Health And Wellness

I Ruined My Family Holiday Because Of My Eating Disorder

Photo: Maridav / Shutterstock
sad woman sitting by window in winter

Two days before Christmas, I'm leaning against the kitchen counter, waiting for the kettle to boil as my father rifles through the fridge. He offers me a snack and I tell him I don’t fancy it. I watch as he tenses and walks towards me, slow and stony-faced.

“Do you have the bulimia thing again?”


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This time, I’m not lying.

His brow stays furrowed as his eyes search mine for a harrowingly long second, then he softens. And so I do, too, and outwardly we carry on our day as if we never discussed the matter.

He believes me. Even now, he doesn’t completely trust me, though. Nobody in this house does — and I can’t say I blame them.

Following a few years of, ahem, character-building events, I tumbled between different forms of disordered eating from age 14. I reached peak concern at 17 and really committed myself to getting better a little bit after I turned 18. There were a lot of slip-ups.

Throughout all that time there was probably only a 6-month period when I was small enough that a stranger would realize I had an eating disorder, but by the time I’d hit 16, my immediate family was well aware.

My family and I joke now about how conceited it could all look to an outsider looking in, but how I looked and how people perceived me were only the obvious part of my disordered eating. For me, it was more about control. (Disordered eating can look different or develop differently for every person.)

The holidays are notoriously hard for people with disordered eating: Routines get disrupted, food becomes the pinnacle of the social calendar, and diet culture as a New Year's resolution is everywhere.

Hearing all about how happy everyone is on a day you associate with extreme anxiety can be quite alienating, too. The stress of it all intensified everything for me. I’d be snappy and tightly strung the whole month, impending dread consuming me.

Christmas day usually started okay. I’d tell myself to be on my best behavior, to keep it together just for today. But then the special Christmas breakfast was served: pain au chocolate. Yum! And so with breakfast came my inevitable breakdown.

I’d try to pull myself together, to get ready and look nice and pretty for the occasion, but the tears would come on and off all day. Sometimes I’d lean on alcohol to help ease my food anxiety. But then I’d get far too drunk and drunk me was mean.

I’d stumble into my mother’s room and go into scathing detail of everything I ever thought she’d done wrong. I'd pick at my sister’s insecurities, taunt my dad with silence. There was a common thread to all of it, a message I wanted to drive home: you made me this way.

The worst was Christmas 2017. I freaked out after dinner.

By this point, bingeing was a distant memory and purging something I was desperate to leave behind. Undereating, fasting, and overexercising had dug their teeth into me: my disordered poison of the day. So, terrified of feeling as stuffed as the turkey, I disappeared with the dog on a walk through the hills in pitch-black darkness, my phone switched off, without letting anyone know where I was going.

People talk about the physical symptoms of disordered eating: fatigue, hair loss, mood swings, and weight fluctuations. But I was becoming increasingly aware of some of the ugly side effects people are far more reluctant to admit: I was cruel, manipulative, and a tremendously good liar. And worst of all: I was thoughtless.

RELATED: 5 Subtle Signs Of Disordered Eating To Watch For

I came back 3 hours later after my night walk to find my family distraught, on the verge of calling the police. And, for a moment, I couldn’t even understand why they were mad. Did they not understand how much I needed to exercise after eating?

Halfway through a self-absorbed attempt at justification, the penny dropped. I was hurting the people I loved as a cry for help — maybe if I could make them see how much I was falling apart, someone would scoop me up and magically fix all my problems.

But this was the first time I saw clearly how far down the rabbit hole I’d fallen. I was undeniably ill and my family was terrified for me. They had no idea what to do and they could barely even recognize me.

Safe to say, that year I ruined Christmas — but at the very least it was a turning point.

I’ve been in different stages of ‘recovery’ for the past three years, but this year I’ve taken the time to really reflect on the damage that was done. Like everyone, there were a lot of highs and lows amid my teenage years, and I don’t want to diminish the happy memories I do have.

I made friendships that I’m extremely grateful for, spent time with my grandparents, laughed until my ribs ached. Talking about being ill feels strange sometimes because focusing on how I experienced that part of my life seems to miss so much of the entire story.

Describing how I acted that Christmas makes it easy to paint myself as a horror, and everyone around me as a poor savior. At times they were, life is always more complicated than a victim/savior narrative.

People are not their illness.

While my family and I were so busy trying to appear relatively normal to the rest of the world, we caused each other a lot of pain. And we’ve been working really hard to fix that.

When I first decided to get help, a therapist warned me that I was about to go through a grieving process. I grieved the coping mechanism that I’d been leaning on for so long — my disordered eating — and finally accepted that controlling my eating didn’t bring me control at all.

The better I got, the more I grieved the person I used to be. I spent a lot of time filled with anger and regret at who I’d become, but now I mostly look back with acceptance.

I rearranged my brain over and over to try and be a functioning person and I'm almost there.

The disordered eating thoughts still come and go, but I’m far better equipped to deal with them now. I’d even go as far as to say I enjoyed Christmas this year. My close family are the only people who ever really experienced my nasty side, which thankfully doesn't rear its head anymore.

I found it within me to forgive my family for the turbulence that left me floundering for a way to cope, and we’ve been rebuilding trust bit by bit. None of us were really the bad guy, and we all needed to take responsibility for our own issues.

A lot of people struggle with body image around the holidays and even in my more healed state, if I had a dollar for every time I wanted to google 'juice cleanse' in the past month I might have enough money to actually afford one.

Let's be a little kinder to each other and ourselves at times like these. And if any of the above sounds a little too familiar, get help if you can. 

Recovery from disordered eating is hard. hard. But it's better on the other side, I promise.

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Elizabeth Marney is a YourTango contributor.