How I learned to survive the holidays in recovery from an eating disorder

January 30, 2023

As long as I can remember, the holiday season (Thanksgiving through New Years Day) has always been “awkward” to say the least.

To start, my father raised us Muslim, which meant no pork and no Christmas, which in my Black-Christian family was not only unheard of, it was blasphemous. Like, ‘Who doesn’t love a slice of ham and Baby Jesus’s birthday?’ (millions of people, actually).

Next, in my not-so-humble opinion, I have the worst birthday ever, December 28th, smack dab in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and as a result the most forgettable and dismissable day of the year. I mean, December 28th is exclusively reserved for the turn-down (lounging on the couch as you munch on leftovers and recuperating in preparation for “Auld Lang Syne” and late-night festivities). Not celebrating someone’s birthday.

So to sum it up, the holidays have always kinda sucked. But it went from annoyingly tolerable to terrifying when I developed an eating disorder in my early teens. 

I’ve had a complicated relationship with food since my mother died when I was nine years old. Like many other people, I coped by controlling my food intake, something that gave me feelings of shame and guilt, but also pride and power. I couldn’t control most things, but in my mind, I could control my body — and the perfectionist in me wanted to control the hell out of it.

My eating disorder became a cycle — restrict, exercise to the point of exhaustion, binge, and repeat. Everyday…for most of my life. For most of my eating disorder, I wasn’t “underweight” (I’m not even going to go there right now), so most of my family and friends either didn’t notice or didn’t see it as a major issue. “Giva likes to exercise, she’s a healthy eater, she’s so good about watching her figure,” they’d think. I mean, practically everyone is or has been on a diet… I was just more committed than others, I told myself. 

Even at the holidays, when many people take a break, assuring that they’ll resume the pattern of self-loathing and punishment on January 1st, I kept at it. My identity, my sense of self-worth, my life was tied to this. I wouldn’t break. I couldn’t, I thought. I’d rather die. 

Eventually, I did break — but in a good way, realizing that my eating disorder wasn’t my identity, it wasn’t empowering and that I could live without it.

Unfortunately, this didn’t provide any reprieve from my holiday blues. At this point, most of my family knew about my issues with food, and although they loved me, they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t “just stop” or why it was taking me so long to “get better.” I mean, the number of times I’ve heard “you know you have to eat right?... So just eat.” As if it were that easy.

If you think having an eating disorder during the holidays is hard, try being in recovery during the holidays. Not only are you just trying to survive, you're trying to survive while being bombarded with triggers and emotional landmines. It was a battle, one that I fortunately, didn’t fight alone (thanks to my therapist and a few friends and family members). When people used to ask me how I did it, I had no idea — but after becoming a peer mentor and an eating disorder recovery coach, and supporting dozens with their healing journeys, I’ve come up with a few tips to help others survive the holidays.

Accept yourself and where you are. Whether you have just begun your healing journey and are using behaviors or not — accept where you are and acknowledge how much work you've done to get to that place. Don’t take it for granted. Live in the moment. You may have a hard road ahead, but that’s okay. Your journey is unique to you and no one has the right to judge it or tell you how it should be traveled.  

Know your truth (and if possible, speak it). Living with an eating disorder is hard, it’s an internal battle that many will never understand. But, it doesn’t have to define you. You are much more than your relationship with food and feelings about your body. You are worthy, and always have been. That said, know your worth and remember that no one has the right to say or do anything that attacks it or diminishes your journey. And if they need to be reminded of this, give yourself permission to do so. 

Know your boundaries. Comments about your food intake, lack thereof, or your body can feel like punches. I’m so sorry. I’ve been there. Recovery is hard, and having to heal under a microscope makes it even harder. If you have the type of family that “can’t help themselves” (they can and should) when it comes to speaking on you or your illness, you don’t have to tolerate it, regardless of how much you love them or they love you. Set your boundaries, whether it’s only staying for an hour or after X amount of comments, you have the right to care for yourself and say when enough is enough. 

Have a plan for soothing and care. Family gatherings can feel like navigating a minefield of triggers. Take away the food, and you may still be dealing with a lot of difficult emotions tied to complicated relationships and trauma. So, it’s important to have ways of comforting and soothing yourself during especially triggering moments. I’ve supported many of my clients, by helping them develop “emotional go bags” — a small kit filled with tools to help them decompress. Your bag can consist of positive affirmations, fidgets and other de-stress toys, reminders of positive or joyful moments, the lyrics to your favorite song, a safety plan — anything to help you move through difficult moments. 

Ask for support. Keeping with this journey/traveling theme (I’m corny, forgive me) having a co-pilot is always helpful. I personally love my alone time; but I also know that my eating disorder also loves me being alone. And because the holidays can be especially triggering; for a long time, I couldn’t be alone. So, I always recommend bumping up your support system during the holidays. Whether that is extra therapy sessions, support groups or soliciting the support of family and/or friends to help with the difficult moments — remember that you don’t have to do it alone.

Extend a little grace. If your family is anything like mine, it consists of imperfect, but very loving people — who at the end of day, really truly love you. They just sometimes have no clue how to show it. They have their own struggles and issues and sometimes that gets in the way of their ability to show up in the ways you need them. It’s a reason, but certainly not an excuse; and if your family is actually harmful, go back and re-read the section on boundaries. As I’ve learned to accept myself and my complexities, I’ve learned to recognize and accept those of others. Now several years into a pretty solid recovery, I can say that my family has pleasantly surprised me in their ability to grow with me, which makes me so happy that I never gave up on myself or them.

Healing is a journey, and it can be especially hard during the holidays — but as someone who's lived it, I want you to know you’re not alone in it.