How My Eating Disorder and I Are Going to Get Through the Holidays
Illustration: Jeff Williams

2016 is my ninth holiday season with an eating disorder. It’s the ninth year I will bake my latkes instead of frying them, bring banana-sweetened cookies to potlucks, and try to avoid the multitude of holiday happy hours (with their cheese plates and martinis aplenty). If you’ve never had an eating disorder, it can be hard to see sharing a meal over the holidays as anything other than a joyful practice in togetherness. As a food editor—and lover of eating in general—I recognize the power of food in a community, but my dysfunctional relationship with eating has made my connection to this food-centric time of year more complicated.

I may not be in full-fledged recovery, but this season, I have a plan for dealing with my eating disorder.

In the throes of my ED, I’d spend hours staring at the fridge, moving containers into and out of plain sight, planning what I should and shouldn’t eat. But the holiday season posed an even more an anxiety-ridden daily routine, which broke down a little like this: 

Challenge: Choose between a post-work meal cooked alone at home, where it’s easy to control every ingredient, or drinks and a "dinner" exclusively made up of fries, but spent with friends at a bar.

Challenge: Abstain from the baked brie and artichoke dip on the appetizer table while coworkers happily munch and look at you to join in. 

Challenge: Go to a dinner party at your friend’s house to find they’re making fried chicken (and serving literally nothing else, except wine); try not to freak out.

It may sound whiny—privileged, even—to speak of food this way. But while dealing with an eating disorder, every snack, every party—even one bite—was a test. The holiday season made me feel isolated, not festive. 

I may not be in full-fledged recovery, but this season, I have a plan for dealing with my eating disorder.

1. I will know my limits and say no when I need to. 

The reason I won’t be texting back about going out for after-work drinks isn’t because I’m a flake; I just know that if we go out, we’ll order deep-fried appetizers. I also know my compulsive-eating tendencies mean I’ll eat a whole plate of fries... and then only celery tomorrow. I’ve felt the most out-of-control after such hangouts, and spiraled back into disorder because I thought it too rude to turn down another holiday invite. I’m not afraid to say no anymore. 

2. I won’t skip meals before a party. 

Having played the "how little can I eat before I’m around people" game far too many times, I’m even more tempted around this time of year to eat less before an event. I feel pressure to fit into the holiday dresses I bought a size too small on purpose, but I also feel pressure to casually fill my appetizer plates with five mini-hamburgers and knock back mugs of mulled wine like my friends inevitably will. However, these warring impulses don’t have to affect eating nutritious meals. This year, I ate breakfast on Thanksgiving Day—it was the first time I’ve done that in nine years. I’ll try to have lunch every day, even if there’s an office party this week. And I’ll recognize that even if I eat more snacks than I’m hungry for that night, the important thing is that I was healthy and in control earlier. 

3. I have a response ready for those who may comment on my eating habits or body.

This is the ninth year I’ll go to holiday gatherings a noticeably different weight than the year prior. My more out-of-touch relatives—the ones who were first to say how thin I’ve looked in years past, when I was really struggling—might say I look "different." Last year, that was enough to send me sobbing to the bathroom, to want to hurt my body in ways other than depriving it of or binging on food. This year, I know I have two options: a) I can explain why their language is triggering, and hope they’re respectful enough to hear me out or b) I can calmly walk past them, eat one of those no-added-sugar cookies (or maybe even one of the real ones), and start a conversation with someone else. 

4. If I binge, I won’t be hard on myself the next day.

Whenever I felt like I’d eaten too much at a holiday party, the real problem came the following morning, like an inevitable hangover: I’d go back to my own kitchen and think: The only thing I should have today is vegetables. And two years ago, I would’ve done just that, dousing my steamed kale in soy sauce to make it taste better. This year, even if I binge, I’ll make a real dinner with which to eat those greens, even though I already ate cookies and drank wine. The binge is just one day (or maybe a lost weekend), and it’s not cause for spiraling. 

5. I will set aside time for self-care.

I still tend to confuse self-care with selfishness. But deep down, I know that without self-care, I’m not a very pleasant person: I feel angry all the time, make snide comments to people I love, and compulsively organize my refrigerator (my roommates must love it). I’m finally starting to feel comfortable buying the chocolate-covered biscuits I love—and try hard not to look at the nutrition facts before eating one. I’ll stay in bed for an extra 20 minutes sometimes, just because the pillow is cool, and the blankets are warm. I’ll put on running clothes, but browse a fancy kitchen tool store instead. They’re not monumental proclamations of self-acceptance, but anything that says "do this because you deserve to feel happy today" is a start.

Disordered eating is a deeply personal illness; what works for me may not work for you! If you’re currently living with or in recovery from an eating disorder, consult your support system before drastically changing your routine.

Rebecca Firkser is a writer and cook living in New York City. She also happens to be Greatist's assistant food editor. She’s never more than a few feet away from a cookbook. Follow her on Instagram @ruhbekuhlee.  

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