'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...', 'Mistletoe and Wine...', 'With candy canes and silver lanes aglow...'. Christmas is undoubtedly a time for celebration and with festive spirit more often than not comes an abundance of eating and drinking, especially in this day and age. And this isn't a bad thing. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas for most of us without our pigs in blankets or our Christmas pud. But for someone suffering with an eating disorder, what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year can rapidly descend into the most terrifying, anxiety-ridden and miserable.
Growing up, Christmas was my absolute favourite time of year and now that I am rid of my eating disorder, I am free to enjoy the festivities once again. However, I spent two awful Christmastimes, the first with bulimia and the second with binge eating disorder. Everything about Christmas sets alarm bells off in the head of someone suffering with an eating disorder. They tend to cling to safe foods that they know, the comfort of their rituals, their own private space and routine. And at Christmas all of this goes – you're surrounded by family and food, it can be hard to get away, emotions are running high and quite often, mood is running low.
In 2015, I spent the run up to Christmas exercising constantly and excessively, even on Christmas Eve, in a desperate attempt to look good on Christmas Day and reduce the 'damage' of what I deemed to be overeating. On Christmas Day, I felt excited – suddenly, I was 'allowed' to eat the foods I had deprived myself of for so long. Excitement, however, was soon replaced by guilt as the voices in my head got louder and louder, telling me that I had to get rid of what I had consumed. Essentially what happened on Christmas Day that year was a typical binge-purge cycle that people with bulimia put themselves through on practically a daily basis. The feelings of excitement, guilt at eating, sadness at not enjoying Christmas as much as I should, frustration at myself and my eating disorder and self-hatred were amplified by the fact that you cannot walk two metres around Christmas without being offered food.
Luckily for me, my family coped extremely well with it as they understood that when I was moody or angry or upset over seemingly nothing, it was not me but my eating disorder. They tried their very best to focus the day around other things than food and didn't pass comment or judgment on how much or little I ate throughout the day. This was extremely helpful as paranoia comes hand in hand with eating disorders. They made sure we got out on Boxing Day to battle the restlessness in my head and the urge to lose whatever weight I had convinced myself I had put on the day before, but did it in the form of a walk by the sea so that it did not resemble the extreme exercise I was so often capable of. And they ensured that over the whole festive period, I was not put in any high pressure or anxiety-provoking situations to try and keep my mood as stable as they possibly could.
2016 was a whole other story. Throughout the year my anorexia/bulimia had turned into bulimia/binge eating disorder and I began using food as a source of comfort and as a coping mechanism for any situations I felt were beyond my control. I bought myself a chocolate advent calendar only to eat the entirety of it on December 1st. I bought friends and relatives sweets and chocolates as presents that they quite often never received. I feared to eat on Christmas Day in case I couldn't stop. I felt disgusting and guilty and my self-esteem was low on the ground – so you can have a guess whereabouts my Christmas spirit was!
This time it was harder for my parents to offer support. Binge eating disorder is one of the lesser understood eating disorders. While they did their very best to keep the focus off of the food and I did not actually binge that day, how could they tell their previously anorexic daughter to stop eating? I felt isolated and alone and ended up going to the gym for a couple of hours on Christmas Day to let out all of my pent up feelings. The guilt and frustration of the previous years had built up on me even more and I wished for nothing more than to have someone to talk to.
And 2017? This year I know that I can fully enjoy Christmas with all its tastes and its sounds and its smells. I know that I can sit down to a dinner with my family and leave the dinner feeling slightly overstuffed and know that that is okay. I know that I can eat Quality Streets because I want them but that I can also leave them until the next day because they will still be there. I know that I can fall in love with the most wonderful season all over again as a new and recovered person. And so can you.
This Christmas, on 24th, 25th and 26th December Beat’s Helpline will be open from 4-8pm, providing a support space to anyone who needs it across all our support channels. Beat will also be running online peer support groups each day.
If you are suffering from an eating disorder this Christmas, stay strong. Have faith in yourself. Reach out to support groups, to family, to friends, to each other. Remember you are stronger than your eating disorder and it does not have the power to ruin this for you. I'm sending each and every one of you all the strength, love and thoughts in the world. Stay strong, and Merry Christmas.