Celebrating Thanksgiving with an eating disorder
I pushed the collard greens to the edge of my plate but didn’t lift the fork to my mouth. The food in front of me, mostly vegetables, was overwhelming. I had purposely spread the Brussels sprouts and potatoes across the plate so no one would ask if I had enough food. But my sister had still offered me a roll of bread, which I took politely. It now sat it on the edge of my plate to taunt me, but I refused to let myself eat it.
The table was filled with my mom’s family, loud and boisterous, eating from plates over flowing with turkey and sides covered in gravy. I sat quietly between my cousins, barely listening to their chatter, feeling small. Not long after our meal was finished, I slipped away to the bathroom to purge it all away.
It was the fall of my freshman year. I was entrenched in my eating disorder, and Thanksgiving dinner was a nightmare.
Now, two years later, after four months of outpatient treatment at the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders (ACE) and many more months of therapy, I can say that I am “in recovery.” I haven’t purged in nearly a year, I follow a flexible meal plan, and my fear of food no longer controls my life.
However, as Thanksgiving approaches once again, I find a familiar worry rising: the worry of food that is out of my control.
Through my recovery journey, I’ve realized that I’m not alone in this fear. Eating disorders are common among college-aged students, with studies in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and the Journal of Affective Disorders showing that eating disorders affect 10-20 percent of female college students and 4-10 percent of male college students.
Mandy Jarriel, associate professor of athletic training at GC, explained that this is because college is a “perfect storm” for the development of eating disorders.
“Stresses such as independent living, changing social contexts, including increased social comparison and added workloads, and expectations add anxiety and a level of mental health concern that the student now deals with in a more self-regulating capacity,” Jarriel said. “In high school, managing this stress was perhaps doable with support from long-term friendships and family support, but in the more complicated changing college environment, this support system is often missing links, leading to the susceptibility of these disorders.”
This was exactly how my disorder began freshman year. The stress of college assignments, living with a roommate and trying to make friends piled up, and eventually, it was too much to cope with.
In preparation for the holiday season, I have started returning to the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness practices ACE taught me, refreshing my memory on staying grounded while eating and focusing on conversation instead of food. I remember last year, the weekend before Thanksgiving, I was still at ACE for my outpatient days.
I was sitting in group therapy, and we were talking about our “game plans” for our Thanksgiving meals.
Some people talked about fear foods they wanted to tackle, while others said they would ask one specific family member to help distract them if they were anxious or triggered.
I decided that I wanted to connect and be present, to not shrink into myself. I’ve found that this is still an important goal of mine for this upcoming holiday season.
Jarriel reminded me that the holidays are not just for eating but about visiting with those you care about. If you have a loved one struggling with an eating disorder, try not to focus too much on what they’re eating.
“Make sure that the primary focus of the holiday is not on the food but rather on the family time,” Jarriel said. “Allow for other activities that do not involve food.”
Connecting with family during this time is also important because it’s easy for those with a disorder to isolate.
At the height of my eating disorder, isolation made it easier to focus on restricting my calories, and to hide the fact that I sometimes threw up my food. Connecting with others instead pulls us outside of our heads and away from our anxiety surrounding food.
However, interacting with so many people during the holidays can also be anxiety-inducing. Being around more people makes it more likely that someone will say something uncomfortable or triggering.
During that group at ACE, many of us chose family members or friends to call on when we felt anxious or triggered. For me, it was my boyfriend and my sister, who were easy to pull away from the table. We could simply step out on the deck or go for a walk, talking until I felt better. This year, I plan to ask for their support once again.
When giving advice for students dealing with an eating disorder during the holidays, Jarriel also recommended having practiced verbal responses to what people might say that would make you feel uncomfortable.
“This will help decrease your overall anxiety when you know what you plan to say,” Jarriel said.
Before treatment at ACE, I had a go-to excuse when family members would mention my weightloss.
“I’m exercising,” I’d say defensively.
And I was. I was running almost 12 miles a week on top of restricting my caloric intake and purging.
Today, my weight is relatively consistent, at least 15 pounds more than my lowest weight during my eating disorder,
and I feel stronger, healthier and happier.
However, I still find myself getting defensive when a family member mentions how skinny I am. I want to hide my “ugly” history, so I reassure them that I’m just eating vegetarian and doing yoga. And while these things are true, I’ve come to realize I don’t owe them an explanation.
No one, whether or not they are struggling to recover from an eating disorder, owes anyone else an explanation about their weight or what they eat.
So, I am prepared to tell them I’m just taking care of myself and that there’s so much more to me than just my appearance. I know that I have overcome great obstacles, that I am stronger and more vibrant than ever before. is holiday season, I will not be afraid, and I will not be small.
If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at (800) 931-2237.