This time of year is a challenging one for people in recovery. The holidays are moments of anticipated happiness and celebration largely centered on food and togetherness. The struggle to get better from an eating disorder revolves around painful emotions and isolation. It's no wonder these few weeks can be so difficult, but a few steps by that person's loved ones can go a long way.
The most important message is understanding. Family members can quickly change the conversation about the upcoming days by choosing to ask how to help rather than assume the worst. Past experience of difficult holidays often prompt families to express their reservations right away. The negative message instantly isolates the person in recovery and makes her feel alone and hopeless.
The best first step is to ask questions about that loved one's concerns and to listen to her worries. The next step can be gently brainstorming for ways to ameliorate the situation. Small changes can make her feel much more cared for. But mostly, the experience of feeling understood pulls her away from the belief that the eating disorder symptoms are the only way to survive the day. The anticipation and anxiety before the day can ease when she is aware that someone else knows about how she feels.
The process of having a series of conversations prior to the holiday needs to precede action. It's meaningful to help the person in recovery feel understood but will ring false if there are no changes come the actual holiday. Just a few steps to change the tenor of the day will help her feel not only understood but cared for.
Examples could be having specific foods at the meal that will make her comfortable, coaching other family members not to say harmful things or making time on the holiday to check in about meal plans, including even sitting down to a meal earlier in the day together. Prioritizing her recovery even on a holiday will show a level of caring she desperately needs.
The final piece of advice for a family member on the holiday is to emphasize their love for the person in recovery. The experience of loneliness on a holiday highlights her global isolation through the entire time of illness. Knowing that she could never enjoy those moments of closeness with family regularly confirmed how different and alone she has felt.
Fundamentally, that translates into a profound sense of being unlovable. Each conversation prior to the holiday will mean even more when the member in recovery hears that she is loved. Emphasizing that love leading up to the holiday and especially on the holiday itself makes it harder and harder to fall into the eating disorder symptoms.
Although the three steps for families to support the person in recovery--understanding, care and love--are straightforward, maintaining this direct message still gets hard. The past still hovers over the coming events. The stress before the holidays can waylay even the best plans. A few stray negative comments can upend such a vulnerable situation.
The key is to remember how and why recovery is paramount in three small steps: set up conversations before the holiday; make concrete plans for the day itself; and don't forget to say how much you love her.