The feel-good energy surrounding the holiday season has begun as we prepare for Thanksgiving. While many of us look forward to seeing family, watching football and “binging” on turkey and stuffing, those who struggle with an eating disorder have probably been dreading this day for several months. I have found a few really helpful articles with tips and reminders for those who struggle, but have yet to find information on how to SUPPORT a loved one through the holiday.
Here are a few pointers on how to navigate Thanksgiving for those who might be celebrating with a loved one with an eating disorder.
- The struggle is real.
I know this sounds snarky, but I really mean it in the most sincere way possible. Unless you have been expected to confront your worst fear in front of a group of people you probably haven’t seen in a year and who are most obviously eyeing you like hawks, you probably don’t understand what your loved one is going through as they sit at the Thanksgiving table with a plate of food in front of them.
Don’t pressure your loved one; they are doing the best that they can. If you notice that they are struggling, which they most likely and understandably are, validate that what they’re doing is difficult and ask privately if there’s anything you can do to ease their anxiety. They might suggest playing a game of “I Spy” or a lively conversation about non-racy subjects like Aunt Mary’s new parrot or Grandma’s most recent trip to JCPenny’s.
- Overeating does not equal bingeing.
As it relates to what people are probably MEANING to say when they say they are going to “binge” on Thanksgiving: what they probably mean is that they are planning on indulging in all the deliciousness that is Thanksgiving. They will probably deliberately and consciously eat the sweet potato casserole and enjoy every single bite of it. They will probably undo the top button of their jeans in preparation to enjoy all of the 12 varieties of pie that grace the Thanksgiving table. They will also probably feel a little physically uncomfortable and proceed to lay on the couch and be distracted by football…or Hallmark holiday movies (no judgement).
This is NOT a binge as described in the DSM-5 and as painfully experienced by those who struggle with Binge Eating Disorder. Those who actually binge probably do not enjoy the food that they eat; they may not even remember the process of eating the large amount of food that they consumed in a short period of time. Those who actually binge often feel out of control and literally unable to stop eating while in an almost trance-like state. The thing about a real binge, is that you probably will never even see it happening; it is perceived by the person binging to be so shameful and embarrassing that it must be secret and hidden.
Please watch the language you use around Thanksgiving and holidays. You never know who is sitting around your table and the effects that an inappropriate usage of a word might have. You probably did not “binge;” You’ve probably just eaten more than what felt physically comfortable. Instead of focusing on the amount of food that was consumed, maybe you could talk about the wonderful tastes of the season and thank the chef for preparing the dish with love for all to enjoy.
- You might be sharing the meal with your loved one’s eating disorder.
In therapy, it is often helpful for clients to view their eating disorder as a separate entity that has taken over their minds and body. This is often helpful for loved ones as they report behavior and actions that are simply “not the person they know.” The eating disorder voice, or ED as many clients call it, can turn your loved one into an entirely different person. They might be malnourished, tired, anxious, depressed or all of the above, none of which is an easy or comfortable state to be in.
Try not to be offended or reactive if you realize that ED is sitting across the table from you. Understand that this is not your loved one. This is the abductor we call an eating disorder manipulating your loved one into doing whatever they say. Gently encourage ED to step aside so that you can speak with your loved one and help them to be present as they work toward getting through the meal. Let them know that you support them if they decide they need to take a short break from the table to regroup.
- Stop Overthinking it
Often times when we begin stressing about the proper or correct way to react in a stressful situation, we begin to lose ourselves in the process. Trust your instincts and be you!
Our loved ones can tell when we are walking on eggshells. If we become hyper focused on pretending that nothing is wrong, we can unintentionally draw more attention to the idea that mealtimes are uncomfortable, which is not the message we want our loved ones to receive. We want to bring back the normalcy of eating, so why act any differently than you normally would? If you’re still nervous, the best thing to do is to simply ask your loved one what they need and how they’d like to be supported…nobody knows better what they need than themselves!
- Help your Loved One to Remember what Thanksgiving is REALLY about
At its core, Thanksgiving is about being thankful and surrounding yourself with those you love and appreciate whether that be family, friends, neighbors or all of the above. Thanksgiving isn’t about the food itself, rather it’s a celebration of the miracle that allowed our food to grow and be created. As we always tell our patients, food is medicine and it is one of life’s three necessities along with water and shelter. It’s not about what we eat, but about being thankful that we have been given, and are able to share what keeps us alive with the people that we care about the most.
Everyone deserves to reap the benefits of consuming the earth’s harvest. Remind all your guests that we are all worthy of this meal and that we shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it. Go around the table and ask everyone what they are thankful for, and help everyone to be mindful and embrace all the gifts that the earth gives to us.
I will leave you with this really beautiful quote that you all can feel free to share with your Thanksgiving table.
We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us.
We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water.
We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases.
We return thanks to the moon and stars, which have given us their light when the sun was gone.
We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.
Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in whom is embodied all goodness, and Who directs all things for the good of Her children.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Remember, there is always something to be thankful for.
If you or someone you love could use some extra support this holiday season, we’re here to help.
About the author:
Natalie Cohen is the Senior Marketing and Community Relations Associate as well as the Social Media Coordinator for Walden Behavioral Care. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Maine in Orono. Her favorite part of working at Walden is being able to act as an advocate for clients suffering with mental illnesses and interacting with other eating disorder professionals in the community. In her free time, Ms. Cohen enjoys yoga, shopping and doting on her dogter Bella.