Food has become synonymous with Christmas festivities and, on the surface that is where most difficulties lie. For most sufferers however, the issues run much deeper. In fact they can be so complex and, to be honest I am so tired, that I’m going to keep this simple and succinct. Maybe.
My first reaction to the season is a sense of sadness as, like other annual events, it acts as a reminder, a marker of the passage of time. It can be easy to deny how long I’ve been ill for until I realise that I’m not sure when I last ate a Christmas dinner, a roast potato or a mince pie.
Well, actually that’s not true, I know exactly when. It was the Christmas of 2007 when the eating disorder unit I was an in-patient in thought it would be a great idea to have a mock up of Christmas Day to prepare those of us going on home visits for the big day.
How can I forget donning my party hat, forcing down a full Christmas dinner alongside 11 other people with anorexia and a plethora of psychiatric staff and sobbing into my mince pie with the refrain “There’s just too much pastry”?
What I mean, of course, is that I’m not sure when I just enjoyed all the food at Christmas, overate and didn’t think twice. I’m lucky because my family don’t make Christmas stressful for me and let me do what I want, even though it makes them unhappy.
Ironically though, the most relaxed Christmas I’ve had was my second one spent in hospital when I was the only patient too ill to go home on Christmas Day. I had support from staff, didn’t have to cope with the distress of other patients and, being so physically unwell was only required to eat scrambled egg for my Christmas dinner.
In fact, I rose to the occasion and requested a celebratory Brussels sprout and, after permission was obtained from an on-call doctor, was granted my request. It was a disappointment. I shed some tears that day, but I suppose my eating disorder was doing its job well; protecting me from a lot of things I’d rather not face.
There are numerous practical issues for sufferers at this time. Do you stick to your meal plan or eat the same as everyone else? Can you swap your usual snack for a mince pie? Will the mere sight of all that food cause you to either binge or avoid eating altogether?
But, however anxious we get about all the food-related decisions, a bigger problem can be the fear we experience as Christmas forces us to confront issues that our eating disorder can shield us from. We have time on our hands which can make us think and, even worse, feel.
Questions from family we’ve not seen in a while make us aware of who we are and how we relate to others. Being with people forces comparisons about where we are in life, work, relationships and plans. Christmas forces our eating disorder, and therefore us, into the open in front of people who may not know we have a problem or don’t know what to say if they do. If that’s not the case, it can lead to extreme measures to keep our problem hidden from those around us which just sucks us deeper into the deception of the illness.
I suppose for me, one aspect of Christmas is the reminder of a root of my eating disorder; the feeling of having failed. I wish I was the mother hosting Christmas, buying gifts for my children and inviting my parents to share good family times with us. I wish I had a house of my own to decorate and room for a tree. But that’s not the case.
Despite the sadness though, I do feel lucky at this time of year. As I’ve written this I’ve realised I’ve written quite generically as representative of “people with eating disorders”. That is because I know what a difficult time it can be for sufferers, but, in fact, I myself am fortunate enough not to identify with many of these difficulties.
It will just be me and my mum this Christmas and we’ll have a lovely time just being together. I’ll eat some of the Christmas dinner and mum won’t expect me to eat more or pressurise me to do so.
I’m sad that my incomplete participation in the celebrations affects her Christmas and, yes, I’m already worrying about how much Baileys I can let myself drink, and not being able to go to the gym. But the important thing is being together and remembering that Christmas isn’t just about food.
Focus on whatever Christmas is about for you. For me it’s about family whom I love and who love me and it’s a reminder of a spiritual hope that I try to carry.
And... I don’t need anyone’s permission to eat a Brussels sprout!