Lots of people look forward to the cranberry sauce, stuffing, and other foods eaten on Thanksgiving. But the day can feel like a nightmare for eating disorder survivors.
I struggled with an eating disorder for eight years. But even now, a part of me dreads Thanksgiving. It has nothing to do with my family and the amazing effort they put into cooking — the volume of food can just feel overwhelming.
The pressure to stuff myself can be extremely triggering, and I'm not the only eating disorder survivor who feels this way.
"Thanksgiving can be stressful enough, even if you're not struggling with an eating disorder," Lauren Smoler, National Eating Disorders Association hotline director, wrote. "And since this holiday is centered around food, it can be that much more challenging."
Though the holidays can be hard for ED survivors, there are still so many ways to enjoy them. Revelist spoke to eating disorder survivors about why Thanksgiving is tough, and the little things survivors can do to combat it.
Alicia McElhaney, 22
The Brooklyn-based writer told Revelist that her family's comments on her body used to be a major trigger.
"I gained a fair amount of weight my first year of recovering, so I was terrified of comments from family members," she said. "Now, I try to make sure I have a comfortable outfit that makes me feel good about myself because I know my family members could make inappropriate comments about weight — and because I knew we'd be taking photos, which also could be quite triggering."
Practicing intuitive eating throughout the year has made holidays, including Thanksgiving, much easier for McElhaney.
"When I was still recovering, what helped was a lot of preparation," she said. "I talked to my family and made sure I was part of the cooking process. I told myself I didn't have to eat everything on my plate, just what I wanted. And I made sure I didn't over-stuff myself — that would always be a trigger for future starving/purging activities."
Emily Shugerman, Revelist news and identity reporter, 23
Shugerman has recovered from anorexia, but still feels stressed on the holiday.
"Thanksgiving is miserable as an eating disorder survivor, because it's the one day of the year everyone decides it's OK to comment on how much they — and everyone around them — are eating," she said. "They're saying all the stuff you're trying challenge in your own brain, like 'Oh I'm going to have to work this off,' or 'I'm going to gain 10 pounds after this meal!' It's pretty much the holiday for saying out loud everything your therapist tells you not to think."
To cope, she keeps to herself — to varying degrees of success.
"I usually handle Thanksgiving by interacting with people as little as possible," she said. "It's hard enough battling the voice inside my head, I don't need to hear their input too."
Nicole Tone, 27
Tone said the hardest aspect of Thanksgiving is "not worrying about how much [she's] putting on her plate."
"Sometimes it's hard to walk the line between 'binging' and eating until you're full and your body is satisfied on a holiday that's good-centric," she said. "To cope, I make sure I'm breathing, which helps calm the anxiety. And I make sure I eat when everyone else does. Having an eating disorder is like being in competition with yourself.
Now, Nicole tries not to worry about whose watching her eat, and said surrounding herself "with good people" has helped ease her eating anxieties.
"Mary," media analyst, 30
Though she struggled with an eating disorder as a teen, Thanksgiving has gotten a bit better for "Mary" (name changed), for several reasons.
"My parents divorced when I was 26, so I no longer have to spend time with the two of them together," she said. "Also, I have a family of in-laws who even though they annoy me at times, they love each other."
Thanksgiving dinners were particularly hard for Mary before her parents split.
"When I did have to go home for Thanksgiving and spend the holiday with family members who hated each other, it was like I couldn't eat because the food had been poisoned," she said. "But if I concentrated on the family members who I loved and loved me, it helped."
Mary had to separate herself from toxic family members, and said others should consider it as well.
"That said, when you're in college it's much more acceptable to choose to spend Thanksgiving with someone else," she said. "If your family is that toxic to you and you have some independence, just get out. Maybe it'll still be hard, but at least it will be different and you'll learn."
"Brittany," 33, California
"Brittany" (name changed) has been struggling with Thanksgiving anxieties for years.
"Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday because I am faced with my drug of choice (food) and my most powerful emotional trigger (my family)," she told Revelist. "My family is very judgmental and every year I face comments about my weight from my parents and extended family. When I am thin, I get praised, when I am fuller-figured, I get looks and judgmental comments or unsolicited advice."
Her family's buffet-syle setup doesn't help.
"Since I feel like I am being watched and judged I tend to become hyper aware of what I am putting on my plate," she said. "It is very easy to slip into old thought patterns and begin deliberating about restricting or binging as a means of relieving the stress of the situation."
Despite her struggle, Brittany has found that hanging out with her favorite people helps her cope.
"I have given myself permission to the leave the room if needed and I tend to stick close to my husband, my sister and her children, the people I feel most comfortable with," she said. "If I can not avoid comments about my body from my family, I do my best to shut it down by pointing out that it is inappropriate."
Sophie, 22, Montana
Like so many other ED survivors, Sophie finds the obsession with food and guilt very triggering.
"The hardest part by far during Thanksgiving is all the diet talk at the table," she told Revelist. "[People say] 'This is so bad for me, it has to have (number) calories! I've been good for days so that I can eat like this today,'" she said.
Though the "diet talk" can be tough to hear, Sophie reminds herself that all her food-related decisions are fine.
"To cope I basically have to remind myself that this is just one day and it's not going to ruin anything, and I have to tune out any diet talk and basically pretend that none of it happened," she said.
Melissa Stanger, Revelist senior lifestyle editor, 27, New York
Stanger no longer struggles with Thankgiving — but it's taken work.
"At some point in my recovery I just told myself, 'The world can’t censor itself around you; sooner or later you just have to get over it and move on in order to really, truly recover," she said.
"It’s like exposure therapy; the more you force yourself to deal with the stuff that makes you uncomfortable or anxious or whatever, the less it bothers you."
Prozac helps, she added.