In the run-up to Christmas, there is a lot to juggle. The gifts we need to buy, the plans we have to make to see loved ones, how we might manage disruptions to our routine - all of these things can be difficult to handle at once.
This year is no different. Many of us might be really struggling with the prospect of not being able to see family and friends as usual, or being unable to take part in the traditions that normally give us hope, happiness and connection over the festive period.
So it is totally natural not to be looking forward to Christmas, or to not be feeling full of fuzzy festive feelings. For many of us, as much as we might want to enjoy the festive season, Christmas is something to ‘cope with’.
When you have an eating disorder, the most wonderful time of the year can also be one of the most challenging times of the year, with the relentless focus on food and all the associated difficulties, to managing behaviours or maintaining recovery. Eating disorders are such individually different experiences for each of us, but in my experience of living with anorexia and bulimia, I have found that the environment around me is as important as my own individual willpower in how well or not I am able to be with my eating.
So Christmas has always been a difficult time. I have often felt really excluded from foodfocussed events and challenged by confusing messages which say I should be eating all these wonderful Christmassy foods one day but focussing on my six-pack the very next. Disruption to routine is also a real threat to the sense of safety and comfort I find in daily behaviours which support my health, from simple things like being in my own bed or going to my local coffee shop to more specialist support, like seeing my therapist.
And of course, hot on the heels of Christmas is New Year, where the celebration of excess is rapidly replaced with messages encouraging us to deny and punish our bodies. This cycle is all too familiar for some of us with eating difficulties, so being in a culture which reinforces those very behaviours we have struggled with or worked so hard to manage can be very threatening and confusing.
So how can we best hope to manage the demands made of us - be they social, behavioural or emotional - over Christmas and New Year? For me, handling pressure starts with taking off the pressure wherever I can. This might be in practical terms, like being realistic about how much I can take part in and not adding unnecessary challenges when Christmas is already full of food-related challenges for me. It can also be in the way I talk to myself and the expectations I put on myself, such as feeling like I need to be all things to all people at all times. I can take the pressure off by realising it’s OK to be imperfect, and to take time out for yourself too over the festive period.
This year there might be a heightened sense of importance placed on the limited amounts of time we might be able to spend together, but a picture-perfect Christmas and putting on a performance of being merry and bright all the time should never come at the cost of shutting down how you really feel or suffering in silence. It’s so important to remember the essence of Christmas is connection, and the people who love and care about you would not want you to struggle alone. Taking time with friends and family beforehand to have conversations about what you need over the Christmas period can make the world of difference. Giving myself permission to take up space and talk about my concerns has been one of the greatest gifts I have given myself in recovery.
The ways in which we might cope with the different activities, meals and social events over the Christmas period will look different for each of us. For me, really practical things like doing the washing up after Christmas dinner to help distract me from food-related anxiety and give me headspace from my family can be really important. For others, it might be about having permission to eat at all. No one eating disorder is the same as another, and nor is any family. If people you see at Christmas make insensitive comments, remember it is OK to feel upset about this. If you feel lonely and isolated at Christmas, that is valid too.
It is normal to find Christmas challenging with an eating disorder, for so many reasons, and that is not your fault. Even when I feel like I am failing, I always tell myself that I am doing the best I can with the resources that are available to me, and none of us would choose to struggle with food and eating if we could help it. However lonely and isolating an eating disorder can be at any time of year, we are not alone, either, and if Christmas is about anything, it’s about love, compassion, kindness and connection. However much we might stumble, struggle or even succeed as we navigate the festive period this year, there are sources of support such as Beat to turn to, and strategies we can use to try and make it even 1% easier.
As much as people like you and I may struggle - especially so at Christmas - we are worthy of support, love and care, too. I hope you can join me in trying to make our Christmases as easy as they can be, even if we can’t do it alone.
James Downs is a writer, mental health campaigner and expert by experience in eating disorders. He holds various roles at the Royal College of Psychiatrists and NHS England aimed at improving support for those experiencing mental health problems and eating disorders, and for their carers. James also represents various UK mental health charities and is a yoga and barre teacher. He has written extensively about his own experiences - from textbook chapters to blog posts - with the hope that those who read his work find comfort, affirmation and hope. @jamesldowns on Twitter and Instagram