The most wonderful time of the year is upon us again. In the run-up to Christmas, we are drip-fed the expectation to be joyful, merry and bright. The meaning we derive from sharing time and gifts with family and friends is seized upon by commercial interests to the extent that the festive period becomes at risk of being conducted primarily through the vehicle of consuming.
Consuming together – sharing our generosity through gifts, and sitting down to an especially lavish meal – is a human ritual as old as time. Eating together can be especially bonding, giving a sense of belonging through sharing, and unity through the breaking of bread (or in this case, Christmas pudding).
However, a Christmas where celebrations revolve around food and drink is the perfect nightmare for someone struggling with anorexia nervosa. Far from being a joyous celebration where feeling included and being indulgent go hand in hand, Christmas presents huge challenges when you live in fear of food, eating in front of others and gaining weight. Over the many festive periods when I was experiencing anorexia, I remember the utter dread I had of the big day, with its sit-down lunch that extended into a seemingly endless foodathon. The anticipation of my prime fear – having to eat my forbidden foods whilst held hostage at the dinner table – began months in advance of December 25th, with the barrage of food-related adverts that permeate the high-street, the ubiquitous festive cookery programmes, the special offers on seasonal food items piled high in supermarkets.
Ever since I restored my weight, I have struggled with bulimia, and it is no easier. With anorexia, all of my forbidden foods were to be seen but not touched. Now, the unending amounts of calorific treats that surround me at Christmas are almost irresistible triggers to binge eating. The vomiting that follows means that I can literally have my cake and eat it. But this win-win scenario – binging and purging – comes at a huge cost, high anxiety, and just as much difficulty in taking part with my family and friends at food-related celebrations as with anorexia.
Bulimia can also sneak under the radar, as most people are eating excessive amounts of food at this time of year anyway. Only not all of them are going and being sick afterwards. In fact, I think it is accurate enough to describe our Christmas habits as a collective national binge. Binge eating is defined as eating an unusually large amount of food over a discrete period of time, and estimates say our drawn-out Christmas lunches often amount to over 5000Kcal – more than twice the recommended daily amount. The normalised binging around me almost gives permission or an expectation to indulge in the very behaviour I am trying so hard to stop. I am like a teetotaller in the brewery.
Not only is over-consumption an issue on the actual day, but the festive period – with its never-ending stream of tempting mince pies and drunken work parties – means many of us over-consume for weeks on end. When January hits, this period of excess is counterbalanced by a collective purging. High on the list of resolutions for the New Year are hitting the gym, dieting hard and spiritually decluttering our lives. No wonder living with an eating disorder at Christmas is especially tough against a backdrop of disordered, chaotic and unbalanced eating amongst the general population. Finding the balance needed to forge and maintain recovery is extremely difficult at this time, when extreme eating is complemented by extreme dieting and exercise regimes – promoting the ability to control and sculpt our bodies as the height of personal achievement.
Without trivialising the profound difficulties represented by eating disorders, I do think that we can all get a taste of the problematic nature of unbalanced attitudes towards eating and depleting during this national binge-purge cycle. And not everyone finds it easy – whether or not they have a diagnosed mental health problem. A lot of us are driven by impulse, guilt, fear and stress at this time. For a huge number of reasons, so many people struggle to feel the joyful Christmas spirit they might believe “should” be feeling. Having emotions we don’t want to be having – or struggling to feel the happiness we’re “meant” to be feeling – is a universal experience we can all relate to. In each case, what you feel and how you feel it is valid and real for you.
If, like me, you will struggle with an eating disorder this Christmas, remember that most likely, other people can relate to the idea that Christmas can be hard. They mightn’t have insight into your inner world and the degree of terror a turkey dinner might induce, but my hope for this Christmas is that everyone can seek to understand the very human challenges we all share at this time – whether or not they are about food. And considering the relentless focus we place on food and eating at Christmas, people may not be as surprised or unable to understand your problems as you think. If you explain that this might be a hard time for you with food, people who understand and care may be able to help you to make changes that mean you can still feel involved.
At Christmas, remember that the food is a tool for the social interaction, the celebration and the togetherness we seek to share. Opening up about the difficulties that this might pose for you, I hope you can work together with loved ones to work out ways you can still get the most meaning out of Christmas, with less imbalance and more peace during this festive season.