Christmas is just two weeks away, which does not sound that long. I can bet that those living with Anorexia Nervosa have been thinking about the festivities and food for weeks, if not months.
I do not do that any more. The only conversations I have so far held around the combination of food and Christmas include:
Mum: I’ve got a turkey
Me: Is it big?
Me: But I mean is it huge? Is it big enough for me? Because you know I love turkey.
Mum: (some sort of talk about money and presents etc.)
Me: As long as you have a huge turkey, 20 kilos of Brussels sprouts and a tub of both Celebrations and Miniature Heroes, I don’t care.
These are not the kind of conversations we would have been having years ago.
I have to say, Christmas always seemed to fall in with being around the time of year where I was actively trying to “beat” my eating disorder, at least in the latter years. Yet even so, it was always a terrifying time of year. I would be planning it way in advance; what I would eat, how I could eat less prior to the days surrounding Christmas to compensate for eating extra and how I was going to manage other peoples attempts at making me eat more.
I remember agonising over it, even when well into recovery. I would decide to push myself to have one dessert over the Christmas period, and then argue with myself about when this would be. Would I have it at home with my Mum? Or at my Grandparents? If I could only have dessert once, I was desperate to pick the right day, the right meal, the right dessert. And should I pick the dessert I want? Or should I pick the one that my eating disorder would berate me least for? I would flick between “F**k this I am eating whatever the hell I want” to “Ok, maybe this year I will just have a little bit of dinner and next year I will have whatever I want.”
During the earlier years of my eating disorder I remember making sure I was sat next to my Mum at the table of my Grandparents, clinging to her side, needing her to help me battle off different family members trying to force extra food my way.
I remember hovering around the kitchen when my Mum was cooking our home Christmas dinner, cooking vegetables differently for me, and keeping an eye on that bottle of oil she was so freely splashing all over the place. I was a control freak… but gradually over the years I have backed off more and more. My Mum has gained her place in the kitchen back, and no longer has to worry about me parading in and having a fit over what she is doing. I know she loves it, and I love letting her.
I enjoy Christmas dinner now, and no longer do the difficulties surrounding food take over the whole thing. I now get to enjoy watching TV, Christmas movies, sharing, opening presents, giving presents, pulling silly faces, and going for a nice walk because I want to (not because I need to burn calories), or not going for a walk because my pyjamas and the warmth are much more inviting.
My eating disorder was never about food, and Christmas is not really about food neither. And yet food dominates both of those things. You feel guilty for letting food ruin Christmas when you know that it should be so much more than that, and yet the fear and anxiety takes over. More people are around than usual, extended family see you for the first time in a while, and their reaction to the fact you have lost two and a half stone is to keep passing you chocolates, offer you another plate of turkey and sit dessert in front of you even when you have politely declined and your mother has given them the look of death.
You have to deal with the usual guilt of life with an eating disorder, combined with the guilt of making Christmas harder for the rest of the people around you. You feel guilty that how Christmas is affecting you, means that you are behaving differently, which upsets others. You feel guilty that you cannot tuck into your Grandma’s usual Christmas trifle that for 14 years was the highlight of your Christmas. Your Grandma walking in with it, her prize trifle, prize only because you have always loved it so much… and you feel this dreadful sense of guilt, of letting her down, because this year rather than jumping out of your seat for the first serving like you always have, you put your head down and hope nobody looks your way.
I am so glad that I am where I am with my history of Anorexia. I do not claim to be fully and magically “recovered”, and I struggle still on a daily basis. That being said, Christmas does not terrify me. In fact, Christmas is now a time for me to really stick two fingers up at Anorexia and say “you don’t have me any more.” Any guilt I feel, I can fight, strongly. If any disordered thoughts pop up, I hear them for a second and shake my head. “No thank you, you are not welcome here” and then I pop an extra chocolate in my gob for good measure.
But this is not the case for everyone. I wish I could be there with anyone who struggles with their eating disorder over the festive period. I know how hard it is, I truly do. I know how much you long for the year when you do not have this intense anxiety and fear overwhelming you and taking away all the happiness of Christmas from you.
But I can also tell you it will not always be this way. I have watched myself find the Christmas period easier and easier over the last ten years since I was diagnosed with Anorexia. I never thought I would get where I am today, but here I am. I used to think I would be the one who never gets “better”, but none of us are exceptions; we can all get to this place. I hope that in another ten years time, I am even further into life without Anorexia than I am now, and that it can get even better still. Sometimes I doubt that, but then, I doubted I could get where I am now too. Life is full of surprises.
It happens in baby steps, like most things. I hated the initial years in recovery where I pushed myself, but “pushing myself” was still very limiting. I pushed myself to have one chocolate out of the tin. I pushed myself to have one form of potato. And it was SO frustrating. I wanted to just stop caring. I wanted to have mashed potato and roast potatoes, half the tin of chocolates, and dessert twice if I so pleased. I spent so much time agonising over all of my fears and selecting THE one I would decide to challenge, while wishing I could challenge them all.
Even when I was “in recovery” (I hate that word), and even now as I am, I can only push myself so far. But I promise you, year by year, what you can manage grows. And more than anything else, as the eating disorder slowly loosens its grip, you slowly gain back all of the things you so desperately wish you could focus on, rather than letting food dominate the whole period.
I know the guilt for wanting Christmas to be over, purely because of your fear of food, is horrible. I know it gnaws away at you. You think that you are “bad” because rather than looking forward to time with family, giving gifts, and doing all of the festive things Christmas involves…all you can focus on is food, how to avoid it, and how long it is till it is all over.
Do not feel guilty. I know that is easy for me to say, but you are not a “bad” person for the way your eating disorder takes over everything. You are a strong person for taking each step you take, however big or small. And sometimes you are strong even when you cannot take any steps at all. None of this is your fault, and you are never alone. And nothing is permanent.
Honestly, I wish I could go back to 15 year old Natalie and shake her. Tell her that everything her eating disorder is telling her is lies. I want to scream at her “you are living on a bed of lies.” No, eating extra for a few days is not going to do anything, and no, even if it did make you gain a couple of pounds, it does not matter. Yes, you deserve to enjoy food. I want to hug her and tell her that one day she is going to look back on where she is and see the strength she had within her just to survive.
You are strong for surviving. Christmas might involve arguments, and tears, and anxiety. It will be difficult, frustrating and exhausting. But none of this takes away from the strong person that I know is within you.
And I truly hope that at least once, you laugh without thinking, and that if you need someone to talk to, you are not afraid to reach out. Christmas can be lonely, but you are not alone in feeling that way. We are all here.