Eating disorders are very good at turning sickness, obsession, and fear of change into normality. It's easy to forget that life was ever any different, and hard to believe that it could ever be other than it is now. Day follows upon day in which food is more important than anything else, in which the physical effects of eating too little affect everything one does, and in which one's thoughts escape only rarely from the subjects of hunger, eating, calories, exercise, and cold or weakness. A pattern develops that seems too all-encompassing to do anything about. A self develops which feels like the only one there could ever be, even though he or she is not your self, but mostly the uniform non-character that anorexia imposes.
Christmas and New Year are a brilliant time to break out of this tedious and destructive lifestyle and self-image. The imminent start of a new year spurs all sorts of people to make more or less trivial resolutions - many of them, of course, involving the spurious concept of ‘detox', the latest hyped-up disguise for an ancient tradition, moderation. As December ticks over into January, it might seem that the prevailing climate of people resolving to eat less, drink less, and exercise more would hardly be conducive to recovery from anorexia, which requires one to resolve to eat more, drink more (if it helps), and (in many cases) exercise less, but the general spirit of self-restoration can be a helpful one. It can even help to reflect on how much many other people would love to be in the position you are: needing to eat, being in what should and can be the perfectly guiltless situation of fighting one's way back to health by eating more. Certainly the sense of a new year, with a new number, and a new string of months to be lived, and a line drawn under the year that has been, is a prevalent and powerful trigger for contemplating and initiating changes to one's habits, so it's a moment worth seizing. The sense of there being a clean slate, of turning over a new leaf or making a fresh start, is a powerful one, and if you don't act now, another year of a non-life of being hungry and afraid may well be drawing to a close once more before you realise it.
Christmas is less traditionally a time of resolutions to change, but it is a particularly apt time for sufferers from anorexia to try to change - even just to change something very small - because, again, recovery from anorexia is about permitting food to be a pleasure, and a social pleasure, and a not completely controlled or controllable pleasure, and Christmas is a splendid time to try this out. Because food at Christmas is such a focal point for family and festivity, it will mean the world to your family, friends, or whomever else you're spending Christmas with, if you decide to join in, even with just one meal - and really join in, not push a sprout around your plate and pick at a sliver of Christmas pudding. If you do ultimately escape from anorexia, you will not be doing so for other people, but for yourself, yet others can be an important immediate spur to eat more flexibly, and can provide immediate proof of how much changes for the better when one does so.
Make a bargain with yourself that if you eat a reasonable helping of a meal on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, you don't have to do anything more than that if it's awful. But for that meal, tell those around you beforehand what you're going to try to do.
Allow the thoughts to arise: ‘This isn't me; this isn't what I do; I can't do it', or ‘This food is going to make me feel sick', or ‘Eating this will make me fat, greedy, or disgusting'.
Challenge them. (Why should I always do what I have always done? How long is always, anyway? Will I necessarily feel sick? If I do, might it be worth feeling closer to everyone for? Will eating one meal really make me fat? Do I ever see a difference in other people's bodies before and after they eat? Do I think other people are greedy because they eat actual meals? What would they say to that?)
Then watch them go again, weakened.
Focus on how splendid the food tastes (because it will).
Remember how others will delight in being able to share this with you.
Reassure yourself that this is just one meal you're attempting. Nothing significant will be changed by just one meal - unless you want it to be.
Depending on how long you've been ill, how desperate or determined you are to do something about your illness, you might make a more substantial pact with yourself: if the Christmas meal goes well, or is even tolerable, a more lasting New Year's resolution might be to add 500 calories worth of extra food to your current daily diet, and to wait and see how this begins to affect your physical strength, your sense of cold, your mood, and your preoccupation with food and hunger. This is a great change that, if you can sustain it beyond the first day, the first week, and the first month, will change your life. More precisely, it will give you back your life.
I started eating more in July, and the first Christmas of my recovery was an unbelievably happy one, and the New Year a time of excited conviction that I was not going to let any of what had happened over the past five months be undone in the year to come.
I asked those there with me to write down in a little book how I had seemed the previous year, how I seemed this Christmas, and how they hoped I would be the following year.
They wrote that before I had been ‘wraith-like', silent, judging, distant, ‘see-through', painfully thin. They wrote of what a pleasure it was to have me joining in now, of the sense of optimism they felt in me, of the feeling, on my parents' part, of having their little girl back again. They thought me fragile, edgy, on the edge of something, discovering but at last eating, and happy. They hoped for more change in the same direction for the following Christmas.
Last year I again asked them to comment in this way on Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future. I was, they said, calm, bubbly, tired (but not in an ill way, as I had just finally completed my doctoral thesis), expectant, of good appetite, ‘settled into a sustainable and productive life', ‘like 2008 but more at peace with herself'. These comments mean the world to me, and show me both where I have come from, the length of the road I have walked back to health, and reality of the likeable, lovable, fully human person I have now become again.
What do you have to lose? Ask yourself that sincerely, and answer sincerely. If your answer is ‘my thinness', ask yourself what that means to you, and whether what it means is worth what it costs you in all spheres of your life. If your answer is ‘my sense of control', remind yourself that this is a hollow illusion, and that you are now controlled by a potentially fatal mental and physical illness.
Remember that you can always go back. If you can't bear it, can't bear eating more, beginning to come to life again, beginning to feel emotional and physical warmth, beginning to feel excited and sad and happy, beginning to enjoy things that aren't only food, beginning to feel your daily routines growing less rigid and less eternally the same - you can always go back. You're expert at denying yourself food; you've proven that, and it's always a skill you can return to if nothing about life without it attracts you and makes you happy. But this is very unlikely. We live such short lives, and we live only once, and any time spent refusing food - which means refusing strength, happiness, sociability, health, and life itself - is too long. Any time spent limiting your intake of food so much that you can't sustain a healthy body is too great a sacrifice to the delusions anorexia, and simple malnutrition, create in us. This could be the Christmas when you reject these delusions.
There is no perfect moment to start, but now could be the very best moment to stop putting it off. You've nothing to lose, and there's so much out there waiting to be seized - it'll come to you one mouthful at a time.
(Thanks to James Petts on Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0 for the teaser image of the splendid flaming pudding.)