Holidays with my father were a matter of joy and sorrow.
After he divorced my mom, I was nine years old; my dad was largely absent from my life. He didn’t call much. I had to track him down with expensive long-distance calls.
But when the holidays rolled around, he got a room at the nicest hotel in my new town. (I lived at the bottom of the hill in an apartment where my mom raised us on a single-mom income).
Dad decided that he would make it his tradition to take us to the fancy buffet at the hotel. At the buffet, there was butter carved into the shape of turkeys. Silver chafing dishes framed the beautifully crafted food, much like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Servers in tall chef hats carved whatever kind of meat we wanted. Everything looked beautiful and delicious.
I filled my plate again and again. Yet, I felt so completely empty. This didn’t just happen during holiday meals, but with the enormous expectations, it felt like it was open season on emotional eating
I was my daddy’s girl. I had his blue-gray eyes and my hairline swooped to the same side as his did. I loved his sense of humor and dreamed of this moment — being across the table from him.
But then it came time for the bill — and a side of guilt. My father complained about the price, joking that we would have to wash dishes. There were other things he did too: trying to lift the tableware or arguing with the manager about one thing or another — often trying to get out of paying the bill.
I was left feeling sour and empty. This meal did not live up to the Hallmark-esque holiday expectation I had wished for. No buffet, no matter how festive or beautiful it was, could make me feel better.
I had been using food to cope with his impending absence when my parents were on the verge of divorce. I literally hid in the pantry. The sounds of my crunching and chewing drowned out my parents’ screams at each other.
At my mother’s house, I used a steady stream of holiday candies, melting in the side of my cheek like a slow-release pill, to try to cope with the complexities of our relationship and where I fit in with life with my stepfather. While I felt calmer in the moment, the tension was still there. I couldn’t just swallow it. The more I tried, the worse it became. Instead of learning to set boundaries and making my needs and emotions clear, the situation became more and more buried under my Binge Eating Disorder
Now I know that the best gift I can give myself is to understand that binge eating
will never fill a hole or make me feel better.
Can we have a better holiday season?
The winter holidays, for many of us who have struggled with eating disorders
, can be really hard. Images of joyous wondrous celebrations are dimmed by our reality. Interacting with relatives, dealing with the overload of parties and activities and spending so much money can be overwhelming — not to mention that these are all food-focused holidays.
In my binge eating disorder recovery
, one of the greatest things I learned was, just like a holiday wish list, this:
I had to ask for what I need.
And I knew I wanted more peace and more joy. To find that peace and joy, here are some of the things I do during the holidays:
- Connect with those I love
I make time for appointments with my eating disorder specialists. I work though issues in amazing, positive places such as Binge Eating Connection
. I make time to reconnect with family and friends, who I have missed the rest of the year.
- Plan ahead.
The holidays have so many triggers for me, and food was my previous way of coping. I learned that one of my biggest triggers was money. I would over spend, shop as compulsively as I ate, and end up feeling stressed. Now I check my list, work with my husband (aka Santa) to find toys the kids will love, and keep it all within our budget. I also try to plan for holiday celebrations, allowing for flexibility, and knowing that food is just food. I remind myself that I’m at a party or gathering for the people, not to binge. I make a plan and commit to sticking to it regardless of what comes up.
- Focus on my values
The thing I learned in my recovery is that there are no more “have-to”s. I can change my traditions to fit my values. I focus on and value joy.
- Have a support system in place.
I identify those who know my struggles and challenges and ask them to support me if I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed by the holidays.
- Try something new.
I do things that might be a little out of my comfort zone during the holiday season. And, often, I enjoy them.
I love being from Vermont, but when I was deep in binge eating disorder
, I didn’t spend much time outside. So I started a new tradition of booking a sleigh ride for my family and me in the day or two before the holiday. The wonderful thing about a sleigh ride is that it is available for all ages and abilities. It gets us out of the house in a non-food-focused activity.
I love this sleigh ride tradition because it is mine. A few years ago, I even called my wedding photographer and asked him to take some photos of us since my brother was coming in from out of town. And I wanted to remember this moment. I want my kids to have a picture from this moment to cherish. This is one way that I will I pass on my traditions and my values.
Kara Richardson Whitely is the author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds and the upcoming memoir Weight of Being. She serves as a Binge Eating Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center.
A special thank you to Jenna Flagg, Psy.D., Clinical Director of Adult Services at Eating Recovery Center, for sharing insight into binge eating disorder recovery for this post.