Eating Disorder Recovery and the Holidays: a Tough Time for All

The holidays are perhaps the hardest time of the year for people in recovery from an eating disorder. The combination of time with family and the focus on food with little distraction makes for a very challenging few days. Working hard to follow a meal plan and enduring the internal struggle between eating and trusting the eating disorder is hard enough. The next two posts will present guidelines to take some of the stress out of the holidays for people with eating disorders and their families.

Families tend to return to old dynamics this time of year. Living together once again under the same roof, often where the children grew up, immediately brings back the experience of times past. Accordingly, instinct and circumstance triggers familiar situations and emotions for all.

An ill-timed comment or an off-kilter glance can ignite old reactions in a split second. The process of forming new, adult dynamics takes time and isn't ever foolproof. Usually only the introduction of new family members, the aging of the older generation or a serious family illness, like an eating disorder, are sufficient to break these patterns.

None of the family dynamics bode well for the family member home for the holidays while in the throes of recovery. It's much more common than not for someone with an eating disorder to have lived at home at some point in the first few years of being sick. Lost in the illness, the patient was inevitably restricting or binging and purging at home and hiding the symptoms as much as possible, a painfully difficult time for someone with an eating disorder.

Families, clearly scared and worried, in all likelihood monitored their daughter's eating constantly and tracked progress or slips, all the while hoping their vigilance would help. Often any previous dynamic transformed around such a devastating development in the family and all attention shifted to the ferocious illness in their midst.

All together again, the family is likely to adapt its interaction around the eating disorder once again.

The scenario during the holidays is predictable. Families will check every morsel of food their daughter eats while trying to gently urge her to eat a little more. Trapped, she will get angrier and angrier and feel terribly judged: a situation that always worsens symptoms. Faced with the prospect of no privacy, no access to alternate coping mechanisms and food as the sole emotional outlet, she will feel the powerful tug towards disordered behaviors. All well-meaning plans and actions to start the holiday will be quickly challenged within the first few hours of the family reunion.

The real question is how to address the concerns in advance, including backup plans when things go awry, rather than fall into a tense situation with nothing but old patterns to fall back on.

The first and most critical step is to be sure the issues are up for discussion early and often. Without a forum for openness, the holidays will inevitably return to old form.

It takes courage for the ill person to acknowledge her fear and state clearly what she needs to make the visit more successful, especially when there's no guarantee how well a conversation will go. She is typically so used to hiding symptoms at home that this default scenario feels like a much easier route to take, despite the inevitable pain, anger and confusion that will follow.

Acknowledging how difficult the trip may be will make her feel vulnerable in many ways: exposing continued risks for slips or relapse, risking offending family members, and opening avenues for unsolicited opinions about her treatment. Still, the conversation is crucial to head off the likelihood of misunderstanding and anger in the moment and of reinforcing the emotional distance after the trip is over.

A few parts of recovery will need to be out in the open to make a more honest discussion possible. The person has to speak about what food is possible to eat and what isn't. She has to explain to some degree that, holiday or not, it's critical for her to follow her meal plan because straying is likely to lead to worsening symptoms. She also has to try to ask for support and help in preparing either the food available, her plate at holiday meals or both. The stress of facing a table of food all of which is too scary to eat or of serving herself food while everyone watches what she takes is overwhelming. A family member can easily lower the stress by planning in advance to have food she can eat and to offer to help arrange a plate of a safe amount of food. Spreading the word for the family to work hard not to monitor and comment on her food can go a long way to make the visit more successful. These practical steps send a message to the family as a whole that things will go differently this year.

Once the ground rules about food are set, the family needs to agree to which conversation topics are appropriate for a holiday visits and which ones are better left to a less emotional time. That's the topic of the next post.

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