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Compromise and having a 'code word': How to make Christmas easier for people with eating disorders

This time of year can be very difficult for a person with an eating disorder, but there are ways to help.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Syda Productions

A LOT OF focus is placed on food in the run-up to and during Christmas – something that can be particularly difficult for a person with an eating disorder.

Much of the stress and anxiety often begins weeks in advance of Christmas Day: changes in routine and expectations around socialising and food can all contribute to this.

It can also be a difficult time for the family and friends of a person who has an eating disorder, as they try to help their loved one through it.

However, there are practical things that can be done to help people affected by this.

Harriet Parsons, Training and Development Manager with Bodywhys, said a person with an eating disorder is “already prone to anxiety” and may be thinking about what was difficult last Christmas as the festive season comes around once again.

“Putting the food aside, the focus is on enjoyment and that’s what’s really hard for people with eating disorders – so much of an eating disorder is about punishing; reward and punish,” Parsons explained to TheJournal.ie.

“The run-up to Christmas is all about ideals – we all want the ideal Christmas, we all fall into that trap, we want it to be the perfect day, for everyone to get along – we’re setting ourselves up for a fall.”

Parsons noted that a person with an eating disorder may restrict their food intake further in the weeks ahead of Christmas in a bid to make the day itself easier.

“They may want Christmas to be a time where they can actually enjoy themselves, so in the run-up to Christmas they start to intensify their eating disorder behaviours as a sort of insurance policy so they can kick back and relax over Christmas.

“But that’s the problem, it’s the eating disorder playing a trick on them, when they get to Christmas, they’re not able to do that, they’ve gone further into their eating disorder.

Eating disorders have an insidious way of using really lovely occasions to keep the person trapped even more, scuppering their attempt to enjoy themselves.

Parsons advises a person in this situation to “focus on the here and now”, stating: “Look after yourself today, the future will look after itself.”

She said having a conversation with a trusted family member ahead of Christmas Day can help alleviate some of the anxiety and allow compromises to be reached in advance.

Compromise 

In many homes a big meal is prepared for Christmas Day. People may also be eating in a relative’s house and surrounded by people they are not used to eating alongside. The timing of the meal may also be different to a person’s normal dinner time. All of this can be very stressful for a person with an eating disorder. 

“It could be a completely different schedule. Routine and schedule are so important to a person with an eating disorder,” Parsons said.

“For the person themselves or for a family member who wants to make Christmas easier for the person with an eating disorder, think ahead and plan it.

“Ask yourself what’s the one thing about Christmas Day that’s important to you, or the person with the eating disorder, and work together to make that happen. They might want to be relaxed around Christmas dinner so you may have to compromise over the time of dinner.

If the person is eating dinner, they might not have a late breakfast or the fry-up that everyone else is having. If you’re having a big meal in the middle of day and that is different to the person’s schedule, you could compromise and have dinner at a different time or if you’re having dinner in the middle of day, have lunch in the evening, help the person plan.

Another way to help a person who may be struggling is to allow them to be involved in food preparation if they want to.

“You could be going to your auntie’s house for dinner and eating with people you may not normally eat with. Can there be a conversation with the cook in advance? Can there be a bowl of spuds on the table that doesn’t have butter? Can there be a conversation about how stuff is being cooked? Can there be different food options available?

“It’s not to say that everything has to change, but there can be compromises to make it as easy as possible for the person with the eating disorder,” Parsons said.

She added that if a person really needs to stick to their food plan, let them. The person may choose to eat before everyone else and sit out a group meal. “It doesn’t matter, allow that, let them sit down and watch a film. It’s about not making them feel awkward,” Parsons said.

‘Code word’

In order to avoid someone saying the wrong thing, people may debate whether or not to tell relatives about a person’s eating disorder in advance.

“People often wonder if they should tell other family members that a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. It depends – sometimes people don’t want everyone to know, but there is the potential risk of someone saying something triggering.

“A compromise could be that the family is told that the person is struggling (without giving exact details) so please don’t comment on how they look or what they’re waiting. It depends on the family dynamics,” Parsons explained.

One way to mitigate such a scenario is to have agreed a code word or phrase in advance.

It may be helpful to have a ‘code word’ so the person can let you know if they’re in a panic, maybe granny has just commented on the food I’m eating or how great I’m looking, that must mean I’m putting on weight and eating too much.

“Have a way of communicating to a family member that you need support so they know ‘My head is going bananas here, I need you to take me out of this situation and calm me down’ without having to say this in front of other people. Maybe you could say something like ‘I’ve cut my finger’ and leave the room,” Parsons said.

She added that having such a plan in place beforehand, even if it’s not needed on the day, can help bring a person’s anxiety levels down.

Someone who isn’t aware that an individual present has an eating disorder could unwittingly say something insensitive at dinner, Parsons noted. A person with an eating disorder “could be eating with a person they’re not used to who is saying they’re eating too much while they pile their plate high” she said.

If you’re aware in advance that something like this could happen, Parsons said: “There are practical things you can do like don’t sit the person with an eating disorder next to that person. Or put a big Christmas decoration in between them to hide them, a barrier between them.”

‘January is a nightmare’

Parsons said emails to Bodywhys remain steady throughout the year but that calls to its helpline (01 210 7906) actually decrease around Christmas.

“In the run-up to Christmas our phone lines go very quiet. Then in January, when people go back to work and college or school, there’s a burst of people calling. Before Christmas everyone is just gritting their teeth and trying to get through it, it can be very difficult,” Parsons said.

“It’s not the time to make changes to a person’s routine, there’s too much pressure.”

She said January is a very busy period for Bodywhys as people seek help themselves and loved ones also look for advice.

“In mid-January, when students are back in college, we get calls from worried parents who say their child has lost a lot or weight or is displaying unusual food behaviours, they tell us they didn’t want to call until the person had left the house,” Parsons noted.

She said the emphasis that is placed on diets and weight loss around the new year make January “a nightmare time” for a person with an eating disorder.

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“If there is a person with an eating disorder in the house, you shouldn’t go on a diet or do a cleanse. Food is just food and you should promote regular, normal eating,” she advised.

“Stick to the rule of threes – three meals a day, three snacks, and not going longer than three hours without eating.”

download Source: Bodywhys

In 2018 Bodywhys received almost 1,600 emails and over 700 calls from people seeking advice or support about an eating disorder.

About half of the people who emailed the organisation were seeking advice for themselves (52%, down from 82% in 2017), while 25% of people were a family member or friend (up from 15% in 2017) and 23% were classed as ‘other’ (up from 3% in 2017).

The majority of people with eating disorders seeking help were female (88.5%, down from 97% in 2017), 10.5% were male (up from 3% in 2017) and 1% were transgender or non-binary.

Most people were seeking information about anorexia (45%), bulimia (11%) and binge eating (13%); 6% were seeking advice about ‘Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders’. About one in four people sought general advice and did not refer to a specific condition.

Need support? Call 01 210 7906 or email alex@bodywhys.ie. More information is available here.

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Órla Ryan

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