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Eating Disorders

How To Do Christmas Better

Going into Christmas with open eyes

The most peaceful Christmas I think I’ve ever had, rising at 2:30 [pm] to find the others had already had their duck & trimmings, instead of leaving it till evening as planned; then a very cold but bright bike ride; then my stocking opening, as the others drank tea, ate cake, began their real present-opening – with which I later caught up, & wallowed delightedly in a sea of slippers, nighties, & hair things; then I did a few hours’ scanning; then went back down to watch the end of a snooker game between S & J, help prepare a smoked-salmon supper, & sit with S & A till half eleven or so, when, after long afternoon-evening naps, they finally went off to bed. So I didn’t drink my first tea till midnight – and I felt no desire at all to be like them, one of them, to have eaten & drunk all day, not just be starting – but I suppose I wouldn’t, would I? When I said, as S yawned & went off to bed & supposed I felt sprightly & wide-awake, that I just felt ‘normal’, she replied wondering when she’d last felt that – but all I ever feel is normal – if one can have a norm with no exceptions – & doubtless she wouldn’t like it much – far less than her energy & weariness alternating. She wondered whether this would be the last Christmas with me on the outside; I said she simply forgot all those I had joined in, just because they weren’t as perfect as all that; she said again how sad & limited my life looks, but admitted maybe it isn’t that bad. She can’t really imagine, I suppose. & now it’s quarter to five; but I’ve enjoyed the absolute lack of all compulsion to be festive – which has allowed us all just to be cheerfully calmly celebratory of what is. It’s turned very cold but I feel I have now a plethora of cosy garments to atone for my lack of fat – which I preserve with such calculations as that of this last meal – how many more calories in this substitute muesli than in the last – in the end this portion’s top-up amount has given me, I think, 4-5 extra calories… I ate today the first morsel of anything not on my rotating menu for months & months – a crumb of Christmas-cake icing; I wanted to see if the sweet strangeness of it left me craving more, battling against illicit appetite – but I felt nothing except a slightly disagreeable unfamiliarity, like with the cucumber I supplemented my lettuce with yesterday. No longing for more. No hesitation putting the lid back on – just a slight sense of disappointment, regret at having polluted my tastebuds & digestion; no trace of bulimia… When will I make another such experiment? Another year? (25 December 2004)

Dressing up isolation as peacefulness. Maintaining, on this one potentially exceptional day of the year, immovable exercise, work, and food routines, noting deviations as tiny as a few calories. Being emotionally disconnected. Registering others’ sadness and incomprehension, but not really caring. Giving the false name of ‘celebrating what is’ to a bleak new absence of pressure to make anything else possible. Being aware of the perversity of the physical and mental state of anorexia. Not even trying, beyond a single crumb of Christmas icing, to bridge the gulf separating that awareness from action. Suffocating natural appetites with the sheer force of determination not to feel them. Feeling satisfaction at the danger of bulimia averted. Looking forward to another year and another vista of absolute unchanging predictability.

Christmas should not be this way. It shouldn’t be even a little bit like this. If this is you; if you have memories like this, and still feel some lingering tendencies in this direction; if you feel you’re somewhere in the no-man’s land between an eating disorder and full recovery; or even if you just find you’re not at ease with the whole festive thing as much as you’d like, this post is for you. Every step away from being this way is worth the effort.

Christmas feels imminent earlier each year, and as it approaches, all of us probably feel a bit of ambivalence. About being at such close quarters with family. About the pressure of that single amplified day of togetherness and gift-giving. And, quite often, about all the eating and drinking.

Four years ago I wrote a post about how Christmas and New Year can be a good time to give recovery a go. In this run-up to Christmas, following on from my recent(ish) post about how to avoid getting stuck in the limbo between being ill and being well, I want to offer a few thoughts about how Christmas might be better negotiated, in particular for those who have made some progress with recovery from a restrictive eating disorder, but find it too easily stalls, or regresses, and has lost the momentum it had in the frightening but exhilarating early days: for those who wonder, more and more, whether this is as good as it gets, this low-level preoccupation with the very same things that eclipsed everything else during the more acute phase of their illness. I’ll suggest it’s worth thinking ahead, and planning ahead, to make things work out better this year – not just better than things were at their worst, but better than last year and perhaps better than you’ve for a long time thought possible.

Christmas is the same as the rest of the year, but intensified: more family, more food, more issues with consumption and comparison and control, more perceived eyes on you more of the time. And because the things that Christmas heightens often tie in very closely to challenges in the later stages of recovery from a restrictive eating disorder, it’s important to go into it with eyes wide open. Just like every other day of the year, but with the stakes raised, things are less likely to lead to crisis if we see them coming, and have thought in advance about how we can best stay calm when they arise. This isn’t the same as pessimistically preparing for the worst; nor is it at all the same as the old disordered avoidance tactics. Rather, it’s what logically and constructively follows from a realistic acceptance of the things we find difficult and the ways we’d be likely to respond to difficulty if there were no strategy in place.

The obvious place to start is with the food. We may be expected to cook for more people than usual, to cook and eat richer foods than usual, to eat at different times from usual, to drink more alcohol than usual – and all these novelties combined can result in an oppressive sense of control being relinquished. This in turn makes the perfect ground for old anorexic patterns of thought and behaviour, whispering their promises to grab back hold of control and never let it go, to resurface and flourish in if they’re not nipped in the bud in time. But how to do that?

Well, firstly by remembering that what may seem like a loss of control is not. It’s one of anorexia’s hardest lessons: doing what you planned, even and especially if that means eating more, is strength not weakness. Deciding to eat and drink with your family or friends on the day when this matters to them is an impressive expression of positive control – or rather (since I find the whole concept of control pretty problematic), of bravery and health and balance.

Secondly, by remembering that the old habits which seem like solutions aren’t, and never were. If you spend your whole Christmas day guess-counting calories, measuring portions by eye, weighing up your plate against everyone else’s, there is no achievement in this. You already knew you were good at it, you knew other people half expected it of you and half dared to hope you’d be different this year, you knew it’d leave you feeling some relief, some stale satisfaction, and in the end mainly a sense of flatness and gnawing disappointment at things being still the same as ever. Why not, just for once, go for the other option? Risk the temporary discomfort of having eaten more than usual for the significant pleasure of having been part of something bigger and happier than the remnants of your eating disorder.

Thirdly, by putting it all into perspective. The ‘festive period’ is a few weeks of the year, and however much you eat, it’s going to have minimal effect on your bodyweight, you may well feel you have more energy to spare for other things, and nothing will be radically different. This works both ways, though not quite symmetrically: there's little danger of anything changing much whether you do or don't eat Christmas dinner, but paradoxically great potential for all kinds of things to change if you do, and you want them to.

OK, fair enough, eating a few mince pies and turkey sandwiches, however wholeheartedly, isn’t on its own going to change your life, but because it is an act of defiance against ingrained habits of disordered eating, it may not only feel dramatic in itself, but might well also open up the potential for dramatically far-reaching changes in the first weeks and months of the New Year. The ‘cost’ of this positive potential is the minor likelihood of gaining a little weight – which probably ought be top of your agenda anyway, if your recovery from a restrictive eating disorder is not yet complete, since insufficient weight gain is the most common reason why recovery stalls. On the other hand, the price of doing what I did, that dark Christmas a decade ago, or doing any more or less toned-down version of an ED Christmas, is clear and real, and what’s gained is only an illusion of reassurance. As soon as you open your eyes to it, the outcome of the cost-benefit analysis is blindingly clear.

Sue Blackmore, used with permission
Source: Sue Blackmore, used with permission

Fourthly, you can ward off the anorexic responses before they kick in by reminding yourself that it’s all right to be kind to yourself, and then practising doing it. Whatever you may allow yourself to think about yourself on other days, you *deserve* to have a nice Christmas. You deserve to enjoy a slice of Christmas cake and some roast potatoes without being tortured by panic or guilt afterwards. This is one of the things that Christmas is, and it’s all right, even and especially for you. Acting on this fact – even if you don’t quite believe in it – will certainly be your best Christmas present to everyone else, but it may also turn out to be a lovely one to yourself. So, write a list of things you would like to give yourself this Christmas, and a concrete plan for ensuring those gifts reach their recipient this time.

Another little thing to mention, maybe, is alcohol. There’s a lot of it at a lot of people’s Christmasses, and when consumed in more than small quantities, alcohol, like Christmas itself, amplifies what’s there already. Alcohol is often one of the first things to go in anorexia, since it represents both loss of control and 'wasted' calories without food. For both these reasons (and just because you fear it), a little bit can be a helpful way of relaxing your rules a bit, getting into the spirit of things, maybe being more open with people. Rather more of it can be fun if you’re feeling comfortable with how the day is going, and at ease with those around you. But if there’s underlying anxiety or sadness, beyond a certain point drinking is likely to exacerbate these feelings.

The other thing to bear in mind is that if other people are drinking, their inhibitions and hence their thresholds for saying things that are on their minds may well be lowered. So be prepared, if things are still equivocal with your recovery, for the possibility of hearing some opinions on it expressed more forcefully than they might normally be. The Christmas before I properly embarked on recovery, my mother’s sister had drunk just enough to say, in an emotional and seemingly long-suppressed outburst, how sad it was to see my life tapering to an ever-narrower point rather than broadening out into all of youth’s possibilities. At the time it didn’t have a huge effect on me either way, but later, as I thought back to it and weighed it up with all the other pros and cons of starting to eat more, it became one of the many things that pushed me gently towards accepting help. If people upset you by speaking frankly, in the glow of alcohol, about how your continuing ‘issues’ make them feel, try to accept what they say calmly, partly as a predictable product of the heightened, heated realities of Christmas, and partly as an honest and potentially educative reflection of what the rest of this year was really like, for them and for you.

On this note, it’s probably also worth remembering that, as I said at the start, you aren’t the only one who gets anxious about Christmas: many other people you know will have mixed feelings about it too, not always about the food aspects primarily, but about them in conjunction with all the other pressures. This means they might well be a bit on edge, and so less able to be considerate with you than they (and you) might like. Try to be understanding of this. Indeed, you might even try to let your own history give you strength here that they lack. That doesn’t mean you need single-handedly to carry your whole family through Christmas lunch with an effortless smile – it just means that having taken the time to reflect in advance on what this time may mean to you, you might well be in a better position than others to see clearly. In a similar vein to what I said a while back about 110% recovery from an eating disorder being possible, maybe at least some of the time this Christmas you can be calmer than your mother, or your brother, or your aunt.

Those things that others find difficult may also be directly connected to the food stuff. Most people don’t feel completely confident in their own bodies all or even most of the time, and after a few weeks of eating more in the run-up to Christmas, those little insecurities may, especially if there are family tensions in the mix too, come to the fore at Christmas itself – and then be channelled, with total predictability, into the slew of short-lived New Year’s gym memberships. The New Year period of misplaced atonement for non-existent sins is where your most powerful weapon is perhaps simply to learn to say: This does not apply to me. Worrying about bits of bodyfat or New Year’s ‘detox’/workout plans is not relevant to you. You have other things to tackle – and your resolutions need to be the opposite of what other people’s are likely to be. Their January ‘detox smoothies’ are your Christmas cake. Their rules do not apply to you.

Bodies aren’t the only things that will be compared, of course: from the nauseatingly smug family letter onwards, Christmas and New Year are times of taking stock, measuring up achievements against each other. Especially if your eating disorder has interfered significantly with other aspects of your life over the past year, this may be difficult too. You may feel some pressure to conceal the realities of your life for the sake of presenting a more palatable or competitive version of yourself – in the matter of recovery specifically, perhaps, but also more generally. This is a tricky one, but I suppose the best way out of the race is to conclude that only honesty will breed honesty. Refusing to play the game, by telling things as they are, by acknowledging our feelings of failure, might just release those around you from believing they have to keep pretending.

Above all, as you reflect in advance on what you want this Christmas to be for you, try to trust in its potential to be a revitalising point of contact with a way of finding togetherness through food that for some people is a comfortable and happily anticipated yearly reality. Despite what some broadsheet journalists would have us believe, not everyone is messed up, and you needn’t be. And it isn’t spoiling the potential joy of Christmas to take seriously its potential discomforts: doing so makes it much more likely that the happiness will win out. Make this year different by thinking through in advance why there’s been some stress or panic in past years, and deciding that this year, for you, that isn’t how it’s going to be.

Finally, remember to distinguish between a stumble and a fall. Sometime after lunch on the first Christmas Day of my recovery, I found myself at a loose end, and something reminded me of a photo of my mother and me where I looked my most skeletal, and I spent what felt like hours crouched in front of my laptop, weeping, fixated on those upper arms and elbows and that chest, longing with everything in me to be her again, and knowing I never would be.

It passed, though; I talked on the phone to my new boyfriend, who reaffirmed his love for curves over angles, and as time passed and I grew calmer, I even went and had some Christmas dinner leftovers and enjoyed them, and came back to my family. And by the next day I was able to feel entirely good again about all the things I could do with my body that I hadn't been able to before. One difficult moment, even an extended moment, needn’t destroy your Christmas any more than it need define your life.

If you’ve made it this far through this post, and feel any of it has spoken helpfully to you, I wonder whether you might like to take this opportunity to make your positive Christmas plans concrete, and share them with others, by posting them in the comments section here. Once you've made your Christmas list to yourself (a mince pie eaten with other people; a long hot bath with candles and a glass of sherry; whatever else you imagine would give you pleasure, even happiness), how about coming up with three things that you expect you might find a little difficult this Christmas, and three ways you propose to pre-empt and/or negotiate those difficulties?

My own are no longer food-related, but one thing that will definitely be significant for me is that this will be the third Christmas since my father died. I have a feeling, partly because of how the anniversary of his death went last month, that this one will be a new kind of difficult, because there seems to be a new balance establishing itself between his absence now being normality and it still hitting me with all the force of the completely surreal and impossible that it had the day after he died. So I am poised between feeling ‘too little’ and still overwhelmingly much. I think I might find myself a bit disorientated by this combination, and I expect that my tendency is going to be to shut myself away when I feel emotion, and maybe also when I don’t feel it.

My plan is, I suppose, two-pronged. Firstly, to try to accept that solitude may be good and helpful sometimes, and not to feel bad if I need to retreat from everyone for a while. But secondly also to encourage myself to share how I feel about him with the rest of the family and our other guests, when I want to, without fear of it being unwanted, and in the secure knowledge that I’m not the only one feeling this way, and that even if I were, it would still be OK to voice it. That’s the plan, anyway.

How about you?

Thanks for the reader's question that gave rise to this post. I hope this is the kind of thing you meant!

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