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Coping With An Eating Disorder Over Christmas

Illustrated by Josh McKenna
Five years ago, Christmas was nothing to me but an ordeal. I lost sight of the importance of family and instead just saw the festive season as a threat to my figure. I’d push a roast potato around my plate, pretending to eat my cabbage. My trips home became shorter at Christmas. For somebody who actively controlled their diet, the wild abandon of Christmas's many courses and the free and easy way my family hoovered up calories terrified me.

For people with, or recovering from, eating disorders, this can be an exceptionally challenging time of year. Over 1.6 million people in the UK are estimated to suffer from them – with research from the NHS suggesting that this figure is on the rise, with a staggering 6.4 percent of people struggling with some kind of eating disorder or another.

Even those that have recovered from an eating disorder can still remember the panic of uncertainty at Christmas. How much do my family know? Is this something that I should talk about? Dodging mince pies will not – eventually, at least – go unnoticed, and the furtive glances shared between parents and the hushed conversations in the kitchen about how to help are nothing but reminders of that.

Amanda’s 20-year-old sister suffers from anorexia, and she has spent three painful Christmases watching her sister deteriorate. “Every year she loses more weight, and she doesn’t think we notice," she says. "What’s worse, is that I only really get home at Christmas, so each time I see her she looks markedly worse. I know my parents have talked to her about it and she’s getting support from people, but Christmas also really isn’t the time we want to bring this up. We want to spend it as a family, because given the way she’s going, I really don’t know how many we’ll have left together.”

Having fun can be tough when food is so difficult to get to grips with. Rebecca Thomas, a spokesperson for eating disorder charity B-EAT, explains how tricky the festive season can be for someone struggling with an eating disorder. “It’s a time when food is central to any social calendar, which can cause increased anxiety, pressure and feelings of guilt that the [person with the eating disorder] can’t ‘join in’ like they hoped.”

For Georgie, who suffered from bulimia as a teenager, but has now fully recovered, Christmas was a miserable time of year. “It was crazy,” she remembers. “I ate whatever I wanted, but then I’d slip out to be sick in the downstairs loo. I didn’t think anyone could hear me. I thought I was invincible - what I was doing wouldn’t hurt me, and I thought my family intervening made them bullies. I’d spend the whole of Christmas day on the phone to my friends, using their calls as an excuse to excuse myself and barf.”

She recalls that it was actually Christmas that motivated her to get better. “In 2012, I stood leaning on the doorframe looking at my family. I was on edge, nervous, desperate to purge myself of the food I’d eaten during the day. My brother was throwing chocolate coins into his mouth, while my mum and sister were sharing wine and giggling about something on the sofa. I felt very alone all of a sudden, unable to share, unable to drink, and fed up of carrying this secret around while everyone acted so carefully around me. That Christmas I didn’t use the downstairs loo. I kept everything down, and somehow, with the exception of a few relapses later on, I broke through my disorder.”

I understand where Georgie is coming from. For three years of my life, I was obsessed by what went in and out of my body. I very firmly had a calories in, calories out mantra, which meant that I exercised beyond what was necessary and vastly under-ate. It started later than usual. When I was 18, I left home and took a gap year, and mealtimes became less enforced and I began to forget to eat, crushing my hunger by working out hard. Rather than feeling satisfied with my body, I began to push harder. Relatives remarked on my weight loss. I blamed it on "eating more healthily".

Reducing my calorie intake and exercising became an obsession, something I realised when, on Christmas day – almost as repentance for all the people who would be gorging themselves later that day – I got up early and went for a punishing run up and down the hills around my family’s countryside home until I felt as though I’d be able to just about swallow some Brussels sprouts. But, like Georgie, it was the feeling of missing out year on year that eventually transformed me.

I tried to eat more and more every meal. Even though I couldn’t bring myself to eat the most fattening elements of a Christmas dinner, over time I liberally began to eat veggies, potatoes and Yorkshire puddings. What helped was my parents letting me cook my own food at Christmas. One year I made a Thai green curry; another time, a dhal. Eating became easier when I knew that I had control over my food.

When it comes to Christmas, Rebecca from B-EAT also recommends coming up with things to do as a family to make the day easier. “Planning is hugely important – talk about what you are going to do on Christmas Day and the period thereafter and when and how food will be involved. Once meals are over, put food away and find activities that don’t revolve around food. For example, wrap up warm and go for a walk, play games, find a good film to watch."
For me, it was talking about my fears with my family that helped me to learn how to embrace food again. That, and trying not to expect too much. "Maybe this year will be the year I break through," I said to myself each time I got on the train home. And when it wasn’t, I’d beat myself up about it by going for longer runs and doing longer workouts. Lowering my expectations of myself about Christmas helped to reduce general anxiety. Like everything worthwhile, learning how to eat without panicking took time, but trying to focus on what I was missing helped me to celebrate Christmas again.

B-Eat support line: 0345 634 1414

*Author's name has been changed