JD Ouellette, Peer Coach
Not all holidays are happy ones: cope ahead for the coming season
Video to accompany this post found here.
The very things that make the holidays special and (when things are at their best) joy-filled, can be land mines when you are in the early stages of nutritional rehabilitation with your loved one.
A holiday gathering description can read like a check-off list for "Things That Trigger People With An Eating Disorder": eating a large variety and quantity of terrifying foods while under the scrutiny of others, listening to people talk about their impending New Year's Diet, not having a reliable schedule for eating, and more. For parents, it's hard not to notice that the behavior of an eating disorder can mimic that of a really spoiled and mean kid, so that's fun to deal with at a gathering while you make sure you get the proper dose of food in (because food is their medicine).
What To Do?
There are a couple of ways to approach this and it's important to remember you can change course as needed. What you do for one holiday or year may not be what you do for the next. Flexibility and self-compassion are vital as you move through this.
Skip it? This is what we elected to do and I feel very good about that choice. Our first holiday, Easter was shortly after treatment had started and I was exhausted. We ended up driving to the mountains and having a simple picnic by a stream that was only a short walk from a parking lot. I had a choice about spending the day in a way that would energize me or exhaust me more and chose to go for energy.
One positive I got from our fight is to get a lot of perspective as to what my obligations are, and they are fewer than I once thought. It's okay to prioritize your immediate family unit in the healthiest, least stressful way for what that looks like in your life at any moment, even if those moments occur when traditional activities are taking place.
It's okay, and sometimes necessary, to keep your life very small when you are in the fight of your life, for a loved one's life.
What To Do Part II
Cope Ahead is a must-have skill to navigate potentially stressful and triggering gatherings. How will you ensure food needs are met and appropriate monitoring takes place? Will you be taking food or eating what is offered. If so, who plates? What if food isn't eaten? What skills will you need to deal with comments from friends and family that are likely to be run through the "ED filter" and be taken negatively regardless of intent? How will you handle your parenting being scrutinized by people who may not understand what you are dealing with? Are you up to explain what you are dealing with?
Plan ahead - if you know the eating will be difficult, what about eating in the car or a spare room? Have a pre-arranged signal so if your loved one is overwhelmed, they can signal you unobtrusively and you can feign illness or otherwise extricate yourselves and head home.
A note: I advocate openness and I know not all families are ready for that. I do encourage you to think about the stress and implications of secrecy. I cannot promise you honesty is the easiest policy always, and I do think it is most the most effective one in the long run.
Templates for Communicating Family and Friends
Family and friends,
As we head into the holiday season, I want to let you know our family is dealing with a health situation in our home and we are opting to streamline our lives and conserve our energy by keeping our holiday celebrations very low key. We will miss seeing you all and we hope and plan to see you next year.
Thanks for your understanding and good wishes.
(People will be at different places in what they disclose and you might want to add a few sentences about how you will communicate updates if you plan to do so. While the intent is always good when people reach out, it can also be overwhelming. This is a time for you to do you, not worry about others.)
Family and friends,
We are happy to be joining you for X festivities this year. We want to alert you that we are dealing with an eating disorder in our family. (If you want up-to-date information on what eating disorders are, this podcast is very informative, as is this blog post). We are in the midst of nutritional rehabilitation, which is often stressful, so we ask for your patience and understanding if we are not able to participate in everything or have to cut out early.
We ask that you support us in the following ways:
Don't scrutinize or comment on eating, we have a meal plan and know what to serve
Do discuss books, movies, hobbies, travel, etc.
Don't comment on eating in general, or the holiday meal specifically, especially not in terms of bad/good foods, clean eating, etc.
Do model enjoyment and community around the dinner table
Don't comment on plans to engage in compensatory exercise (e.g., "I will be working this off all weekend!")
Do model joyous movement with a post-dinner stroll or game of ping pong
Don't comment on size and/or body appearance of anyone, including celebrities
Do compliment the sparkle in someone's eye, their contagious smile, or their new outfit
Don't judge our family if our child's anxiety or our stress makes us seem "off" or parent in a way that surprises you
Do welcome us to participate as much or as little as we can. This is not forever, this is for now. Thank you for loving us unconditionally.
You may also find the following pieces good for sharing with family and friends to let them know the type of support you need and giving them insight into why you need it.
The Holidays: Complicated to Say the Least
When ED is in the Room with Friends and Family
3 Ways to Support Parents Who are Supporting their Child Through an Eating Disorder