How to Talk to Someone with an Eating Disorder Over the Holidays – Emily
The holiday season: This time of the year is always one of my favorites! Christmas music starts playing on the radio, trees and lights go up around town, and life feels a little lighter. I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say there is a specific kind of joy that surrounds the months of November and December. It only comes once a year, so I try to make the most of it. However, with that joy follows a familiar heaviness.
I was driving to work the other morning when I was quickly snapped into a flashback from two years ago. I remember waking up in my bed — sweating, nervous and terrified. My eating disorder voice was screaming at me, barking demands left and right. While listening to its demands I started to cry, and I could feel my heart sinking. While driving, sitting in that memory, I couldn’t help but feel that same heartbreak from two years ago.
For some, the holiday season is nothing but a blissful time of year where cheer is never robbed of them (especially now because Disney+ just dropped!). For others, it is a personal hell that consumes their every thought and action where it seems everything is robbed of them.
Battling an eating disorder during the holiday season is nothing short of an absolute beast. It’s a battle where minutes feel like hours, where your mind is consumed around the thought of food, and, for some reason, a time where you feel like you can’t reach out to others.
"Why would you want to steal their holiday cheer?” — a classic question my eating disorder always used to twist my way of thinking.
When thinking how I wanted to blog about entering this time of year while battling an eating disorder, my first thought was to address those in that battle. I wanted to share grounding tips, breathing techniques and mantras to speak in the midst of the ED voice. But the more I thought about it the more I thought about my personal battle during this time. As much as I needed tips when I was in the prime of my eating disorder, I needed an understanding from others more.
I recently went to Instagram (@emilyannfincher) to ask my fellow recovery warriors what questions they wanted answered about the holiday season, and more than half of the questions were not about themselves but family and friends. Questions included how to kindly ask family to not talk about diet culture, food or about their anxiety/mental health.
Instead of blogging about tips for my warriors, I want to talk to the family and friends of those who know of someone battling an eating disorder.
Here's how to talk to someone with an eating disorder:
1. Warriors are not their eating disorder.
Let me explain this one. Diet culture has morphed the two words “eating disorder” into a phrase that tends to automatically worry others. Some become quiet or silent, and their first question is usually food related.
Let me assure you of this: If you know someone with an eating disorder, they know it too! But they are not their eating disorder. They are a woman or man in need of support and help. They need sympathy, a hug, an embrace, a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen. Which leads me into my next point...
2. Eating disorders are not about the food.
I can hear the cheering from all my recovery warriors when I speak that point, but for those who don’t live with an ED, you may not understand.
Eating disorders are a mental illness, meaning they affect our mental health. Unfortunately, our brain was wired to enter “fight and flight” with thoughts and fears around food. Just as someone may abuse alcohol or drugs, our vice is food. Questions about food, eating, calories and more can be very triggering.
Instead of asking us questions regarding food, try asking about our emotional state of mind. For example, “How are you feeling today,” “How can I support you,” and “Can I help speak truth into your ED voice.” Questions in those regard help us fight. They make us feel safe and set up for any battle during the day.
3. If you are going to ask, get ready for real answers.
I’ll never forget looking into my mother’s eyes and telling her what my eating disorder voice was telling me when she asked what it said. I could watch her heart break as she sat listening to her daughter speak ugly, horrific words into herself.
Parents, family and friends: You can’t force truthful answers out of warriors. They might be not ready to share their truth, but if they do share, brace yourself. Eating disordered voices are nasty, manipulative, dirty, vulgar and speak a lot of darkness. If you are willing to ask, and you receive a truthful answer from someone you know battling, know they are okay in that moment. Know they need support. Know they are needing help. Know that they trust you, and you should feel honored.
4. Help divert diet culture and food talk.
If there is one major topic of conversation at the Thanksgiving and Christmas table, it’s the topic of food.
Your aunt mentions the new diet she is on and how it’s not working (we’re all so shocked, Aunt Karen). Your cousin discusses her thoughts on bad foods and good foods. Meanwhile, a warrior sits in a heaviness wishing the food talk would stop and that the topic would change. It is hard for a warrior to sit in front of food, but to hear about it too can be extremely overwhelming.
Family and friends: Be the voice of the person you know battling an eating disorder. It is often too hard for us to speak up. Use your voice to help divert food talk. Talk about a funny story, go around the table and name something you’re thankful for, or start reminiscing about old family memories! This will help in more ways than you know.
5. We don't expect you to understand it all.
Let’s be honest. Eating disorders are messy as hell. They don’t make sense whatsoever. If you are not a recovery warrior, we don’t expect you to understand it all.
We just need your support.
We need you to check in on us even if we are being stubborn. We need help seeking therapy. We need help getting through meals. We just need a friend. The largest support system is made up of people who don’t understand but try to understand.
Warriors, I am holding so much space for you. Know you are loved, you are seen, and you are heard. Remember your personal truth and speak it loudly. You are a light no matter what your eating disorder says, and I am so proud of your fight. Keep up that fight!
Family and friends: Thank you for your willingness to listen and process with us. It is not easy, and we realize that. If anything, be a listening ear. Don’t worry about giving us advice; that is up to our therapists. Simply be there for us and know that act is a magnitude of strength for us.
Have a great holiday season, everyone!
Emily Ann Fincher lives in Greenville, South Carolina, where she graduated from ERC and directed Greenville’s first NEDA Walk. Emily is a mental health advocate in the Upstate and loves life, friendships, and laughter.