You asked. I have answers. The always fun Thanksgiving Question and Answer blog post.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to take a moment to let you know that I am infusing some humor into this special post because, quite frankly, this is the most difficult holiday for folks with eating disorders and their families. Humor is a special kind balm in every sticky and uncomfortable situation that gives us perspective.
Here we go!
Thanksgiving stands firm as my favorite holiday – cooking/baking, Macy’s parade, family, time off work and of course, Charlie Brown Thanksgiving! But, each year poses another struggle to overcome in this journey called recovery. I am 12 years going strong (on December 18th) in recovery to an eating disorder. The path has not been smooth travel; but, every hardship created strength within. This year, God presented before me the one struggle I cannot release. . .eating in front of others. I have always been criticized, critiqued and condemned for what’s on my plate. When knee deep in eating disorder behavior, it was condemnation over lack of food and combinations created to fill my cravings with least calories possible. Travelling through recovery, I continue to get criticized and critiqued over foods chosen (now much healthier portions and recipes made from scratch). I hear comments like, “Well, we know you wouldn’t eat that,” “You eat so healthy (in a condemning voice),” “What are you eating? (in a disapproving connotation)” There are other comments made about my lifestyle, which is now very healthy emotionally and physically. It gets old hearing others comment about my looks or eating habits when I know I continue each day to choose what is best for my health. Others do not realize that staying healthy and choosing recovery every day is not easy. Their comments do not help. It makes me fill with anxiety when eating with others and so I often avoid it. I am presented with the challenge to kindly stick up for myself and become a bit more transparent. With God’s help, I will enjoy every part of this Thanksgiving and respond to any comment accordingly.
Everyone with an eating disorder struggles with these issues as you so eloquently describe them. Sometimes people are genuinely trying to say and do the right thing and it comes out wrong. And sometimes they are just being intrusive. In any case your responsibility starts and ends with being kind while taking care of yourself. You said it, stick up for yourself graciously. What does this look like?
Kidding! That’s what you say INSIDE. Outside you smile and say, “Yes, it’s just so delicious,” or “I’m truly enjoying this moment.” And then you transition to something else. “Did you see the Bengals game last Sunday?” (I’ll talk about transitions a little later.)
Most importantly, enjoy the parts of this Thanksgiving that have the most meaning for you. It might not be the food. THAT IS TOTALLY OKAY. If you need someone to give you permission to acknowledge that your favorite part of Thanksgiving has nothing to do with food or eating in front of people- I grant you permission. Sometimes just releasing yourself from that expectation is helpful.
Thank you so much for addressing Thanksgiving for those of us who cannot get happy about it due to our eating disorders and food allergies. Some of my issues concern becoming like amnesia when asked to bring “a dish” to a dinner. I mentally freak out and can’t think of anything I can make to bring. Then there is the comparison issue going on at the event – who made the best dish and so on. I can’t do that anymore. There is the issue of timing of the meal. My son and daughter in law eat around 7 pm. That is too late for me to eat that much food and I’m starving – not a good thing. Also food allergies – mine are gluten, dairy, turkey, soy. After many mistakes and problem issues I now prepare my gf dressing, sugar free cranberries, roasted chicken and gf pumpkin pie. They can eat the cranberries I bring and I take a regular pumpkin pie for them and whip cream.
Want to mention that one of the best Thanksgivings I ever had was with my former partner we were in Nassau and had the most wonderful, fresh caught that day seafood with a French cream sauce and capers and Caesar Salad. Unforgettable!
So this letter went on a little longer, and I cut it short so that parts that might identify this person were omitted. But let me say this. This is all very common. Food allergies, the comparing of the dishes, the time of the meal- so many people share these frustrations. Here’s what I think. Or rather, what I’d bring. You say, you had this amazing Thanksgiving in Nassau. I would bring Caesar salad. Because a) it’s something you love. b) who doesn’t love caesar salad? c) it’s easy.
To address the other issues that were in this question (both public and omitted), I say this: Come when you can. Leave when you have to. It is what it is. You can’t control people, places, things. No is a complete sentence.
Do I approach the subject of food to my daughter or just avoid the topic?
I am assuming that she has an eating disorder. DO NOT APPROACH IT. SAY NOTHING! That being said, here is what you should say: “We’re so glad you are here!” Talk about anything but anything related to food.
How do I protect my child’s privacy and still appropriately answer questions from relatives about a) Why is she not at Thanksgiving (if she chooses not to attend) or b) How is she? or c) Comments about what she is eating or how she is looking.
Make sure you are within kicking distance of the people asking the above questions. A good kick to the shins under the table should solve the problem. Kidding! In all seriousness, you can’t really warn them ahead of time, that actually makes it worse, but you need to practice and master the art of transitions. What are transitions? I’ll give you a few examples.
Well meaning family member (let’s give them the benefit of the doubt): Where is your daughter? Why isn’t she at Thanksgiving?
You: She wanted to do something else this year. What are your children doing for thanksgiving? or She wanted to do something else this year. Can you help me get people drinks? Can you go ask Aunt Shirley what she’d like to drink? or She wanted to do something else this year. Boy, Judy sure looks busy in the kitchen, I’m going to ask her what I can do to help.
Well meaning family member: How is she? (concerned furrowed eyebrows)
You: She’s good. How are you? or She’s good. Did you see this new recipe I’m trying? or She’s good. Did you see I made grandma’s green beans? or She’s good. Did I tell you i just started watching this new television series on Netflix that I love? Do you have Netflix? It’s so much better than cable.
Well meaning family member: God, she looks so thin.
You: (Saying nothing.) Did I tell you I’m going full out black friday shopping tomorrow? I’m literally lining up at 6am to buy a television for $5. (or whatever). or (Say nothing and ignore the comment) Hey I’m thinking about going to see Second City’s Holidazed and Confused at Playhouse in the Park for the holidays. I saw them on TV and it looks so funny. When you directly ignore the comment it sends a very strong message.
In all these examples, you are appropriately answering their questions, while also protecting her privacy. Anyone looking to get into a deep conversation on Thanksgiving about how your daughter is doing needs to examine their own reasons for essentially starting an inappropriate conversation at an inappropriate time.
What is the best way to convey how loved and wanted she is at these family events?
Just say it, lots.
Guys, just remember, stay away from the politics. Stay away from the food talk. Express your sincere gratitude at having loved ones with you. And if you don’t have it, you don’t have to say anything. And make sure you have a good thanksgiving soundtrack, it helps with the lulls at the table.
Dr. J. Renae Norton is a clinical psychologist, specializing in the outpatient treatment of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder (BED), as well as obesity. She is also the author of The Sun Plus Diet, due out in 2016.
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Medical Advice Disclaimer: The information included on this site is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a physician-patient relationship. This information is not necessarily the position of Dr. J. Renae Norton or The Norton Center for Eating Disorders and Obesity.
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