When one typically thinks of celebrating Thanksgiving, they might think of warm family reunions, bountiful spreads of food that took hours to prepare, and that feeling of fullness after the main feast.
But I enjoy none of that.
As someone who has struggled with anorexia and bulimia for most of their life, I always get an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach after Halloween. And it stays way past the third Thursday of November. The holidays are stressful, but dealing with an eating disorder during the most food-focused day of the year is a whole different level of hell. Fixating on calories, feeling guilt about eating, and knowing just how uncomfortable your body will feel after a big meal are all stress factors that could lead to disordered behaviors. Not to mention, a family member having the nerve to comment on how much or how little you’re eating contributes to embarrassment, shame, or anger—all of which is very triggering.
Living with an eating disorder made Thanksgiving a waking nightmare for me, and even in recovery, I still get a little panicky when I see gravy. Because the holiday is still anxiety-inducing, I’m terrified of having a relapse. This is not uncommon. If you are one of the 30 million people in the United States who suffer from some type of eating disorder, then you understand the chaos that is Turkey Day.
If you or someone you love is struggling, I’ve got some tips and tricks to help you not only survive the holiday, but to enjoy it.
Find your go-to support person.
Dr. Neeru Bakshi, Medical Director at Eating Recovery Center in Washington, recommends getting a go-to person you can call when you feel overwhelmed or triggered. “For Thanksgiving or any holiday celebration, select a designated person for support and accountability. Choose someone who is willing, available, and, if possible, can attend Thanksgiving dinner with you,” Dr. Bakshi said.
If Thanksgiving becomes too overwhelming, I have personally found that asking a friend, partner, or loved one to be there for you can be very beneficial. Just having someone there with you who can listen to you vent, offer advice, distract you, or provide some emotional support can make a world of difference. The buddy system worked in elementary school, and it will work now.
If you can’t have your go-to person with you physically at Thanksgiving, ask if you can text or call them throughout the day. If you don’t have anyone in your life that you feel comfortable talking to about your illness, then you can text the Crisis Text Line, which is open 24/7. The Crisis Text Line is a free service run by trained volunteers who can help you if you feel triggered. To reach someone, simply text CONNECT to 741741 if you are in the United States. Remember, you don’t have to deal with a stressful recovery on your own.
Remember that food is just food.
The hardest thing about recovering from an eating disorder is learning that food is not good or bad, punishment or reward; it is simply food. It’s fuel for your body that doesn’t factor into any other part of your personality or self-worth. Fear about food is common in eating disorders, and in order to get through the holiday, it’s important to make yourself comfortable with food. “For the most part, food on a Thanksgiving table is often the same year after year, so you can easily plan ahead,” Dr. Bakshi said.
So get familiar with what’s being served that day. Knowing what’s going to be on the table ahead of time will save you from being overwhelmed by having to make choices. Tackling things like mashed potatoes and gravy is easier once you’ve had time to mentally prep for them. It’s just nourishment for your body, nothing more.
Do self-care before dinner.
Take some time before the holiday festivities to get yourself in the right frame of mind. If you’re stressed out before dinner, you are going to be double stressed during. Take even just a few moments to do something nice for yourself. Do some meditation and deep breathing exercises, take a nice hot shower, write in a journal, or call your besties. Whatever gives you an instant boost of calm and confidence is exactly what you need to tackle the turkey.
Treat yourself to something nice afterwards.
Holidays are stressful, so if you endure something as nerve-wracking as Thanksgiving, you deserve something nice. You did it! As Thanksgiving approaches, plan out a fun, non-food related activity to do after dinner as a reward for your hard work. Going to the movies, getting a manicure with your friends the next day, and watching Christmas movies with your family are a few fun ways to end this holiday on a high note. Dr. Bakshi suggests it’s a good idea to take the focus off food during Thanksgiving.
“Thanksgiving isn’t just about food. It’s also about spending quality time with people you love,” she said. You can still create fun memories outside of the dining room, or you can spend some quality time with yourself. Whatever feels right to you. Even if it’s just taking a long bubble bath with a fancy bath bomb once dinner is over, when you have something to look forward to, it will help you get through the night.
Surviving Thanksgiving while recovering from an eating disorder is not as easy as pumpkin pie, but with preparation, a support system, and some major self-care, you can win this holiday battle. You’re a survivor.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741.