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Turkey With A Side of Bulimia

Image of a table set with a turkey and pecan pie. Abigail Blackburn Psy.D. talks about managing stress during the holidays

There is a scene from the film "Home For The Holidays" where Holly Hunter's character complains that every time she steps off the plane to visit her family, she feels like she is six years old again. I think this happens for many of us and especially during the holidays. For folks who struggle with anorexia, bulimia and other forms of eating disorders, this is especially true during Thanksgiving. It becomes hard to remember our adult selves with our adult strengths in the face of familiar family dynamics.

There is also a great deal of pressure during Thanksgiving to be grateful and happy. There is, of course, a great deal of emphasis on food and the over consumption of food. Everyone is clustered in the kitchen all day, then seated around the table and the talk is non-stop about what is being cooked, what has been eaten, what it tasted like and how much everyone gorged on it.

Often, what is not being talked about is more important. Like the tension between siblings or resentment between parents. People who develop eating disorders frequently come from families that are high functioning and loving, but who have problems communicating and expressing real feelings between themselves. These folks and their families are often confused as to how such dramatic symptoms could develop when things are seemingly so stable at home.

Given the narrow parameters of the holidays and the forced sense of needing to be celebrating, people with eating disorders often find themselves falling back into old behaviors when they sit down at the table. Even people who have been in recovery for years can have relapses at Thanksgiving and other holidays.

It is important to remember that relapses can be understood as a normal part of overall recovery and that the holidays can be extremely stressful, even depressing or traumatic for many people. Not surprisingly, family members who have anorexia or bulimia are often also the ones who know the most about what is going on in their families. They see the unresolved anger and unspoken hurts but sometimes fall back on childhood/adolescent ways of coping that include disturbed relationships with food.

If the holidays are stressful and you do find yourself relapsing and feeling like a younger version of you, remember to also be kind to yourself. It is one day. It will pass. Do the best you can. Limiting the time you are home or having a friend come with you to dinner sometimes helps. Organizing ahead of time what you will eat and what your portions will be like can also feel good. Being mindful while you are eating, chewing slowly and putting your fork down can reduce anxiety at the table.

But if all the above mentioned does not work and you eat nothing for two days afterward or stuff yourself and throw up an hour later, do not give up hope. The holidays are hard and recovering from an eating disorder takes time. Remember it is not how quickly you relapse that really is how quickly you get back on your feet again that counts.

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