Thanksgiving in Eating Disorder Recovery

The tables full of food, the endless deserts, the fellowship with friends & family, the plans that all revolve around that one big meal on Thanksgiving day – it’s typically a very joyous occasion. But Thanksgiving can be especially tough for those in recovery from eating disorders. Approaching six years in recovery from anorexia I know still find this holiday challenging, & know I’m not the only one, so this post is for each person in recovery & battling an eating disorder this holiday season. I am with you in the struggle, I am here for you, whatever you are feeling is valid, & you’ve got this!

Because eating disorders are about control more so than they are about food, a large part of recovery is learning to regain the control that the eating disorder stole and acquiring new healthy eating behaviors. This is often done by getting into routines, creating meal plans, and maintaining a set schedule, so, it goes without saying that the holiday’s interfere with this a little. Throughout my time in recovery, there have been Thanksgivings where I have been fine and had zero anxiety and there have been Thanksgivings where I have barely felt capable of handling the significant amount of anxiety that the holiday brought me. There is no rhyme, reason, or easy-to-understand explanation for it – but when you are in recovery from something like anorexia, which makes you see food as the enemy and eating as a weakness, and then you are thrown a holiday that is centered around food and eating, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why Thanksgiving can be overwhelming. It doesn’t matter how ‘well’ someone is doing in recovery or how long they have been in recovery, this holiday season is a challenge. While many people spend days and even weeks preparing what is going to be on the table Thanksgiving day, what will be cooked, and who is traveling where, people in recovery spend days and even weeks mentally preparing for this holiday, because we know how overwhelming it can so easily become. It’s overwhelming in ways you can’t really explain to someone unless they’ve felt what you’re feeling, but I have felt it, I am feeling it, and that is why I am here, writing this to remind you, and myself, that we can do this.

Thanksgiving is about being thankful.

That is something that has helped me trek through Thanksgiving time and time again – focusing all of my energy on the people and various things that I am thankful for rather than focusing all of my energy on the things that make me anxious about this holiday. If you know me at all you know that I am the type of person who enjoys writing annoyingly sappy letters and gushing about how thankful I am for the people in my life – I recommend doing that this Thanksgiving. Take time to write down all of the people you are thankful for, and then text them, call them, or email them and tell them. Regardless of how much society has made this day about food and eating, you can make this day about expressing your gratitude to the people in your life and relieve some of the weight this holiday may bring. Something else I have found helpful is mustering up the courage to reach out for support when you need it, or at least having a couple people in mind who you know you can call or text if you find yourself needing some extra support. Ask some people for some prayers. Have one or two folks in mind who you can reach out to if you find yourself overwhelmed and needing to talk through it – people who will remind you that it’s going to be okay and you will get through this day, & people who know your struggle, even if they haven’t been through it themselves (though reaching out to people who ‘get it’ is super helpful, too). You can also try intentionally setting aside some time to journal, to go on a walk, to watch Netflix, to do whatever helps you “chill” and relieve some of that excess anxiety. Don’t let it bottle up within you – that’ll only create more of a struggle and you don’t need that.

Some other little things that have helped me get through Thanksgiving in one piece: (1) stay away from the scale – don’t weigh yourself. It just adds unnecessary stress to a day that is already stressful. (2) if people start talking about weight, or how fattening/calorically significant the food is, or working off what they’ve eaten, excuse yourself from the table – that’s super triggering and you straight up just don’t need to be around that. (3) don’t go to the bathroom after your Thanksgiving meal if you have a history of purging – if you find yourself feeling uncomfortably full and in the bathroom, it is too tempting – as hard as it is, sit with the feeling and assure yourself that it will pass, and that feeling full will not kill you, I promise (4) allow yourself to step away from family & friends for a few minutes or for an hour(s) on Thanksgiving day, just to gather your thoughts and breathe for a hot minute. (5) have some safe foods nearby. This isn’t something I would typically recommend, because part of recovery entails moving away from “safe foods,” but when I say “safe foods” here I don’t mean foods that the eating disorder “allows” you to eat – I mean foods that you can eat that will give you the nutrients you need in order to maintain recovery without heightening your anxiety. I’m recommending this because I do this and find it helpful. For example, I’m packing some cliff bars because those are a staple for me in recovery and are a great way for me to get some protein/a few solid nutrients for breakfast or a snack if I’m really struggling and too overwhelmed to venture out and change up my routine. If that helps you to have that security, do it. If not, ignore that tip! These are simply some things I’ve found helpful but that doesn’t mean it’ll be helpful or applicable to you – everyone’s experience with recovery is different!

Something else to remember is that Thanksgiving is essentially just like any other day. I know it’s tough to feel as though that is true but it is just another day. It’ll come and go just as any other day. You do not have to indulge in all of the food present on the table if you don’t want to (as long as you’re still being healthy, meeting your nutritional needs, and eating enough). You do not have to engage in the aspects of this day that overwhelm you. If you need to excuse yourself from the table – allow yourself to do so without shame. If you need to take a walk by yourself just to get some air, do it. If you have a completely different meal to eat that has no Thanksgiving food on it but is part of your meal plan and makes you feel safer on Thanksgiving day, allow yourself to eat it & know that you do not owe anyone an explanation. Remember to breathe. Remember it is just one day out of the whole entire year. Remember you’ve made it this far!

I want you also to know that it’s okay to treat yourself! You are allowed to eat that turkey, you are allowed to eat that pumpkin pie, you are allowed to drink that champagne, you are allowed to get seconds if you want. Personally, treating myself has been a huge part of my recovery because it challenges the disorder, it is a form of ‘talking back’ to the ED, and it pretty much tells the disorder, “screw you, I’m eating this, and I’m going to be fine.” If you’re looking for ways to unfriend your disorder and tell it to go back to where it came from, this holiday could actually be a great opportunity to do so if you are up for it. Go ahead and challenge the disorder. Eat exactly what it tells you not to.

But on the other hand I understand that for some, the holidays are just about surviving, and if that is the case for you this year, that is okay. If you are really struggling and don’t want to push it because your anxiety is already heightened, that is okay. You know yourself, you know your recovery, you know what you need to do better than anyone.

Whatever you eat this Thanksgiving, please ingrain in your head that you do not have to compensate for it tomorrow. You do not have to purge, you do not have to overexercise to burn off the calories you have eaten, you do not have to go step on the scale to be sure the number has not budged, you do not owe your eating disorder anything.

You have survived every single Thanksgiving this far. You are fully capable and have all of the tools you need in order to survive this one, too.

I know it is difficult.

And it doesn’t get any easier.

You and I just get stronger.

This Thanksgiving (and every Thanksgiving) I am so very thankful for my recovery. I’m thankful every day that I am able to choose recovery over my eating disorder and I’m even thankful for the hard days, hard weeks, hard seasons, because they make me stronger. I’m thankful for the days where I am able to gulp down a milkshake without thinking twice, for the ability to run as a hobby because of the health I’ve gained. I’m thankful for mental health professionals, to whom I owe much of my physical & mental health to. I’m thankful for every single person who has helped me along this journey, for every listening ear, every prayer, every hug, every sliver of advice – you mean the world to me. Thank you.

& thank you, anorexia, for being the thing I get to kick the shit out of every day.

*It is helpful for loved ones to be aware of the thoughts & challenges that those in recovery face during the holidays, specifically on Thanksgiving where food is at the center of everyone’s focus and conversations, so if you are reading this as a loved one of someone battling an eating disorder, or even if you’d like some guidance on how to use your words surrounding eating & food this Thanksgiving, I have found this link to be especially insightful.*

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