The hardest time of year for us has come. The holidays. First up is the hardest holiday of all; Thanksgiving.
It is not that we lack thankfulness, it is not that we lack holiday spirit, it is not that we do not want to spend time with our family and friends. Because these are all things that we long for more than just about anything. It is that this holiday is centered around the most difficult challenge for us; food.
Yes, logically we realize food is not this terrifying monster that will destroy us, but eating disorders are not logical, and unfortunately our brains do not always live in the same reality as yours. In our mind food is a monster. Out to get us. Out to make us fat. And sometimes, sometimes we even think that you; someone who loves us dearly, is on a mission to make us fat by trying to get us to eat. That is just how manipulative these disorders are. Even for those in recovery, a holiday centered around food can constitute a great deal of anxiety. The voice of the eating disorder gets LOUD. And it gets mean. And your loved one is trying to hear you and spend time with you through the screams inside their head telling them they are unworthy, fat, pathetic... the list goes on and on. So what can you do to make this Thanksgiving a little bit easier and a lot more enjoyable for your loved one? Here are 12 things that can make all the difference in the world.
1. Before they arrive, REMOVE the scale.
What? Why?Because, even though you can walk into the bathroom on thanksgiving, or any given day and choose not to step on the scale, or maybe you do not even notice it is there at all, your loved one is unfortunately hyper aware of its presence. If your loved onegoes to use the restroom and is greeted with a bathroom scale, with the voice of their eating disorder louder than ever on this day, it is extremely difficult for them to not step on it. Not to mention they are already exhausted from this day before it has even begun. Chances are they have been thinking about it and catastrophizing for weeks now. The last thing they need is to walk into the bathroom and battle the temptation of the scale. And if they do give in and step on the scale, chances are no matter what that number says the task of eating is going to become ten times harder. The eating disorder will find a way to make them feel unworthy of not only food, but of the love of their family and friends and that is a source of stress, anxiety, and pain that can be easily avoided. So put the scale away. You can put it back as soon as your loved one leaves. But for the sake of their sanity, just remove the scale, and you have already made this holiday so much easier by removing the temptation of the scale. Not to mention, you just gave their eating disorder a swift kick in the butt, which I am sure you have been longing to do for a while now.
2. Greet them with love and warmth.
It takes a great deal of courage for these brave warriors to even show up at this holiday. So when they do arrive, tackle them with love and envelope them with your warmth. If they need to know they are loved more than ever, today is the day. They have been nervous all day, all week, all month for this moment; and now that it has finally arrived their heart is beating a mile a minute. In their head, they are unwanted at this holiday, or perhaps unwanted on this earth. So go ahead and prove that damn eating disorder wrong. The only voice louder than the voice of an eating disorder is LOVE and you, you have the power to override the voice of the disorder, and prove it wrong. Use that power.
3. Compliment their soul, not their body.
It is not uncommon for someone with an eating disorder to fluctuate in size quite frequently. Not to mention Thanksgiving may be the first time they have seen many of you in a long time, and they have been fretting over what you will think of their appearance constantly. So go ahead and take that fear off the table. You take so much power away from the eating disorder when you do not comment on their body. Even compliments can be triggering because the eating disorder will use them as reinforcement to keep destroying themselves or manipulate the compliment into an insult somehow. It is very possible that their weight has changed since you last saw them. So maybe they put on some weight, so maybe they lost some weight, does it really matter? WHO CARES? They are not there to be examined, leave that to their doctor and treatment team. Instead, look at their eyes. Do you see the way they are sparkling? Look at their smile, do you see the way it just lit up the entire room? Acknowledge that. Compliment that. Tell them you have missed their personality, their sense of humor, their passion for life. They are more than their body, and seeing this, helps them see it too. Compliments are great, but compliment what you really love about them, not the size of their waste.
4. Keep the weight and diet talk to a minimum.
You may be aware now that commenting on your loved one with an eating disorders body is triggering, but you probably do not realize that comments about others weight is triggering as well. Like with the scale, they are also hypersensitive to comments about weight and food, even when it is not directed at them. So saying to someone else at your Thanksgiving get together "Have you lost weight? You look great!," Or announcing "I'm going to be bad, and have this slice of pie," or “My diet starts, tomorrow!" is to say the least, unhelpful. You see, when you say these things you are not only reinforcing the lies the eating disorder is already screaming that, the way you look is what defines your worth, but also that eating is something "bad." These are the lies that your loved one is trying very hard to learn truth against. So do you and your loved one a favor, and skip the weight talk, increase the love talk, and eat that damn piece of pie because you are beautiful and you deserve it.
5. Less about food, more about thankfulness.
Yes, food is a part of Thanksgiving. But what is the real reason we all gather on this day? The holiday itself reveals the true meaning; Thanksgiving. Emphasis on the 'thanks.' What are you thankful for today? What really makes your heart happy on this day? Yes, the sugar cream pie that grandma made is worth a little celebration, but the true celebration is not the food itself, but the ones who prepared it. Thank grandma not only for her master pie baking abilities but mainly for being her. Be thankful for the presence of your loved one with an eating disorder, because getting there was no easy task for them. Thank your friends and family for being there for you, and for being themselves. Laugh with them, soak in the moment. Enjoy the food, but make it secondary. Most importantly, enjoy the moment with those you love, because this life is short and the opportunity to witness these smiles on everyone's faces are what we are really thankful for.
6. Do not comment on what they are eating.
Maybe seeing them eat anything is exciting you, maybe the amount on their plate is worrying you, but no matter what, do not comment on their plate. You are allowed to be concerned, you are allowed to say a quick prayer for them, you are allowed to keep an eye on them, but what you should not do, is call them out especially on this day, especially not in front of all these people. I can assure you that they are fighting their hardest when meal time comes. They are truly warriors in this moment more than ever. So whatever they eat, whether it be a little too small, or a little too much, is worth being proud of. One meal of under or over eating is not going to make a difference in the grand scheme of things. The important thing is that they are there, they are trying, and they are eating. Now, if you are truly concerned to the point where you think something must be said, and someone must intervene, then here is my advice. Do not whisper helplessly to everyone about your concern and draw even more attention to your loved one. Do not get the whole house involved. If you feel close enough to your loved one, take them aside casually and talk with them directly. Do not tell them their portion of food is too much or too little, because that will be triggering either way. What you can say is "I'm here for you" "I know today is hard for you." "I am proud of you." "If you need to talk, I want to listen." And your loved one can either open up, or not. But at the very least you have done your best, and its probably safe to say that your loved one has done their best as well. They may not be responsive to what you have to say, they may even be defensive, but you have offered a helping hand, and now the ball is in their court. It is up to them at this point to accept your love. Now if you do not feel close enough to speak to them personally, think of who is close enough to them to talk to them. Consult this person and this person only, and do it discretely. Have them talk to your loved one and offer the same love and encouragement as I mentioned previously. Above all, just keep showing your love, because even a whisper of love is louder than a scream from the eating disorder.
7. Keep them in the conversation.
It is not uncommon especially on Thanksgiving, and especially at mealtime for your loved one with an eating disorder to become very withdrawn. The screams from the eating disorder are LOUD and your loved one is struggling to stay present through the overwhelming noise in their head. Staying in the moment is one of the most helpful ways for us to stay out of our head. Because if we are in the moment, we cannot be in our head also. What you can do, is help keep us present. Make sure we are included in the conversation. Ask us questions. If you notice them getting quiet and seeming distant, initiate conversation, and make sure the topic is far away from anything food, body, or eating disorder related. Ask them about school or work, ask them what is new in their life. Listen to them, and respond with encouragement and love. Love, love love. I can not emphasize this enough. Love them every step of the way. Do everything with love, and there is no way for you to do it wrong.
8. Do not pressure them to eat something.
Hopefully, Thanksgiving for your loved one is filled with overcoming fears, staying present, eating new foods, having grandma's pie, and feeling worthy and proud. However, it may not run that smoothly. Your loved one may have to eat their "safe foods," they may even bring some of their own food. This is okay. This day is not about impressing everyone with their eating and their progress, its about family, friends, and its about being proud of themselves for showing up and participating in the day to the best of their ability. You may think you are being helpful by saying “you have to try the pie!” or “here take the leftovers home” or “aren’t you going to get seconds?” But the truth is, despite your loving intentions, you are not. You are just adding more stress and anxiety onto your loved one. Not only do they have to now answer a question about food (which is not the most calming topic) but, we tend to struggle with saying no, especially to the people we love. And saying no, is quite possibly the best and safest answer for them. But putting them in the position where they have to either say yes, to try to make you happy but put themselves at risk for having a behavior, or they can say no, but risk hurting your feelings, which is way more terrifying to us than putting ourselves at risk to have an eating disorder behavior, is not fair us. The most important point here, is to just not put any extra pressure on your loved one than they are putting on themselves already. Go with the flow, let them make their own decisions about food, and keep the pressure off.
9. Remember this is not easy for them and they are trying their best.
If I have not made it clear enough, this day is not exactly the easiest for us. Days when we are struggling the most are days when we are honestly fighting out hardest. Your loved one is fighting the good fight today, and this is a hard and courageous fight to make. So hug them a little extra tight, smile at them a little longer, and love them a little louder. This is a fight they can win, and just showing up is a battle that they just won. To fight the good fight takes an unimaginable amount of strength, and is an exhausting task. Your loved one does not have to fight the good fight alone, and honestly, they cannot win the good fight alone. But the good news is, they do not have to fight the good fight alone. You can fight this with them. Take their hand, wear your shields of armor, muster up all your strength, and fight the good fight together.
10. If you notice they are overwhelmed, change the environment.
It is not unlikely that your loved one at some point, or several points, during the day, may become overwhelmed. This is a hard holiday, but we want to be there. And I know you want us to stay there. So if you notice your loved one becoming extra anxious and overwhelmed, reach out to them. You do not have to say anything about food, or the eating disorder. What you can say though, is “let’s go for a walk” or “let’s play a game.” Get them out of the kitchen, away from the food. Go get some fresh air, or start a game of apples to apples. Your actions speak volumes. These little acts of kindness mean more to us than you know. They help keep us present. They pull us out of our thoughts, which we may not have been able to do without your help. You help more than you know. And we are thankful more than you will ever know.
11. It is okay if they leave early.
Sometimes, we might duck out before the night ends. Do not take it personally, and do not give us a hard time. Tell us you are happy we came, and hug us goodbye. Whisper in our ears that you are so proud of us. We accomplished so much today. We are likely exhausted from fighting so hard all day. We will stay as long as we can, and when we decide it is time to go, respect this and respond with support. We fighters, and we just fought through hell to spend our day with you because we love you.
12. Love them LOUD.
We have a hard time asking for support, but your support is needed. Your support matters. Your voice matters. Chances are, this day will not go perfectly, and you might make a few mistakes surrounding your loved one. This is okay. As long as you are doing what you're doing through love, you are doing something right. Anorexia is loud. Bulimia is loud. Ednos is loud. Binge eating disorder is loud. And Thanksgiving makes them louder than ever. But I cannot emphasize this enough. Your love is LOUDER. You may feel helpless at times, or like nothing you do is making a difference. But I promise you, if you are loving them, you are using the strongest ammunition against their eating disorder. You are screaming right back. Love is louder than the hate the eating disorder hisses. You matter. Your loved one matters. Your love matters. No matter how disastrous or successful this Thanksgiving is, remember this: Your love is LOUDER than the voice of their eating disorder. And if you have loved your loved one this Thanksgiving, you, my friends, are winning this fight.