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Thanksgiving with an Eating Disorder

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

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Setting aside the shamefully imperialistic twangs that Thanksgiving often summons to my brain, Thanksgiving is a fraught holiday for me. I am, indeed, thankful for many things. I’m thankful for my friends, my dog, for my brother, and not necessarily in that order. I’m thankful for my recovery and I’m thankful for my upcoming graduation. I am decidedly, however, not grateful for food.

Eating disorders are chronic. If you consider how alcohol addictions are conceptualized as lifelong, it is that same consideration that is how eating disorders are understood. The eating disordered person can recover to previously unimaginable lengths, go many years without restricting or binging/purging, but they will always be someone who is prone to an eating disorder. Their body will always be one that has endured trauma, whether it be through malnourishment, starvation, bone degradation, inner organ damage, or any number of other ways in which EDs devastate their hosts.

That’s where the two models end in similarity, unfortunately. With alcoholism, abstinence is the most commonly accepted cure, in conjunction with therapy. In sickening contrast, food cannot be abstained from. Humans need to eat. For many with eating disorders, eating is actually the addiction that needs to be deprogrammed. So the sufferer of an eating disorder must face their addiction, in all of its raw opportunity, every day and many times within a day. Recovery is largely learning how to stay strong in the face of daily temptations to do the sick thing.

Imagine, for a moment, if instead of the Fourth of July being celebrated with fireworks and a barbecue, it was celebrated with Xanax consumption (imagining may need to be done rather forcefully, bear with me). Most folks would be able to engage in the Xanax consumption on that one day, a day that America essentially shuts down for, a day that begs participation, and do so peacefully, temperately, and move on with their lives the next day. However, for a former Xanax addict, this day would be rather hellish, especially if they hadn’t developed much fortitude yet along their recovery path. All of the abundant Xanax may be too much to resist, or at the very least would cause emotional conflict, shame and anguish.

Thanksgiving is that dystopia, but a reality for those with eating disorders. I can’t directly speak for those with bulimia, as I’m diagnosed with anorexia with no bulimic tendencies, but I know that Thanksgiving is a trying day for me. I’ve sat through three Thanksgivings in which I was either in the subtle or extreme throes of my disorder or in immediate recovery. Each day, though subtly different depending on my ED phase, was an emotional roller coaster. I was present for the making of the food, consulted on what we should have. Not only was I asked to eat in front of my family, but it is expected that I would eat as much as the rest of my family. Any attempt to restrict would be noticed. Food consumption was in abundance around me, and in massive quantities. Not only that, but food was constantly the topic of discussion, with grunts and compliments showing appreciation for food, a concept I have a toxic relationship with. These things were all rites of passage for the holiday. They were absolutely normal happenings for the day that were many times harder for me, but in silence, while those around me appreciated ebulliently. 

Appreciation for food? I once knew what that felt like. For me, in my phase of recovery, food is a looming threat, a chance for both redemption and failure, and simple fuel, all packed into lumps, pools, wafts and crumbles that I used to take at face value. In my recovery, I’ve managed to largely de-contextualize food from my disorder, seeing it as merely an opportunistic byproduct of deeper issues that I tackle in therapy. However, the sight and smell of it triggers several automatic reactions in me. That’s too much. There are so many calories in that. You already ate today! Surely you’ll gain weight from that. Every bite that I placed into my mouth on Thanksgiving days took emotional effort, sapped me a little bit. By pie time, I was absolutely exhausted by how much I was funneling into my attempts to follow my meal plan, dispel eating disordered thoughts, and keep it together in front of my family, in front of my inner self.

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The delicious and scary, if you can imagine that, food that my mother prepared.

As a recovered person (essentially defined as someone on an upward trend), I knew how to deal with these disordered thoughts. I remembered the intentional portioning that I learned while in treatment, and gave myself the proper amount in my first helping such that I could allow myself to have a second helping, in keeping with the holiday customs. I distracted myself while my family discussed the beautiful meal my mother had prepared. And when it came time to declare our gratitudes, I presented the name of my treatment center.

The day was hard. It ended in cathartic tears, but it came and went with my meal plan being adhered to. In eating disorder recovery, that’s ultimately what matters. Difficult emotions to do with eating will come and go, becoming less acute over time, but coping mechanisms must be developed in order to resist what the difficult emotions ask you to do. Most disorders- unhealthy temptations, even more broadly- are like this, really. They’ll happen, and their happening must be acceptable because it will be. The actions of the sufferer must intentionally differ from the temptation, and if this is done enough, in most cases, the temptations will stop occurring.

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I wasn’t spotless. I eventually balked at a tighter dress I’d chosen for the holiday and changed into baggier clothing for the time I spent actually eating.

This is a model that resonates for me both in recovery from my eating disorder and treatment for my OCD. The more I do something- whether it be refrain from tapping, not text someone first, leave my hair unbrushed, or eat a full meal, have two snacks, have both daily nutrition drinks- and realize that once done, life goes on and goes on well, the more healthy and whole I become in the face of my disorders.

That’s what I meant when I said I was thankful for my treatment center, essentially. I meant that I’m thankful for what I now know about my predicaments, something I directly disagreed with for a long time; if intentional action is taken to do so, things will get better over time. Cliche though it may be, time is the ultimate doctor to many of the troubles we face. Sufferers of disorders and temptations just need to endure their time while doing the healthy thing, knowing that eventually, it’ll feel like the right thing, too.

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One thought on “Thanksgiving with an Eating Disorder

  1. Wow. You nailed it. I actually started falling apart the night before Thanksgiving because of where I’m at in my recovery from anorexia. I made it through the actual day well enough, but my eating has taken a noticeable dip since then. I’m at a point where I really want to eat more and put on weight but the last few days have been ridiculously difficult to do so. I’m combating it but I’ve currently fallen back into just trying to maintain (which currently looks like me throwing back multiple bottles of Ensure each day). I’ve also got an intake appointment for an ED IOP on Thursday. Figuring out how to pay for that treatment is further stressing me and now I’ve started to worry that I’ll be ‘too sick’ for IOP and need to go back into residential treatment. I’m doing the right things but I’m still scared about how all this will eventually play out.

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