Editor’s note: This story contains intense and personal discussions of eating disorders.
Seven years ago, I was a varsity cross-country and track runner at the age of 13. However, my passion for running was stripped away from me when I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the same age.
People who suffer from eating disorders are incredibly stigmatized and face unnecessary grief from others not believing them or saying that they’re doing it for attention. To put it in perspective, at the time, I had no social media. I had no idea what an eating disorder was; I had never heard the term before. I was not conscious of what was happening to me until it was at its worst.
Seven years later, I cannot say I am 100% recovered. However, my mental health has vastly improved from my lowest point, as I no longer suffer from an active eating disorder or depression.
Despite no longer holding those labels, I still struggle sometimes. A huge trigger for me has always been the holiday season, but I’ve learned to overcome those fears that come along with holidays revolving heavily around food.
I remember directing my mom to make “light” or “healthier” versions of every dish on Thanksgiving and Christmas; I would watch the entire process to ensure the food was “clean.” I memorized the exact ingredient measurements for every recipe so that I could log them in a calorie-counting app I used religiously for years.
The holiday season is supposed to be about spending time with family and enjoying the presence of your loved ones, but I made it about food. Everything in my life revolved around food and my strict routine I had to follow every single day.
After I was well into my recovery, I found that holidays were still especially difficult. The season for me meant having to step out of my comfort zone for a day or two and not focus on food or exercise.
Forcing myself out of my comfort zone for the first time was definitely the hardest step of my recovery. I finally started letting my mom make me meals again, I stopped tracking calories, I ate what was given to me rather than what I had planned; I got out of my routine.
Year after year, I would step out of my comfort zone a bit more during the holiday season. I no longer feel the need to run eight miles before being able to eat my Thanksgiving meal, I don’t have to starve for the days following to “make up” for the extra calories and I can get seconds on my plate without worrying what my family will think or say.
When I was younger, my doctor and therapist recommended that I go to an inpatient facility to receive treatment, however I chose to do outpatient treatment instead. I would say that decision is the reason why it took me so long to start to recover, and why I still have safe foods and fear foods. Doing outpatient treatment, I still cooked and made my own food, sticking to my routine. I never took it upon myself to step out of my comfort zone and include fear foods.
Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t always stick to my routine. Once I started recovering, I gained my social life back. I learned that it’s OK to have pizza with your friends in the middle of the night, to eat the birthday cake they brought to you unexpectedly. I had to learn that enjoying the moment is so much more worthwhile than worrying about food.
That’s what I had to remember every holiday season — to enjoy the moment. I get excited for Thanksgiving and Christmas now, rather than being anxious and worried. I look forward to seeing my family and friends from home. I can finally eat intuitively, or the “normal” way. This may seem like common sense, but it took me years to regain my hunger cues and signals. It’s so incredibly freeing to not have food and exercise on my mind 24/7. I can be here, in the moment.
This holiday season, I plan to challenge myself once again and step out of my comfort zone. This advice may not help everyone; eating disorders affect people in a variety of different ways. It is a serious mental illness, and one that cannot be fixed with a quick switch. It takes time, healing, love and support to battle.
Although the holiday season may be daunting to those who also struggle with eating disorders, it is important to remember what the gathering is about: being with your loved ones and being in the moment.
Emerson McClure is a sophomore journalism and advertising & public relations major. Reach her at email@example.com.