How I learned to cope at Christmas

Posted 21/12/2018

My eating disorder started when I was 12. I was under a lot of pressure at school and I remember feeling anxious all the time. When I stopped eating, it felt like my world slowed down and I had space to breathe again. I spent my teenage years and twenties in and out of hospital. I desperately wanted to be free from my illness but at the same time, the rules and routines that kept me stuck always made me feel, on some level, safe. My world was small but predictable, lonely but unthreatening.

A few years ago, I started to work with an amazing therapist who helped me to see how false this illusion of safety was. My eating disorder wasn’t keeping me safe, it was keeping me encaged. My rules and routines were the bars around me. That was when my fear of staying as I was began to outweigh my fear of really trying to change.  

I’m doing well now. I’m studying again, I have friends again. I have a life that doesn’t revolve around food and weight and anxiety.

Christmas is still a hard time of year for me. Everything stops for a few weeks. There’s pressure to be constantly happy. Every day seems to bring disruption to the regular pattern of meals I’m used to, and then there’s seeing people I haven’t seen since last year and I worry about comments I might get about how I look, however well-intentioned these comments might be.

It can be hard to enjoy a holiday when there are so many things around that make it feel chaotic. For someone like me, who copes with anxiety by needing structure and routine, the spontaneity and fun of a holiday season is enormously difficult to navigate. My instinct has always been to turn to food and tighten up the rules and routines I have around what and how I eat because this has made me feel like I can slow down my world and feel less overwhelmed.

Nowadays, I do things differently.

I name what is difficult. By doing so, I can think about I, talk about it, get different perspectives on how much of a worry it really needs to be. So what if someone says I’m looking well? I am well. Thanks for noticing it.

I am kinder to myself. I remind myself that I need to enjoy the holidays too and there’s times to push myself but there’s also times to choose my battles. That doesn’t mean I am failing at recovery. It just means that I am human. If there’s a party at 7 o’clock and it’s stressing me out because I don’t know if there will be food there, screw it. I will have dinner before I go so I don’t need to worry about it. I don’t have to go out and prove my recovery to anybody. I can focus on enjoying the party.

And that’s kind of been my overall approach to recovery.  To think about the kind of life I want to live and let food fall into place around that. Go to the party. Go see family. These are things that make my life meaningful. If one day it feels too much, then it is too much, and I stay home and watch Netflix.

The pressure to do everything, and to do it in a certain way, is enormous at this time of year. And it defeats the purpose of a celebration. For me, this year, I will be returning time and time again to that question of whether something is going to be overwhelmingly stressful, or if it is something that will be anxiety-provoking but overall enjoyable. Somewhere between those two, I hope will be a happy holiday.

Contributed by Ellen Maloney
This blog was previously published at YWCA Scotland.