The holidays are a lot to manage. Travel plans, coordinating family gatherings, and the never-ending list of gifts—I feel short of breath just thinking about it. But we know, in addition to the “typical demands” of this time of year, struggling with an eating disorder makes it a million times more complicated. Most people don’t realize, like we do, just how overwhelming it is for us.
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to hear from a few of us who’ve struggled and recovered from eating disorders. We’ve been where you are. We get it!
So, come, sit at the table—I’ve got a place for you right here next to me. No need to get anxious. There’s no pressure to eat mashed potatoes or green bean casserole. All you have to do is relax and open your heart. Since this is the season of giving, our gift to you is our collective stories. We prepared something we hope fills your hungry heart—a conversation among recovered friends about all that’s possible at the holidays when we are weighted down with an eating disorder.
I’ll start by sharing that I remember how I dreaded the holidays when I was immersed in my eating disorder—like hardcore dreaded them. It was strange to dread something I once loved so much. For weeks leading up to family gatherings, I would ruminate obsessively, strategically planning ways to eat the least amount possible without drawing attention to myself. I would tuck my scale deep into my suitcase to ensure I didn't gain an ounce while I was back home with my family. My ever-loyal companion, the eating disorder, was buckled up in the passenger seat, and off we went.
The familiar smells of home and family and love lured me in. My people were all there—but so was my eating disorder.
As we filled our plates, I couldn’t resist the gooey broccoli and cheese casserole—my favorite since childhood. The eating disorder growled at me as I filled my plate: “How pathetic, I knew you wouldn’t be able to stick to the plan!”
My anxiety was so out of control, that I don’t even know if I tasted the food, let alone heard my family reminiscing and relishing each other’s company. I wasn’t there anymore. Guilt and shame consumed me.
Fourteen years recovered, I’m happy to say that my eating disorder has been officially disinvited from any table. I’m able to connect and be present with my family, and can I tell you that broccoli casserole has never tasted so delicious. I’ll be honest, the journey to recovered was the hardest one I’ve ever traveled—but it’s also one of my most meaningful accomplishments.
Robyn, what about you. What were the holidays like for when you were struggling with an eating disorder?
The holidays felt like a minefield, and I was just waiting for the explosion. Void of joy, dictated by what I ate, and made up stories of what people were thinking about me, I barely functioned. I was preoccupied with plans of how I would execute eating disorder behaviors if I needed and busy promising myself that next year would be different. The holiday season was bleak for both myself and my family.
Is there a memory that stands out to you?
I remember one December when I lived in London. I had been binging and purging around the clock for months, unable to stop. With a plane tickets bought, I was returning home to Australia to spend the holidays with my family. Every day leading up to the trip, I’d create grandeur schemes to lose the weight I had rapidly gained so that I would look “well” when I saw my family—each day I failed to fulfill it.
One short week away from returning home, I was bloated, deep in my illness and unable to stop my behavior, when my dad called.
“Are you all ready for the trip?” he gushed excitedly over the phone. I hadn’t seen my family for over a year, and I was missed. Silence.
I began to sob. Attempting to speak through my tears, “Dad, do you still want me to come if I’m fat?” My poor Dad grappled with the pain of his child on the other side of the world struggling to find reality. I was lost in the eating disorder.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that not only cripple the ones who have it, but also take the families hostage.
I returned home that year, void of the person I once was. My family still missed me, even though I was face to face with them.
What are the holidays like for you now that you’re recovered?
Oh my gosh, the holidays couldn't be more different now. Today, fully recovered, it’s a stark contrast to that time in my life. I am present mentally and emotionally, with freedom of thought and grounded in reality. I fully enjoy the season with my family, without fear of retribution. With little thought about my body, I'll not only eat the meal in front of me these holidays, but I’ll do it with sincere gratitude, enjoying every bite.
Jenni, what were the holidays like for you?
Thanksgiving—a day seemingly dedicated to food—was the worst. I remember forcing myself through each and every bite. But today, fully recovered, the holiday is a completely different story.
Since I have finally found meaning in a life without my eating disorder, I now celebrate what the holidays are truly about—family, friends, connection, and love.
Yes, there is still food—lots of it—from Halloween through the New Year. And, now, I am grateful for all of the festive parties, gatherings, and meals. I don’t have to restrict, because I know my body needs fuel to live. I don’t have to binge, because I know there will be plenty of leftovers. I can simply savor the moment and be thankful for my hard-fought health and happiness.
Jenni and Robyn, I appreciate you both for your willingness to be vulnerable and share your stories with us. The more we can all use our voices, get brave, and tell our stories, the more I hope we can inspire recovery for others.
My personal hope for all of you reading this is that you can try and be present with your family and friends this year, and that you recognize the eating disorder has interfered in your life too much already. Tell the eating disorder, when it tries to take over, that it’s not welcome.
- Jenni Schaefer, National Recovery Advocate of Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute and bestselling author of Life Without Ed; Goodbye Ed, Hello Me; and Almost Anorexic.
- Robyn Cruze, Eating Recovery Center National Recovery Advocate and co-author of Making Peace with Your Plate.