How to Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder this Holiday

With all the tips out there on how to navigate the holidays without gaining weight, it can be easy to overlook the fact that there are all kinds of different food-related struggles being faced this time of year. If you have a friend or loved one who has battled (or is currently battling) an eating disorder, you’ll want to take note of today’s guest post from Robyn Cruze, a Robyn Cruze is a National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center who struggled with an eating disorder for over a decade. Now fully recovered for over 10 years, Cruze is a speaker, coach, published co-author of Making Peace with Your Plate. Her experience makes her a terrific role model for young adults and really anyone who is looking for inspiration to put an end to struggling with an eating disorder.

eating disorder

Whether you or your loved one has an eating disorder or not, the holidays are inevitably filled with three things: family, emotions, and food. I remember my years in my eating disorder; the holiday season was anything but a cause for celebration. Fully recovered now from my illness, I can see the tools that helped me during the holiday season, especially in my early recovery. In the spirit of giving and a sincere desire to help all those struggling, I offer what worked for me, in hopes that it will help you, and your loved ones, find joy this holiday season — together.

My favorite tools to promote recovery as a family affair this holiday season:

1. Create a safe space for the entire family. It can be hard to advocate for your own needs in the midst of a whirlwind of friends and family. Add the pressure of the holiday season and the trials and tribulations of recovery, and we can forget that we, too, deserve to have our needs met, just as at any other time of year. If you know that you’ll be more present after a 30-minute walk, carve out the time to take one. If you’re aware that your peace of mind starts to slip if your sleep schedule is thrown, feel entitled to excuse yourself from the table at midnight even if your uncles are ready for another round. What’s more, “creating space” doesn’t always mean space for you alone. Whether or not you struggle with eating, you may find the holidays suffocating at times. Give yourself room just to be, and allow everyone else to do the same.

2. Design a menu together. If you or your loved one is on a food plan, have the entire family do their best to follow it — with flexibility. Have a discussion before an event planned around food, and agree on foods that are both fun and safe. When selecting the menu, remind each other that you are allowed to enjoy the food. Being flexible is a part of recovery — the holidays give us a chance to practice that as a family.

3. Understand the food, body discussion etiquette. Try comments and questions that don’t involve appearance, such as “I love spending time with you,” or “How do you feel?” The goal of recovery is to have a healthy relationship with food and body. Refocusing our attention away from food and appearance is a great tool for everyone in a culture riddled with unrealistic physical ideals and food rules.

4. Support the recovery process. Recovery is not a quick fix process but more of a slow, learn from our mistakes kind of deal. Know that there could be some hiccups on the road to recovery whatever time of year it happens to be. It’s much easier to address the elephant in the room (aka eating disorder) opposed to ignoring it. If you see behavior or are struggling with something that concerns you, give voice to it in “I” statements that describe what you see, fear, and hope. For example, “What I see is that you’re skipping your meals, what I fear is that you’re flipping into eating disorder behavior and what I hope is that you reach out to your treatment team to get the support you need.” Then ask how you can help.

If you are struggling, you can say something like “I am feeling overwhelmed due to all the food around me. I am scared to say this out loud because I fear I will ruin your meal too.” Then as a family, you can have an open conversation on how to support each other getting the help they need. And remember, asking for help from a professional is the best gift we can give each other.

5. Make family recovery a new holiday tradition. There is often an inordinate amount of time sitting at the table surrounded by food. Instead of sitting at the dining table for hours on end, encourage the entire family to remove themselves from the table within an hour of getting there. Plan an activity that includes your whole family and promotes recovery. Plan family games, or sit with a cup of tea in the living room and discuss all the strengths you have seen each family member express throughout the year. Reaffirming your love for each other and your commitment to family recovery is a powerful tool worthy of celebrating.

Have a happy, healthy and enjoyable holiday! —Rachel