions of my clients who face similar triggers in their own journeys. I admitted my fear that this whole recovery thing still seems so fragile–like it could just slip through my fingers at any given time. She said, yep, you’re always one step away from relapse. It’s good to be scared. We’re all one step away. 

That’s addiction logic. The idea that you are always just one “something” away from sickness. It doesn’t matter how many years of recovery you have behind you; you’re not immune to relapse. 

I’m not used to fear. Rather, I’m used to minimizing, avoiding, or stuffing it down. Fear itself scares me. It makes me feel incompetent, out of control, and anxious. I liked her reframe. Use the fear to work for you. 

This is the first time in my life I truly feel like I have so much at stake. I’m in the healthiest and happiest relationship of my life. I’m working at an amazing agency with a truly wonderful group of clientele. I’m finishing up graduate school. I’m healthy, I’m relatively happy, and I’m experiencing more tastes of freedom than ever before. I don’t want to lose any of it. Ever. I don’t want to push anyone I love away. I don’t want to isolate myself. I don’t want to be manipulative. I don’t want to lie.

I’ve worked hard to get to where I’m at. I refuse to let my eating disorder stand in the way of that.

I don’t want my eating disorder, because I don’t NEED it as a crutch anymore. Is life harder without it? Sometimes. Is life better without it? Absolutely. I’ve made tremendous, indescribable strides in the past year, taken risks I didn’t believe were in me, and have emerged into a more resilient, autonomous, and empowered soul. I am not the same person I was when my eating disorder was my best friend. I am not the same person I was even when my eating disorder was my sworn enemy. Recovery isn’t about the conflict or the resolution; recovery is about the willingness to fight when needed and, ultimately, surrender when needed. 

My therapist is doing guest lectures at local high schools about eating disorder awareness around the area. She’s going to be sharing her story and asked if I wanted to come with her and share my own. I might. I don’t know how that will impact our therapeutic relationship- it’s something I need to process with her- but I’m also flattered that she even considered bringing up to me in the first place. Do I feel ready to expose my vulnerabilities and obstacles in front of a room of strangers? Unsure. Will I do it? Probably. Why? Because, on the other side of fear lies freedom. 

 

If I am not perfect, I am a failure.

I believe that one of the greatest challenges in eating disorder recovery is unraveling the distorted perception of failure.  

 

I know I am very guilty about this; you make me very hard on myself. I want to be “perfect.” Therefore, any deviation from this ultimate standard must be the opposite (all-or-nothing thinking, remember?) And what is the opposite of perfect?

Failure. 

The soundtrack that used to run in my mind: 

I did not plan to eat that cookie. Therefore, I failed.

I ate two cookies, not just one. Therefore, I failed.

I gained one pound. Therefore, I failed. 

I binged again. Even though I have been making significant progress, I am back at square one. Therefore, I failed. 

Despite the successes, despite every time I resisted a binge or refused an emotional craving or chose to be mindful or took an active approach in healing myself, YOU ONLY SHOWED ME THE FAILURES. 

 You made sure I could NEVER win, no matter how hard I tried to reach for the sky towards that nonexistent star called perfection. And, you know, it always felt so close, as if it were right in my reach, but you were the harsh lighting bolt striking me down every time I became close enough to grabbing it. 

Now, I realize that such a star, such a pinnacle of perfection, is simply my own distorted vision imagining what has and will never be there.

Perfection does not exist, and in recovery, I have to remind myself this every single day, maybe even every single meal, every single workout, or every single decision.

I must remember that the problem does not lie in eating an extra cookie, one or two gained pounds, or overeating at one meal. I compare recovery to a marathon, and I now believe that taking a short break to breathe or regain strength does NOT mean I need to return to the starting line.

Even if it sometimes feels like the slowest crawl to the finish line, I will get there.

What I used to believe was an endless journey without a destination (one step forward and two steps back), I am now actually FEELING the stride. For the first time in years, I now feel like an active participant in the race. You used to block me, push me off the road, induce incredible feelings of HA! You think you can do this?!?! You think you can beat me?!?! You think there’s an end to this?!?! I would stop running. I would sit on the sidelines, pining and mourning over my failure, and walk back to the starting line.

Then, when the urge of inspiration struck, I would convince myself that, sure, I could run those 26.2 miles WITHOUT A SINGLE SETBACK. Sure, I could recover without EVER messing up and without EVER even seeing or interacting with you again.

Until, inevitably, I saw you on the sidelines.

This time, the race is different. My stride is faster, my desire to win is deeper, and my ability to ignore you is stronger. I know you are there, watching my every move, and I no longer feel bothered by your presence, because I can FEEL the improvements and I can FEEL the progress. I am not just “hoping” things will get better, and I am not just passively spectating others running their own marathons.

And failure?

Just like perfection, I no longer believe THAT exists! It just simply means I have tried one more method that did not work. 

When December means more than just 31 days of holiday food

Dear Bee,

You are fading from my life. FINALLY. Inch by inch, and I can just feel it more and more everyday. It is so difficult to even express how good this feels. Talk about the journey of a thousand baby steps, but my goodness, it is so worth it!

Today, we had a holiday party at work. THERE WAS SO MUCH FOOD. Ridiculous, obscene amounts, really. Guess what?  I focused on other sensory details, like the beautiful, handmade gifts my coworkers made me, the holiday music playing in the background, and the multitude of interactions occurring around me. Even better, I was able to do this without TRYING.

Imagine how great that felt.

In my obsessive preoccupation with food table, I used to completely disregard and overlook these things. I was so consumed in the anxiety concerning what I needed to either restrict or indulge in. I always felt powerless to the food table, as if were an uncontrollable force brainwashing me.

So, what did I eat at this party? One gourmet cupcake, one chocolate chip cookie, and some watermelon slices.

 It was perfect. It was mindful. It was what I wanted to eat.

Did these foods affect how I ate the rest of my meals for the day? No. I still ate my normal breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I still drank my water, enjoyed my coffee, and lived my life. Do I feel guilty? Not in the least.

Parties tend to be ENORMOUS triggers for me. Probably the worst. You LOVE coming out to play. You LOVE stuffing me silly, force-feeding shovels of food down my throat, and invoking feelings of utter misery and self-hatred. You LOVE removing from the social scene to suffocate me in our cocoon. You are so selfish, always wanting me all to yourself. And afterwards, you LOVE criticizing and reminding me of all my weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

When I reflect on parties over the past few years, I think about all the time I spent with you. You ruined so many special events and holidays !. Sad. Remember that one Valentine’s Day? My ex-boyfriend had such a wonderful night planned out for us. Yet, I could barely focus on him, because I had spent the ENTIRE DAY indulging in my relationship with you. The same problem occurred on Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve…even my birthday. Oh, yes, you were DEFINITELY there to celebrate the past few birthdays. Of course. You had to remind me of all the years we had spent together.

I choose to live a life free of regrets. I do not regret how long we spent together (though this has taken a LONG TIME for me to accept), but just know that I do not plan on spending another holiday with you. I already have enough family and friends, thank you.

My coworkers lavished me with presents today. I currently have about two dozen cookies, one pound of peppermint bark, tons of chocolate and candies, and a fruit and granola plate in my car. I am currently at work (my second job) sitting about ten feet away from a leftover tray of pretzels, gourmet chocolates, candied nuts, and mini cupcakes. Back at home, I have a kitchen stocked with holiday goodies from friends and family.

Do I feel tempted? Triggered? Nope. Not at all. In fact, I have not touched any of it. Am I purposely restricting? Nope. I am busy doing OTHER THINGS.

More importantly, am I worrying about tomorrow? No, I am not. Tomorrow is a different day, and tomorrow, if I have to face another battle with you, then so be it. I am not going to concern myself with it now.

Depression occurs when we live in the past. Anxiety occurs when we live in the future. Peace occurs when we live in the present.

I am finally choosing peace. And that is recovery.

Overeaters Anonymous, Pancake Breakfasts, and Therapy

Dear Bee,

I spoke about you for the very first time in an Overeaters Anonymous meeting this morning. It was nerve-wracking (you like to keep our relationship a dirty little secret), but I felt ready to stretch that comfort zone.  This was my third meeting. Before today, I had just listened in, and today, I made the choice to share. I was the last one to talk, and it to be honest, I barely remember what I said. Mostly just some ramblings about the holidays and how I am trying to take this recovery day-by-day and avoid dwelling (and becoming extremely anxious) over future events.

Either way, it was liberating to share. I received an overwhelming wave of support (which I know you hate), and i did not realize how much this positive outpour would affect me. I have been in high spirits all day!

Promptly afterwards, I ate pancakes. Yep. Hypocritical? Nope.

We cooked pancakes as part of a contribution for a work event. I wanted to join. Since I was a child, pancakes have been one of my favorite foods. Unfortunately, Bee, with your conniving ways, you made them a fear food for me. Oh, you’re eating THOSE for breakfast? Great, that gives you logical reasoning to consume an entire sleeve of cookies later!! And after that, we can enjoy pizza, crackers, brownies, whatever you want. All because you ate pancakes. But don’t worry…I promise to leave you alone tomorrow. 

Anyway, today, I ate pancakes with real butter and real syrup, and you were NOT there to interrupt it. Did I physically need pancakes? No. Did I overeat? No. Did I enjoy quality time with coworkers and staff? Definitely. I ate my food, threw away my plate, and enjoyed the conversation. I did not think about my eating disorder once (I know that sounds inconceivable, but it is the absolute truth!).

Seriously, I have lost so many potential conversations, enjoyment, and festivities due to my OBSESSION with you! It feels so good to enter back into the world I turned my back against.

I also had my therapy session today, which has been an essential component in my healing process. I am in graduate school to become a therapist, so personal psychotherapy is mandatory. Still, being “on the other side” of the couch has been strangely challenging for me. Bee, you like to keep me secretive and you like to put a fake smile on my face. I struggle with truly expressing my pain and raw, authentic feelings. I fear being judged. I fear disappointing others and not holding up to my “perfectionist” standard. My therapist knows this and understands. We often discuss the importance of “letting go” of control (in everything in life) and my terrible sense of shame regarding my eating disorder. Shame kept me isolated and afraid to open up to others. Shame made me believe I was a bad and weak-minded person. Shame kept us best friends.

I am grateful for her guidance and nurture. Every week, it becomes easier to express myself and to slowly take down my walls brick-by-brick and reveal my true colors, whatever they may be that week. Being candid and so honest with others is hard; the rigidity and control surrounding eating disorders diminish that spontaneity.  

This evening ended with another yoga class, baking for a work holiday party (This was not even triggering. Bee, are you hiding or WHAT?! I am in a house FULL of candy, cookies, and brownies, and I have barely touched any of it), and a movie night with some friends.

Stop holding on to what hurts and make room for what feels good. 

Well, you hurt me. So, don’t forget to close the door on your way out of my life! 🙂

I don’t want to forget you.

Dear Bee,

Even though I’m letting this relationship go, I know I will probably stalk you for a long while. Why? Maybe because it reassures me, knowing that others have had the same experiences with you. Maybe because I know I will miss you terribly, despite what you did to my self-esteem, outlook on life, social relationships, and perceptions of love and health.

Mostly though, I think it’s because I don’t WANT to forget you. I want to remember you vividly; I want to remember every time I felt powerless over your punishing words and impressive coercing. I think this is crucial in my recovery stages, Bee.

Although overeating is “societally acceptable” and even encouraged and promoted (Supersize Me, anyone?), bingeing is ostrasized. Bingeing is weird; bingeing means the confusing, why would you possibly continue eating another twenty cookies when you’re already feel? And then top it off with four more Pop-tarts, some brownie crumbs, and, oh, hell, another bowl of cereal?

Bingeing keeps the eating disorder exactly where it needs to be, in the secretive caves of our minds, in the darkest core of our hearts, in the wretched, vacant eyes glazed with a dull layer of pessimism, hopelessness, and perpetual fear over the next meal, the next snack, the next party, the next…there’s always a next. 

I wanted to separate myself from bingeing for so long. I wanted to act like it wasn’t a part of me, that it was “the only thing keeping me from being normal.” That is false. An eating disorder is NOT me, but it is a part of the “whole” me. There is not “eating disorder me” and “normal me.”

I am a whole person recovering from a whole disorder.

Separating made it easier to deny, avoid, and minimize. Separating made it seem like I didn’t “have any control over it, anyway.” When the bingeing was separate, it could not hurt me as much. I did not have to think or dwell about it. I could just say, “Oh, well, I obviously have no willpower. I’m pathetic. Guess I’ll start again tomorrow.”

Oh, Bee. You are me, and letting that toxic part of me go is a sad and sorrow goodbye. Bittersweet memories of hating and needing you will linger in my mind for awhile, and I know this. I am prepared to embrace our relationship and talk about it with pride.

Because one day, I want to help others let go of this violent relationship, too.