I really wish that I could have gotten this up much, much sooner, but technical difficulties with the site plagued me for over a week. Holidays can be stressful even under the best of circumstances, but they can very often put fear and dread into the hearts of those with eating disorders and their loved ones. What about the overwhelming amount of food? How much exercise or restriction will be required in preparation for the holiday meal? How will all of the uncomfortable, if well meaning, questions be handled? What about all of the food/calorie/dessert guilt/health talk? How about the stares from the corners of concerned and curious eyes? What about the obvious discomfort of some relatives? Will this day ever end? Those are not the questions my son was asking (actually, they probably were very similar); they were the questions and ruminations in my mind.
Since there is a lot of wonderful information written about how someone with an eating disorder can manage through the holiday season, I thought I would focus on how mom and dad, or any loved one might feel and what they can do to help themselves through the holidays. Since I am the mom of a child with an eating disorder, that is my perspective, but I think/hope that anyone helping a loved one through this season could relate.
The first holiday season that we were dealing with our son’s recovery was extremely stressful for him and for us. I wrestled with all of the questions above and was really feeling quite afraid and overwhelmed. I was afraid for our son, but also worried about the rest of my children. They wanted to have a nice holiday and during the years that our son was sick and untreated, we hid and isolated during the holidays and our other children suffered very much. As a mom it felt like trying to help our anorexic son and see to it that the other children had a nice holiday was just too much. It never even occurred to my husband and I that we might like a nice holiday too.
Parents suffer right along with their children. They feel the needs and the pain of everyone in the family. My worst fear was, of course, that the holidays would throw my son into a setback. My next fear was that my other children would be adversely affected by the amount of angst and attention that their brother was getting and their holiday would be ruined. In the meantime, the anticipation of the holidays and the worry and hypervigilance of the actual day did dampen the day for me and I was worn out mentally and physically by the time it was over. The truth is that the first year into recovery I made a lot of mistakes during the holidays and created a lot of unnecessary stress for myself and probably everyone else too. I have learned a lot since then.
One of the first things that I had to accept was that I cannot cure my son’s eating disorder and I cannot change the fact that the holiday meals are stressful for him. Nor will I be able to erase, for my other children, the fact that their brother has an eating disorder and needs our help getting through the holiday meals. I also needed to let go of the idea that I was single handedly responsible for making everything go well because that is stressful and impossible.
Our approach to the holidays has changed over the years and we have learned to work together and I have learned that I need some help managing the holidays too and that is OK. We don’t always engage in the large, extended family meals during more difficult years. Sometimes we just have dinner at home and then go to a relative’s house for dessert where there is the option to partake or just to visit and have coffee. I talk to Grandmom ahead of time and let her know that staring and inappropriate comments about weight are not appreciated (If you are wondering why I should have had to even have that conversation, believe me, so was I!). We use the buddy system where he would give his brother a signal during an uncomfortable conversation and his brother would join the conversation and steer the subject somewhere else. We sometimes took two cars to dinner so that dad or I could take him home earlier if things were getting stressful. Distraction in the form of a watching football with a sibling, playing a game, or taking a walk was helpful. Bottom line was that we met as a family and made a plan. Probably the most helpful thing for us was planning ahead with our son’s treatment team. They were invaluable.
Below are some tips that have been helpful in making the holidays less stressful. I hope that some of them resonate and make your holiday as a mom/caregiver less stressful.
Utilize your treatment team/therapist: If you have a treatment team or if you have a therapist, they are often a lifeline during this time of year. They know your loved one and your family and will have very useful suggestions. Perhaps suggest a family meeting so that everyone can participate and be involved in the plan.
Utilize your support group: If you are not involved in a support group, this might be a good time to join. If you are involved in a support group, utilize the expertise of those who are more experienced and seek their suggestions. Sometimes people “buddy” up and call each other during the holidays just to check in, vent, share ideas, difficulties, etc. Mostly, it is just supporting one another through this time.
Have a family meeting: Have a meeting to talk openly about concerns and plans for the holidays. Discuss the menu in advance and any and all uncomfortable scenarios. Talk about exercise and plan how it will be incorporated into the day. Brainstorm about how to lessen the stress for everyone. Ask him/her what they are most worried about and let him/her tell you what is comfortable and uncomfortable. Allow siblings to share the same.
Consider a smaller gathering: If a large gathering with so much food and uncomfortable conversation (and seemingly no way out) is stressful, consider something smaller. Perhaps hosting the dinner at your house where you control the menu a little more and can keep the guest list a little smaller would work. Perhaps having the meal with just your immediate family and then going to a relative’s house for dessert would be less stressful. Dessert isn’t a “mandatory” course and it is often a little less formal. It is more accepted to just have coffee or just sit and have conversation without eating.
Allow siblings to participate: Others want to help, so let them. Siblings can be very helpful without being “responsible” or “burdened”. They can help distract the obsessing that can often come with anticipating the meal. They can play a game, watch a football game, or take a walk. They can join a difficult conversation and steer the conversation away from food, weight, and other uncomfortable subjects. They can be positioned next to their brother/sister during dinner and provide nice, distracting, and fun conversation. Sometimes mom being the one sitting in the very next seat is uncomfortable because he/she can feel your anxiety and you can feel his or hers. This creates indigestion, not relaxation.
Create as routine/schedule for the day: The lack of routine and structure of the holiday is often very difficult for someone with an eating disorder. The gym is closed and so are stores. Worry over the lack of exercise and that “chaotic” feeling can be overwhelming. Those with an OCD component feel this even more acutely. Plan you day and make a schedule/routine. Let siblings help with plans for a walk, or a game, or favorite TV show. Even planning a drive with another relative or planning some time with a friend during the day. Any routine/structure that can be planned into the day will help you both.
Take two cars: Consider taking two cars so that if things become stressful you can leave early. If dinner is over and dessert is just too much to manage, politely make your exit and go home. Dad can stay with the other kids so that they don’t have to leave the fun early. You might be grateful for the chance to go home too. Or perhaps dad can take him/her home and you can have a chance to stay and visit.
Engage a trusted friend: Arrange to have a trusted friend available who can be called if things get really difficult. We all need to be needed and our friends are often honored and all too happy to be able to participate in helping us through a difficult time. Sometimes just having someone available to “vent” with or just to offer a few words of empathy and encouragement is enough to put things in better perspective.
Allow yourself to be supported/comforted: Moms often feel that they cannot ask for support or are not allowed to show that they are worried/exhausted. The same applies to dads and all those involved in caregiving. It is OK to feel afraid and to need the support of others. Accept support and be honest with those trusted friends/relatives who offer it. It is an honor to be needed and they may feel less helpless when you let them support you.
Remember that a couple of meals and stressful holidays isn’t going to put you back at the beginning again: This is very important to remember because our worst fear is usually that we will be thrust back to where we were in the beginning and have to start over. You are not going to go back to the beginning. You have too much knowledge, experience, and support to go back there. You might visit an uncomfortable place again and go back down a few steps, but you aren’t going to go back to the bottom of the staircase again.
After the holidays are over, you will have even more knowledge and experience: After the holidays are over (and they will be) you will be armed with even more knowledge and experience to take with you next year. You will have observed what was helpful and what needs more work and attention. You will come away this year having learned from those successes and failures and this you will build on every year.
I wish everyone a very safe and healthy holiday! Remember moms, dads, and caregivers that you can’t take care of your loved one if you don’t attend to your own needs and care for yourself too.