This Post Is About Anorexia/Eating Disorders and may be triggering to some readers.
Our eldest daughter has been suffering from Anorexia Nervosa for 16 and a half years, today I will mostly be talking about Anorexia, but my suggestions will also help people suffering from other types of Eating Disorder.
Christmas is generally a lovely time of the year for most of us, spending time with those we love, visiting family and friends, often seeing people we haven't seen for a while, and basically just being happy and having a nice time. This year things are going to be very different and whilst there may not be much of the visiting or seeing people, some of the Christmas traditions will still take place such as Christmas Dinner, spending time with family/those we live with, having food in our cupboards/fridge that we may not usually have.
Eating Disorders are horrendous, they are absolutely exhausting, anxiety ridden, and quite frankly, Anorexia is the cruellest illness I have ever known. At Christmastime, that exhaustion and anxiety multiplies by a million and that's because most of the run up to Christmas is all about food. There are countless TV advertisements all showing us what food we can buy from where, and how delicious it all is, there are close ups of caramel and chocolate oozing desserts, images of Christmas Dinners, alcohol, chocolates, Advent Calendars, there is food everywhere. Diet culture disappears completely and we are told that we should be indulging in as much of this lovely food as possible, there really is no getting away from it, it's food, food, food whether we want it or not.
You're probably thinking "but someone with anorexia wouldn't watch such ads, or even care, they surely don't think about food or feel hungry" but they do, they think about food all the time, they are hungry all the time, it's their bodies way of trying to stop the starvation, and that on a daily basis is absolutely exhausting, but during the festive season, which, let's face it, starts in early September, is completely all consuming and very overwhelming.
How Can You Help Beforehand & On Christmas Day
If you haven't done your food shopping on Christmas Eve, talk about what foods you would like to buy, let the sufferer be involved in the planning and choosing of the food, write a shopping list together or if that is too much for them, ask them to either let you know or jot down some things they would like, ask if they would like to come with you to do the food shopping then they can have a look for themselves, most sufferers will want to check the nutritional value of things they are choosing. If they do choose some foods then don't pass comment on their choices before, during or after the shopping trip.
If you have already done your Christmas food shop before Christmas Eve, then make your loved one aware you have done it if they don't already know, chat about and plan what you're going to be eating on Christmas Eve for dinner and then throughout Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Once the plan is made, don't change it, stick to that plan, if you can, chat about what they feel comfortable having, they may not want to and that's fine if not.
Helping with the cooking and serving (if you're not self serving) can be helpful, most anorexia sufferers like to feed others so serving the food might be a help to them. If you're self serving, let them choose their food before you all sit down, you can keep it warm and hand it to them when everyone starts serving themselves.
Don't try and push them, if they only want a small amount of Christmas Dinner then let them, try and talk about the dinner the day before like I said, so they know exactly what's on offer and can plan which bits they want to try. Don't change anything or spring any surprises on them, plan what you're cooking and stick to it. Plan the seating around the table beforehand, ask them who they want to sit next to and don't sit anyone who might not understand or is likely to say the wrong thing near them.
When you're eating, don't draw any attention to what they have on their plate, if they choose more or less food than planned on the day, don't mention it, this can be extremely damaging, and saying something like "that's brilliant, you wouldn't have eaten a roast potato last Christmas" to them interprets into "you're so fat eating those roast potatoes" it's best not to mention anything at all about what they are eating or have eaten, just ignore it. When you're having dinner, have some music playing, pull your crackers if you have them and tell the jokes, chat with each other.
After dinner, play games, lots of distraction is best as this is the time their anorexic voice will be really bad, telling them how fat and greedy they've been and how they have eaten far too much and need to get rid of the food by purging, purging can be vomiting, but not all anorexia sufferers vomit after eating, our daughter never has. I won't go into what she does/did because it is incredibly triggering, but after dinner or any kind of food, will be extremely hard so distraction is best.
Plan the games in advance, then you can get straight on with them and there is no need for a debate over what to play. If you don't play games, choose some films to watch or catch up on some of your favourite soaps that are usually shown at Christmas. Quizzes are good too, there are some quizzes on YouTube over the Christmas period, these will be a good distraction, or print your own from the internet, or you can even buy a variety of different quizzes from lots of stores, B&M and Home Bargains usually have a good selection and Aldi and other supermarkets do too.
After Christmas Day
As soon as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day, the diet culture, that has been awol for a couple of months before Christmas when we are being told of all the indulgent foods we definitely need to eat, comes back with a vengeance, every celebrity and their neighbour's dog release a fitness DVD, there are WW and Slimming World ads every single ad break, low fat food and sugar ads, basically every diet related ad you can think of is on our TV's. On the front of every magazine, we are being told how we can lose our "Christmas weight" and it feels like almost everyone on social media is joining some kind of diet club, starting a diet of some kind and/or joining a gym.
And all of that is incredibly hard for anyone suffering from an Eating Disorder, to them the TV, magazines, social media are screaming at them that they are now the size of a house because of whatever they may or may not have eaten over the Christmas period, it is a horrendous time for them and once again, the anorexic voice is stronger than ever, so be there for reassurance, explain that this is the best time for the diet industry to make a lot of money, so they go all out in the hope that people have new years resolutions to lose weight, which let's face it, a lot of people do, there unfortunately isn't a lot other than reassurance you can offer, and telling them how annoying it is and ridiculous and that they would basically say/do anything so people get sucked in to the diet culture to make them more money.
The diet/weightloss/join a gym thing, plus all the supermarkets surrounding us with low fat/low sugar foods as soon as you enter goes on until the end of January at least, so lots of support and reassurance is helpful, and be careful if you decide that online food shopping might be better, because even if you do shop online, it's there as large as life plastered all over the home page as soon as you sign onto the websites of all the supermarkets.
I find watching things we haven't go round to watching that we have recorded over Christmas is helpful, or finding some DVDs we like, looking at the sales online and doing some window shopping or actual online shopping. Playing board games we still have out, especially funny ones, we love Funemployed to play as a family, its really funny.
One of if not the most important thing I can advise, is to be sure you let them know that you are always available at anytime over the Christmas period should that person need you for support, some people don't like to bother others at Christmas for fear they will be busy with loved ones. If you don't live with the person you're supporting, then make sure they know you are available and there for them when they may need you regardless of it being Christmas or what time it may be. If you do live with them do the same thing. Having a code word to use, if other people are around and the person is struggling is a good idea, then should they need you, they can use the code word and you both know it's time to leave the room and go somewhere you can chat and offer support.
As much as it is exhausting and absolutely vile to suffer from an eating disorder, it is also really hard to be a parent, carer, friend, partner or any kind of support to someone with one too, so please try not to be too hard on yourself, and look after yourself too. It took me quite a while and a hell of a lot of research to work out what not to say and do where anorexia is concerned, and I made mistakes, so did Simon and to be honest, some people we know still do now, and we've been doing this for 16 and a half years.
There will always be that elephant in the room and unfortunately, Christmas is no different, but it doesn't mean you can't enjoy Christmas, be there for each other, as well as offering support to your loved one who is suffering, make sure you have support too. Try not to bite at remarks you know aren't said by your loved one, but by the Eating disorder that is desperately trying it's best to win, this will be a difficult time for everyone, but remember, you're doing your best, your loved one who is suffering, loves you and if they could stop suffering because they love you, they'd have been recovered long ago, unfortunately it doesn't work like that. Be kind to yourself, remind yourself how much they love you, that it's the illness talking, that they don't mean it, and be kind to them too, don't bite, deep breaths and count to ten, they can't help it at all.
Be encouraging by saying things like "I like your outfit" or shoes, hair accessory etc etc. And if you are visiting someone with an eating disorder that has been in recovery a while, don't say things like "you look well" to them this translates to "you look fat", it is better not to say anything at all, or compliment accessories, ask what they got for Christmas, make small talk, but don't ask how they are, how it's going, if they're feeling better, and please do not mention anything to do with food, don't say foods are bad or naughty, for example if you're asked if you would like a mince pie, don't say something like "oooh I shouldn't really after all that dinner, but ok, I can start the diet on boxing day" or words to that effect.
And if in doubt, say nothing, it's better than saying the wrong thing.
It's really hard, it's soul destroying and absolutely heart breaking watching someone you love more than anything in the world, your child, your baby, slowly kill themselves because of a demon in their mind. Being a mum or parent, when your child has a problem or if they're poorly, we sort it out, we can always sort things out, but not this time, and that is so hard to accept, it is the one thing I will never be able to sort out, it is far stronger than I and that absolutely kills me, I wish it was me who had it and not my baby girl, I hate it more than anything.
If things are hard for you this Christmas, whether you're suffering from an Eating Disorder, or your child or loved one is, you're not alone, I am always here, my emails and direct messages are always open.
Take good care of yourself, if you're a sufferer, parent, friend, partner or anyone caring for someone suffering from an Eating Disorder, sending you all my love and I hope you manage to have a nice Christmas