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Surviving Thanksgiving With an Eating Disorder

Holiday stress reaches new levels when you’re trying to eat normally on the most food-centric day of the year

I can document my eating disorder in Thanksgivings. It was Thanksgiving 2005 that I got seven desserts from a buffet in San Antonio because I’d lost 10 pounds and felt entitled to a cheat night. In 2007, I skipped out on turkey so I could save my calorie allowance for my aunt’s flourless chocolate cake. And last year, I made myself throw up that cake because my dad gave my plate an amused glance that brought back all of the times he’d criticized my eating.

Thanksgiving is a day when disordered eating becomes the norm for pretty much every other American. While the traditional Thanksgiving dinner isn’t inherently unhealthy, it’s the best example of American culture making food seem more important than it really is. Instead of stopping when you’re full, you stop when you’re stuffed. Food isn’t just the nourishment you need to go about your day; you go about your day for the sugar-packed cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes smothered in melted marshmallows and week-old bread stuffing mixed with sausage, chestnuts or whatever else will make it more decadent. All the while, you’re daydreaming aloud about the pumpkin pie that will appear on your plate once it’s been wiped clean of the main course.

For most people, being encouraged to eat so much food is no big deal; they can go back to their normal lives with no lingering problems. But when you’re like me — someone who has spent eight years recovering from anorexia and bulimia — it opens up the door to all of the urges you’ve been fighting every minute of every day, the ones you’ve been painstakingly trying to keep in check by planning structured, reasonably sized meals or by basing your eating on how full you feel rather than on any desire for comfort, belonging or entertainment.

I constantly have to remind myself not to view certain foods or large quantities of them as morally wrong, and to try not to believe the messages society spreads about food and weight — that eating a lot of high-calorie food is sinful, that dieting should follow overeating, that eating is an effective way to deal with unpleasant emotions and that certain foods should only be eaten on special occasions.

Thanksgiving, however, undoes almost all of that work, throwing every destructive idea about food back into my face.

“Enjoying food has become synonymous with gluttony, and because Thanksgiving is all about enjoying a delicious meal, it follows that we’d come to see it as the ultimate bad-food event of the year,” says Kelsey Miller, author of Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life. “Even if you’re not all that into Thanksgiving food, there’s a sense of forbidden fruit about it: Quick, you’ve got to eat the stuffing because this is your only chance!

During Miller’s chronic dieting, Thanksgiving was “like the Olympics of food issues. I had to manage all that food math — weighing the pros and cons of eating stuffing versus potatoes and laying in bed at night wondering if I could sneak downstairs and eat leftovers without getting caught.” It was so bad she once spent hours on the couch contemplating a slice of pumpkin pie only to receive a “Really?” from her dad when she took it out of the fridge.

Gabriel Aliaga, a grad student and recovering bulimic in Nevada, has similar memories. “I had two diets: my private one and my social one,” he says. “When I was out, I had to go along with what everyone else was doing and go with the flow, which was relatively eating a lot. Upon returning home, I would feel incredible guilt and my disorder would go into overdrive. Eating very little, then breaking down and binging and purging.”

Nor are the triggers as simple as just sitting in front of a lot of food. Many times the main trigger is being around the kind of personal drama that contributed to the eating disorder in the first place. “The desire to show up perfectly [at a family gathering such as Thanksgiving] to create this perfect experience creates a lot of expectations,” says Matt Shepherd, an L.A.-based filmmaker in recovery from binge eating disorder who battles the impulse to overeat for comfort whenever his family doesn’t get along. “In the past, using food to cope with that anxiety was normal.”

The same is true for Jonathan Smith, a graduate student from Kansas who received treatment for anorexia at the Eating Recovery Center. He’s found that his family’s expectations of him exacerbate his urges toward disordered eating. “Family members would have the best intentions — asking me if I was going to eat or telling me that I should eat more,” he says. “But the comments would just increase my anxiety and made the need to engage in restricting or running to make up for whatever I had to eat that day that much greater.”

Smith also used to worry his family’s comments would shift from their typical “You should eat something” or “Have you eaten yet?” to ones already running through his mind — e.g., “Wow, you’re eating so much!” and “It looks like you’ve put on some weight.” To help lessen the stress of Thanksgiving dinners in particular, Smith usually proactively asks his family not to talk about his eating or his body.

Similarly, nutritionist Erica Leon advises her eating-disorder clients to enlist relatives in advance to change the subject if negative food talk comes up and brainstorm alternative topics of conversation like travel or sports. They’re the same family members who can be relied upon to make sure the food that’s served during dinner can satisfy the patient’s meal plan as well — a system sometimes put in place to meet the nutritional needs of someone with an eating disorder.

The key to Shepherd’s Thanksgiving survival has been to take the emphasis off of food entirely. Instead, he’s made the holiday “about gratitude for those around me and choosing to have a loving experience with them. In recovery, I learned new ways to show up as gentleman with dignity and grace.” For him, this means offering to help prepare the meal or do the dishes, asking his fellow guests thoughtful questions and resisting the urge to argue by reminding himself he loves his family despite their problems. “The more I focus on asking myself, ‘How can I be of service to my friends and family?’ the better off I am,” he adds.

Of course, that’s always easier said than done, especially when everyone else is doing the exact opposite and the pressure to fit in is strong. It’s one of the reasons why Aliaga shifts his focus to acceptance in such situations — acceptance of his eating disorder and of the ways he needs to act in order to deal with it in the healthiest ways possible. “If this is the product of my eating habits, ones that don’t fit the cultural norms, then so be it,” he says. “If that means I can’t do the typical social eating, so be it.”

The most challenging part of my own recovery has been living in a world where my friends brainstorm ways to cut calories, my co-workers joke about binging on the brownies in the office and my relatives complain about how much they just ate. The difference now is that I know how to mentally press pause if I feel the desire to undereat, purge or overeat. I also know how to bring my mind back to the people at the table and my recovery. And most of all, I know how to forgive myself if I do slip up rather than vowing to start a diet the next day.

In that way, eating disorder survivors are especially well-equipped to appreciate Thanksgiving for what it should be: A celebration of family, fall and, yes, food. But food as a source of nourishment and enjoyment, not as a God the holiday was designed to worship. And if we’re lucky, we also can celebrate feeling more at peace with the meal than we were the year before.