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‘Letter to the Family of a Loved One with an Eating Disorder at Christmas’ by Hugh Smith

If you’re looking for advice on how to handle the holiday season then this is most likely your first Christmas knowing that a member of your family has an eating disorder. A lot must have come to light in the last year, and it will have taken its toll on everyone. No doubt you will have had days where you’ve felt emotionally exhausted, and if those are just normal days then the thought of Christmas – with its social and cultural pressures and with its foodie traditions – probably fills you with dread.

I’m not going to pretend that it’s going to be easy for anyone. Right now you’re probably wishing it could all go away for a few days, wishing for some past persona to come back. I understand that this is causing you a lot of stress. I understand if you feel like you’re the only one standing between a nice family memory and a disaster. My job here is to help reduce the chances of the latter.

So let’s stop to think for a minute about how your loved one is feeling. December is punctuated with a chocolatey countdown, the end of which is a truly unique day of excess and indulgence – two of the things people with eating disorders fear most. In all likelihood, they will be getting increasingly anxious the sooner to Christmas it gets. My overall advice to you is to recognise these feelings, try to understand where they come from, and act in ways that lower the levels of anxiety both within your loved one and within your household.

What does this look like in the real world? There are a vast number of possibilities, not all of which are compatible. Exactly which ones you use and when you use them will be at your discretion and will require your judgement.

  • Make every attempt not to show that you are feeling tense or anxious around your loved one. Appearing relaxed will help them relax.
  •  Allocate time for discussing issues with them. This will help them relax as they will know there is time for them to air their anxieties. At the same time, issues around food should not be discussed outside of this allocated time
  • Do everything as normal. Part of recovery is re-learning what ‘normal eating’ is, and this won’t be possible if the reality is never witnessed, even if they do not take part.
  • De-mystify the process. Excluding your loved one from the Christmas preparations will raise anxiety levels as people with eating disorders generally fear the unknown – even something as small as an unfamiliar ingredient. By inviting them to help you can raise their self-esteem and potentially make the food appear less frightening.
  • Apply no pressure. Remember, we’re just focusing on getting through the celebrations – everything else can take a backseat for 24 hours. The golden rule is to avoid escalation, so if they only want a little, the best thing – honestly – is to let them; if they want to be excused, that’s fine. You can focus on recovery much more in the days ahead, and in any case these behaviours may shed some light on the stage of recovery they’re at.
  • Treat them as an equal. Don’t make excuses for them, as if you apologise or explain to other relatives on their behalf you’re removing their dignity. At the same time special concessions that they haven’t asked for in order to make them feel ‘comfortable’, will imply to them that they are of a lower status.
  • Keep some perspective. The New Year is a great opportunity to focus on recovery and it’s only a week away.
  • Remind them you love them. It’s something that’s surprisingly easy for people with eating disorders to forget.

I hope this helps. As I said, the New Year is an excellent opportunity to focus on recovery, but it’s not without its hazards. I’ll write you another letter then.

'Men Get Eating Disorders Too' is a registered charity in England and Wales no. 1139351.

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