This is the third post in my Holiday Survival Guide, which aims to raise awareness about the impact of the holidays on those with mental health concerns. This post has been written by Kelsey Wallour, who has been willing to share her holiday experiences with an eating disorder. You can connect with Kelsey via Twitter (@Krunr21) or on her blog, ‘en route to R.D. land’
I have a hard time during the holidays – so much so that I dread any, and all, holidays. The longer the holiday time period (like Labor Day versus Christmas) the more anticipatory anxiety I feel because it’s more likely that I will have to be with my family for an extended period of time. Being at someone else’s home means being completely out of my comfort zone – away from my kitties, my safe food, my bed, my nice quiet space where no one is trying to make me do something I don’t what to do. Also, my track record with holidays over the past 8+ years has not been too hot, and so I have a history of “failure” behind me, and very few “successes” to cling to. So I go to my parents’ at the last possible moment – even volunteering to work extra so that I have an excuse to not arrive there until later, and then also an excuse to dash away several days later to get back to work.
My family is slightly more dysfunctional than the average person’s dysfunctional family. I don’t go to my parents’ house very frequently because there is always underlying tension that courses through every conversation and encounter. I don’t know if it’s real tension, but I perceive it to be true, and so my baseline anxiety level is raised and I feel constantly on the verge of exploding. I work with my therapist to – on a daily basis – communicate better, be more assertive, cope without restricting my food, and brainstorm ways to incorporate self-care into my regime. But, being placed back in my original environment seems to strip away all my progress that I’ve made over the past three years in my recovery from anorexia. I snap back to those maladaptive coping mechanisms – restricting, isolating, becoming more brusque with everyone, and my anxiety and depression simultaneously skyrocket. As if it’s not hard enough for me to deal with my immediate family, there’s always the extended family to throw into the mix. Everyone wants to make sure I’m okay – that I look okay, act functional, socialize appropriately, don’t have too many fresh scars, and eat well.
They mean well, but it’s overbearing and brings an incredible degree of expectation with it that I MUST be okay or else there might be an intervention. Or, even more humiliating, they might track down my therapist’s number to give her a call so they can let her know that there seems to be something “wrong” with me. For some reason, my family seems to think that since I went into inpatient in the summer of 2011 I must be, for the most part, better and not struggle as much. I have repeatedly caved to that pressure because when I admit that I’m not fine, my family tends to freak out. My mom might cry, my sister calls me to forcefully talk about things, my dad tells me to keep eating and turn off my emotions… and you get the picture. So I say I’m FINE and strive to keep conversations on a very superficial level, all the while counting down the days until I can flee back to my safe space. Needless to say, my relationship with my family is rather strained, even without the food component thrown in.
Food is a huge part of any holiday, and I loathe it. As a result, I usually start restricting as soon as I arrive at the location – just as a preventative measure, in case the unavoidable main meals are laden with calories I can’t avoid. I can’t measure the foods, or plug each dish’s components into an excel sheet so that I can figure out how many calories and fat grams are in each serving of that dish. I basically eat the same thing every day when I’m at my home, and that is thrown to the wind when I’m out of it which makes my fun anxiety and depression all the worse because my paranoia that I am constantly gaining weight might actually be coming true! The entire experience is tainted by the food and weight stress, and it’s not like I can avoid it either.
You might be reading all of this and wondering why I don’t brainstorm with my therapist and dietitian ways to more healthfully cope with these times. The problem is, that I do! Every single holiday that comes my way we discuss it weeks in advance because my anxiety surrounding it starts that early. It has gotten slightly better, but not by much because I can’t change the way my family responds to me. But I can change how I respond to it, and so I cling to my internal locus of control and cope the best I can.