Trigger warning: this post contains descriptions of eating disorder behaviors and may be difficult for people actively struggling or in early recovery.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and for those of us in recovery from eating disorders, this can be one of the hardest times of the year. Thanksgiving is a holiday literally all about food. It basically makes a ritual out of binge eating.
If your relationship with food is already tough, Thanksgiving can give you that little push over the edge into absolute insanity.
When I was actively engaged in my eating disorder, I dreaded Thanksgiving for weeks leading up to the holiday. I would restrict my food intake for weeks in preparation for the big day. I would spend hours at the gym proactively making up for all the food I knew I would eat.
The day of, I wouldn’t eat anything before the main meal.
When Thanksgiving dinner finally came around, I would attack the table like a rabid animal, grabbing everything I could reach. I would scarf down a plate within ten minutes and head back for seconds. I would eat in a frenzy like I was eating for the last time in my life.
I would eat so quickly that it was impossible for me to realize when I was full.
When my brain finally caught up with my body I would feel physically ill, and then came the shame and the regret. I would call myself a disgusting pig and retroactively try to figure out how many calories I had consumed.
Then I’d obsess over how much time I’d need to spend at the gym to make up for everything I’d eaten.
The weeks after Thanksgiving would be spent not eating and putting in hours at the gym, all in a hopeless attempt to make up for my transgressions.
It was absolute torture.
When I finally got help for my eating disorder, I learned a lot that helped me understand why my relationship with food was so screwed up. Since then, Thanksgiving hasn’t been as torturous.
One of the most important things I learned that’s helped me survive Thanksgiving is that restricting food will always result in a binge. When we restrict food, our bodies respond by signaling that we need food. When we constantly put our bodies in a state of food deprivation our bodies respond by constantly being hungry, which eventually leads to a massive binge.
Ever sworn off sugar only to eat a bag of candy a week later?
Well, that’s the result of what’s called mental deprivation. When we tell our bodies they can’t ever have something they want, we begin to crave that thing. This can cause us to binge that thing in large quantities because we believe we’re “never going to eat it again.”
I’d always approached Thanksgiving with a deprivation mentality. I restricted my food, which meant that I was creating a state of physical deprivation. I also used Thanksgiving as an excuse to eat things I’d never allow myself to eat, like gluten, dairy, and sugar.
Because I created a state of mental deprivation before Thanksgiving, when the day rolled around I felt like I had to eat all the foods I never let myself eat during that one meal because I’d never allow myself to eat them again.
Once I was far enough along in my recovery, I realized that I had always been setting myself up for a binge on Thanksgiving. I wasn’t a bad, awful, unhealthy person for eating myself sick on Thanksgiving; it was the natural consequence of me restricting myself so much all the time.
My first couple of Thanksgivings in recovery from my eating disorder, I taught myself to approach the holiday in a different way. I refused to restrict my food intake before the holiday meal. The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I ate as I normally would.
On Thanksgiving Day, I ate when I was hungry, which included eating breakfast and having snacks.
When the meal finally rolled around, I consciously told myself that I was allowed to eat anything I wanted and that nothing was a “good food” or a “bad food.” It was all just delicious food, and whatever I ate I would enjoy.
I also consciously told myself to take small portions and gave myself permission to come back for seconds if I was really hungry. After I was done with my first plate, I gave myself time to process my food, and I made a decision about whether to get more based on how my body felt.
This didn’t always work out. I still ended up eating more than my body was comfortable with and got a bit of a stomachache, but I didn’t hate myself for eating too much. I knew that I’d done the best I could.
I also had to change my mentality around having to “make up” for what I ate on Thanksgiving. To do this, I had to let go of the belief that I was bad for eating too much, or that I had eaten too many “bad foods.” I needed to take the morality out of eating. If I hadn’t done wrong, then I didn’t have anything to “make up” for.
So, I didn’t need to punish myself with exercise for weeks after.
I’m not going to pretend that those first couple of Thanksgivings were easy. There was a lot of doubt and a lot of second guessing myself. I had to call my friends and have them tell me I was on the right track. I had really weepy sessions with my therapist the weeks after.
But they were a far cry from the torture I used to go through when my eating disorder was at its worst.
If you’re dreading Thanksgiving and worried about binging, first of all: give yourself a break. You’re going to survive and it will be okay, even if you do binge. Think about the ways that you can set yourself up for success rather than setting yourself up for a binge, like eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day.
Change your perspective from one of punishment to one of permission: permission to eat, permission to enjoy yourself, and permission to listen to what your body and mind need.
If you do end up binging, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
Recovery from an eating disorder involves a lot of trial and error. Treat it as a learning experience and use it to strengthen your recovery. Though Thanksgiving can seem like torture, it’s actually a really good opportunity to learn about where you’re at in your recovery, which is another thing to be grateful for this Thanksgiving Day.