The thing I never talk about: Thanksgiving, and eating disorders

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and for a lot of people, it’s a day of stress, struggle, fear, and self-hate that has nothing to do with our relatives. For people struggling with an eating disorder, the holidays – from now through Christmas – is the hardest part of the year.

You’re not alone.

I have had an eating disorder for more than twenty years. I don’t know exactly when it started, when I went from uninformed choices to bad habits to an actual disorder, but I realized I was doing unhealthy things, sometimes things I couldn’t control, when I was around 20 years old.

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for months. A couple of years ago, I decided to seek help for abnormal and unhealthy eating habits. I’ve had issues with food, beginning with not having learned what healthy eating was in the first place, all of my life. When did recovery start? When I wanted to change? When I got help? When I started making changes? I’m not certain I know.

I do know that I’m not recovered yet. Maybe, like alcoholics and other addicts, I will never be “cured”, only managed. As long as I’m healthy, that would be okay with me.

I am getting there, though. Gaining weight this year is actually, oddly, proof that I’m recovering. I’ve stopped doing all the things I did to lose weight, most importantly I’ve stopped thinking that not eating is the best way to lose weight. Most people think of extreme calorie restriction and anorexia as something you can easily identify: those girls who weigh 80 pounds and hide food in dresser drawers so their parents won’t know. That’s a face of it, certainly, but in adults it’s often unnoticed. We don’t have to hide food because no one is monitoring us. We can simply not eat.

Restricting is about control. Mix it with binge eating, which is usually about satisfaction, literally filling an emotional void with food, and you get what most people will write off as yo-yo dieting. It must be that I was trying to healthy (when I lost weight) and then stopped trying (when I gained it. Even thin, I wasn’t being good to myself. I’m healthier now, at my highest weight ever, than I was during the rest of my adult life.

I can say all of this now because I’m over the harder part. I’ve learnt to stop restricting, stop binging, stop weighing myself constantly, stop hating myself, stop hiding all of it. It took years. It took help, and support from someone who loves me no matter what.

The next step for me is taking the hearty, healthy food I eat now, and find the portion sizes that are right for my body. I overeat now, not too much, but enough that if I carried on the way I am, I wouldn’t lose much fat. As I get older, I worry about my knees, my heart – I worry that my fat is keeping me from activities I want to do, and of course I know it makes other people judge me. I want a career that isn’t marred by employers who equate overweight with lazy or unmotivated.

I’m ready to try but I’m nervous, too. Restricting my food at all makes me tempted to restrict it a lot more. It’s tempting to “just lose the weight fast, then worry about keeping it off”. It’s tempting to ditch the rich, flavorful meals we eat now for diet foods which don’t have calories, or nutrients, or the feeling of satisfaction that tells your brain it’s actually full. Or skip meals entirely. Make a game of it, a challenge, see how long you can go without eating, how little food you can eat, how fast you can force down the dial of the scale… Count every calorie, every step, every time you thought about food. And after a week of that, after dropping several pounds, isn’t it nice to “take the night off” and eat pizza, soda, snacks, anything and everything you’ve been craving? You can go back on the diet again tomorrow…

I’d rather be overweight than go back to that life.

I’ve told myself that a million times but for once, I know that I mean it.

Tomorrow, we’re cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner. It’s just the three of us, like it had been the last couple of years, and we’re making only the things we love best. I can’t promise that I won’t question my choices or feel regret that I indulged. I can promise that I’m going to focus on eating what I think I’ll actually enjoy, in a healthy portion, without restricting or binging. I’ll get some exercise. I’ll take it one day, one meal at a time.

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