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How many roast potatoes do I have?

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Christmas is not an easy time for anyone who has an eating disorder. This year, among all the anxiety caused by COVID-19, things could be especially tough.

Author, mental health and eating disorder campaigner Hope Virgo.
Mental health campaigner Hope Virgo provides her tips for getting through the sensitive Christmas period if you have an eating disorder.

A short while ago I posted a Q&A post with Hope Virgo, an author and mental health campaigner who has a long history of dealing with eating disorders herself. Hope is very keen to raise awareness of eating disroders among mums and dads and so I’m delighted to welcome her back to Dadbloguk. In this post, which Hope has written herself, she provides tips and advice to those living with eating disorders to help them through this sensitive time (Do also check out Hope’s Q&A here).

Christmas this year will be filled with so much uncertainty for many, and I am sure we are all dealing with our own factors at play in determining our emotions around it. For those people with eating disorders, the 1.6 million who are currently diagnosed, but also the millions of people who are yet to receive a diagnosis, it can be a complete minefield. And with the added uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought the brutal reality is, this will be made worse.

I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 17 years old, having lived with it secretly since the age of 13. The anorexia was like this best friend to me making me feel amazing (most of the time). It gave me a sense of control and numbed all these things I didn’t want to feel. It helped to be fixated on food, calories and exercise instead of the realities of life. The anorexia meant that every single Christmas, where there had been this obsession with food, had been hard.

The final Christmas before I was admitted to hospital had been full of arguments, hiding food and still feeling insanely guilty about what I had eaten that day. I would then spend hours ruminating over what I had eaten, the comments someone had made on my body, or on a portion they were eating. I haven’t got the best memories of Christmas and am still wary of who I spend my time with on the day. Setting those boundaries has been hard but key for me. Whilst I am now able to enjoy the day, I know that I need to be mindful of what works for me. For me this has changed over the last 12 years since I was discharged and gone from having my own separate meal on the day, to cooking the lunch myself for everyone, to having clear plans in place, and the space to talk!

The thing about eating disorders is just because it is Christmas day and we are off work, it doesn’t mean the eating disorder is off work! It is still there trying to pull us back in, trying to guilt trip over food!

With all this in mind I wanted to share a few things that might help:

Have a plan in place

Making sure you have a plan in place for the actual day but also those days surrounding it. Right now this might feel really hard with all the uncertainty but having a few options in place might help to manage that element. Within this it is also helpful to have timings in place for the food. Also at those meals, having back up food available might be helpful. When I first came out of hospital I felt so uncertain about Christmas food that I wanted to have my own meal, but have it with the family; thinking proactively like this is key! Within the planning, remember that a last minute change of plan can be really hard for someone struggling with an eating disorder. I know sometimes timing Christmas lunch can be hard but give a 30-minute estimate and keep them updated whilst cooking so that they are aware.

“I know you are struggling”

Reminding them that you know it isn’t easy will help them feel heard and understood. Eating disorders are not about food or weight. If someone is eating it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling – remembering this is key!

If someone has an eating disorder, ask what support is helpful

This will change over time depending on where they are at in their recovery. Try and empower the individual to work out what will help them have a good day.

Be mindful of conversations

We live in a society where so much conversation happens around food and exercise. It is so important that we steer away from these conversations. This isn’t just for people with eating disorders but more broadly. They are frustrating and damaging for so many. Avoid commenting on weight, portion size and saying things like “I have earned this”. Please note this should be something we are mindful of all the time, but when families come together and with the increased pressure on food we have seen an increase in these conversations over Christmas time.

Distractions

Before and after meals make sure there are some fun games, activities away from the meal time so that a person can be distracted. And if you notice someone looking distracted at meal times be aware of how you can bring them back in to the conversation.

Plan some activities that aren’t around the meal or food

Through doing this, not only does it show you have thought about the person but it will help them to feel involved.

Do you need some help with portion size?

Portion size can be a minefield at times to being aware of this and how to support is key. For me it was about having someone accountable to that I could check in with honestly on the day.

Communication is key!

Keep communicating in the run up to it, on the day and afterwards

And finally, remember just because you cannot see someone struggling, doesn’t mean they aren’t! Christmas can be hard and I don’t know what your situation is right now, whether you yourself are struggling or if others are around you but taking a step back and planning will help you work through these issues. Try not to compare your day to someone else’s and if there are arguments, remember that it will pass and no one’s Christmas is actually what is portrayed on social media.

To find out more about Hope’s work, visit her website. Hope’s book, Stand Tall Little Girl is published by Trigger Publishing and is widely available.

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