For most people, the holiday season is a wonderful time of year. It is often a time of family reunion, socializing, and celebration – a time when families, friends, and coworkers come together to share good will and good food. The season is meant to be bright, happy, and full of the best of relationships. Yet, for those who suffer with eating disorders, this is often the worst time of the year. For those who are trapped in the private hell of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, the Holidays often magnify their personal struggles, causing them great internal pain and turmoil.
At Center for Change, we have asked many patients over the years to share from their private experiences what the Holidays have been like during the years they suffered with an eating disorder. The women quoted in this article are of different ages, but all suffered with the illness for many years. As you read the following passages you will feel something of the agony of suffering with an eating disorder at this festive time of year.
“Unlike any other normal teenager, I always hated it when the holiday season would roll around. It meant that I would have to face my two worst enemies – food and people, and a lot of them. I always felt completely out of place and such a wicked child in such a happy environment. I was the only person who didn’t love food, people, and celebrations. Rather, holidays for me were a celebration of fear and isolation. I would lock myself in my room. Maybe no one else gained weight over the holidays, but just the smell of food added weight to my body. My anorexia destroyed any happiness or relationships I could possibly have had.” -Nineteen-year-old woman
“The holiday season is always the most difficult time of year in dealing with my eating disorder. Holidays, in my family, tend to center around food. The combination of dealing with the anxiety of being around family and the focus on food tends to be a huge trigger for me to easily fall into my eating disorder behaviors. I need to rely on outside support to best cope with the stresses of the holidays.” -Twenty-one-year-old woman
“Over the past few years, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season I have felt horrible. I felt trapped and like the food was out to get me. I lied on endless occasions to avoid all of the parties and big dinners that go along with the holidays. I felt horrible about my body and did not want anyone to see me eat for fear they would make judgments about me.” -Eighteen-year-old woman
These quotes from women suffering from anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating reveal the emotional intensity they feel during the holiday season. Their fear of gaining weight and becoming, in their minds, fat, gross, and disgusting, is the monster they must deal with every time they partake of any of the foods that are so wonderful and common to the holidays.
Starving for the Holidays – A Tale of Anorexia
Those struggling with anorexia are terrified of the holidays because they have no idea what a normal amount of food is for themselves. Most of them feel that anything they eat will mean instantaneous weight gain. In fact, some of them have said that just the sight or smell of food is terrifying to them because their fear of being fat or becoming fat is so ever-present in their minds. For some, just thinking about food is enough to create intense turmoil, pain, and guilt. Anorexia creates tremendous guilt about any kind of indulgence involving food. The eating of food becomes evidence, in their mind, that they are weak, out of control, and undisciplined. Anorexic men and women are often terrified of being seen eating food or of having people look at them while they eat. One client felt that every eye was on her at holiday gatherings. Many suffering with anorexia have shared their feelings of being immobilized by their fears about food.
“My life with an eating disorder during the holidays is a living hell – constant hiding and fear, confused about life and hating every moment being surrounded by food. There was so much pressure, so many stares and glances, and days with endless comments. My whole life was a mess. There was so much pain and guilt inside of me and I didn’t know where to turn, except to my eating disorder. I hated the pressure of eating the food, the constant worrying of offending others.” -Twenty-two-year-old woman
“It’s hard to be around all the food and festivities. When I’m hurting inside and struggling with what “normal” food portions even are, I need the help, emotional understanding, and support of family and other people. “Handle with care, but please handle.” Accept me the way I am. Let me back in the family” -Twenty-three-year-old woman
The importance of these quotes from clients in treatment for anorexia is found in their honest expression of the tremendous pressure and conflict they feel inside in response to the normal food and social activities of the season. Their internal suffering and pain are often hidden from those around them by their continual remarks about “being fat,” or may also be hidden in their patterns of avoidance and withdrawal from social involvements.
The Hidden Beast of Holiday Feasts – Tales of Bulimia and Binge Eating
On the other end of the eating disorder spectrum, a woman with severe bulimia or binge eating disorder finds the holidays are a genuine nightmare because there is so much emphasis on food that they become preoccupied with it. Binge eating and subsequent purges become even more prevalent because many of the foods and sweets that are associated with holiday celebrations are very enticing to them. The holidays can be a time of convenient indulgence, but also a time of great shame and self-reproach because of their secret life. Some even use the binge eating and/or purging as a form of self-punishment throughout the holidays.
Women who suffer with binge eating or bulimia often live out this painful eating disorder hell in private and in secret, and often feel great self contempt. To many of their family and friends things may look positive and normal even while the sufferer feels significant despair and negativity about their loss of self-control. Those whose family members know about their eating disorder carry this awful feeling that they are the main attraction at the holiday dinner, where every trip to the food or to the bathroom is seen as a major defeat and disappointment to their family.
“Christmas is the hardest time with my bulimia. So much food, so much love, and so much joy, but I could not feel the love or joy, so I indulged in the food as a replacement. It was hard to see everyone so happy before I made the trek to the bathroom. I felt unworthy to be happy. I didn’t deserve the love and joy. I’ve discovered that if I can focus on the love and joy, everything else falls into place” -Eighteen-year-old-woman
“The secrecy and lying make it very difficult for me during the holiday season. I have to decide whether to restrict my food or to binge and then sneak away to purge.” -Twenty-two-year-old-woman
Some of the painful consequences of binge eating and bulimia are found in the time, planning, and dishonesty that is required to protect and cover up their eating disorder during the holidays. They often feel hatred for themselves for the ongoing deception to family and friends to excuse or explain their behaviors. In addition, they live in constant fear of being “found out” by their significant others, or in fear of continually letting others down because of their inability to stop their compulsive behaviors.
Family and Friends – Turning Potential Triggers into Gifts of Support
Holiday ideals epitomize what is good about family and other personal relationships. Activities during this time of year can involve family members and friends in intense and often emotional ways. Unfortunately, those with eating disorders can find it terrifying to be emotionally close with other people. In such situations they may feel vulnerable and unsafe, and then revert to their eating disorder to restore a sense of control and self-protection.