Christmas and New Year is a hard time for a lot of people, whether they have an eating disorder or addiction or not. You don't have to be an addict of any kind to find all the socials and family get-togethers highly stressful; equally, it can be a lonely, isolating period, with routines disrupted, painful memories or feelings of loss/bereavement especially strong, many spending The Duration by themselves, or with people they don't know or don't like. Loneliness is a huge trigger for so many people with so many different problems. And even if you are lucky enough to be surrounded by those you love and who love you, if they don't understand the battle in your head (and let's face it, we barely understand it ourselves, so how could anyone else?) you can feel more alone than ever when the spaces between you of just a few yards could just as well be a thousand miles.
Don't get me wrong - i am grateful for what i have (sort of, mostly... ahem) though i can find it hard to show anything other than momentary bubblings-over of mostly repressed anger and irritability, some (well, much) of the time (hey, i'm as human as the next person, with a tendency to be driven to distraction by my family and a few too many glasses of sherry) and to just wish they'd all sod off so i can hide away from the world. But that's why it's so important, when you're trying to recover from an eating disorder, addiction or similar, to try and connect with others as much as possible - and to spend a bit of time with people who 'get' it.
Many people i've chatted with about Surviving The Holidays (And Other Celebrations), if you'll pardon the rather irritating expression* have said that attending Twelve-Step meetings such as OA, AA and NA, or any number of others, has been a bit of a lifesaver for them around this time of year. It's not that easy to just serendipitously find people who know what you're going through - i mean, they're rarely just ambling past on the street, listening out for your anguished howls or whatever - but go to a meeting and there they are, all sitting in a circle and ready to bake - even on Christmas day, in many areas of the country.
Whether you go in for the 12-step approach or not, one of the best things about these meetings is breaking that isolation, knowing that you can tell it like it is and be assured that people will absolutely know what you're talking about. No-one's going to say, baffled, "Well, why don't you just have one?" and then wonder why you spend the next half an hour banging your head against a brick wall. There are suggested 'tools of recovery' which you can use when things get a bit hairy (ask for a leaflet or print them out from the web-site for a handy pocket reference that doesn't rely on Wi-Fi - sometimes old-school is where it's at). You can take down people's phone numbers and call or send them frantic texts between meetings when you're knee-deep in confectionery; also some of the fellowships have Skype meetings, so even if you can't get to one in person you can still have access to vital support if you choose it.
Of course, there are other ways to keep yourself safe, too, whatever the occasion. In early recovery, meticulous planning and covering every eventuality can be a life-line - and making your plans and writing them down with someone else can help because it means you're accountable to them. For example, writing out a list of potential triggers or difficult situations and coming up with strategies to deal with these can only be a good thing. Speak to your GP, get an appointment with a dietitian who understands eating disorders and draw up a meal plan together that you can reasonably stick to without feeling deprived; get some fancy tea in or make non-alcoholic punch if alcohol is (or contributes to) the problem; remember, getting plastered exacerbates eating problems even if you don't have an actual alcohol problem; enlist the help of friends and family, explaining to them what helps, what doesn't and not assuming they have psychic powers. If you're a binger and there's a particular dish that sets you off, have something else planned, or if buffet-style food is a problem, choose your food and put it on a plate, then get yourself over to the other side of the room to chat to someone who knows what you're going through and can help keep your mind off going back for more. If you're a restrictor, challenge yourself to try something you wouldn't usually allow yourself; enjoy it and then go and distract yourself from any negative thoughts with a supportive friend or relative. If you have the urge to throw up after meals and/or after eating (subjectively or objectively) too much, remind yourself that perpetuating the puke pathway won't make things better long-term, that everyone over-eats sometimes and it doesn't automatically make them balloon in size... remember that there's NO moral component to what or how much you eat, no matter what anyone might've told you about Children Starving In Africa (what, you're going to post them the leftovers, are you? Or your humungous sense of guilt alone will sustain them?) and find someone or something with which to distract yourself. You might like to have a chat with someone whose company you enjoy, or read a book, or write in a journal, draw or make something nice - anything to keep you occupied.
Remember to place the emphasis on the right thing - invariably something other than food or whatever it is that you struggle with. Whether it's a religious festival or the spirit of the occasion, such as being with loved ones, sharing and celebration, or if you don't have anyone to spend it with, volunteering and giving your time to help make the world a better place... it doesn't have to be all about the food or the booze or whatever. Plan other activities that you can all enjoy - such as a walk with your family/friends or maybe your fellow volunteers, playing games together, watching films and crap telly, reading quietly or telling each other stories, building fortresses out of the empty boxes and wrapping paper, just talking and engaging with people rather than retreating into the illness... whatever takes your fancy.
If there's someone who always comments on your weight/shape, or on what you eat/drink, or who is just a massive rain-cloud of negativity who makes you feel terrible and sets off your distress and problems - and if this is someone you can't actually avoid (and hey, there'll always be people in life we wish we could avoid!) - have a think about what you might say to politely change the subject or head it off altogether, or maybe they might be receptive to being briefed beforehand, by you or another relative/friend, as to what is and isn't helpful. If you can, make sure you have someone else with you as much as possible who at least understands that you may struggle with certain things, so as to not have to take the full force of their crap-rays all by yourself.
Importantly, try and have a bit of perspective. Yeah, it may be Christmas, the new year, someone's birthday, someone's wedding, or whatever - but that doesn't mean it isn't a day just like any other. Make a list of things that are different about the time of year or the special occasion that are actually different, alongside a list of things that are actually pretty much the same. Consider how short a time period it actually takes up. Doesn't look so scary now, right? And whatever works for you, as regards keeping yourself on the recovery track during the rest of the year, will quite probably work now. Furthermore, don't let the pressure of Everyone Must Have A Spectacular Time get to you - you are allowed to just have a relaxing one, you know. People who have unreasonable expectations invariably have a pretty disappointing time, really - and disappointment can be a stinking great trigger itself. If you can relax a bit, as if by magic, you'll enjoy yourself. Perspective, yes indeed. If you have a mince pie, an extra slice of cake, or two, or three, that you hadn't intended to have... nothing will actually happen. The world won't end, your weight won't change, people won't suddenly cease to love you and, well, life will go on as before. 'Normal' people, without eating disorders or addictions overdo it from time to time as well. The important thing is your attitude and how you go on from here.
Please don't misunderstand me - i don't think it's that easy, either. I've had a bloody awful Festive Period* myself, for far too many long-story reasons to go into. That's partly why this blog post is so late in coming. Many of us know that anger, frustration, anxiety, depression and all that fun stuff, can hurtle all over the place at times like these... horribly debilitating in themselves, probably also leading to or resulting from those Big Bad Disorders. Perhaps you need some kind of self-help practice or strategy that doesn't doesn't involve reading an irritating book about angels in your knickers. There's actually a lot of potentially interesting, non-wishywashy stuff out there to look into.
For example, i've been reading about a practice called Mindfulness again lately, which you might also like to try. It's about focusing on something, such as your breathing, observing your wandering thoughts without judgement and bringing them back to the breath, again and again, in order to bring yourself into the present and calm anxiety. If you're the sceptical kind, well, me too - but as one sceptic to another, i'd certainly suggest you at least look it up (love your local librarian, the original search engine) and read about it - there are loads of books, web-sites, news stories and blog posts, even places where you can drop in for information - before deciding it's a load of robe-wearing bearded-weirdness. I can't speak for anyone else, but yes, i've always been put off by the prospect of, for example, meditation and guided imagery (or 'leg-waving crap' as i have been known to affectionately call it) buuuut, another thing i'm always quick to point out, is that it's worked amazingly for several people i know who have or have had a variety of difficulties, it's in the news a lot and is even getting quite a good name in the medical science realm. It's increasingly incorporated into treatments you can get on the NHS (such as DBT) and you can't argue with a national institution, right? Right? Anyway, it's something which i intend to do more this year: i've had a half-arsed go here and there, but this year, i have resolved - in that whole spirit of New Year New You! (more on that soapbox-subject of mine next time, dear reader) - to actually practise it properly, regularly, to give it a proper go. I'll let you know how it turns out, shall i?
And finally, remember: it's all about progress, not perfection. Congratulate yourself for your successes, however small and insignificant they may look to you - we're all too ready to forget what went well and to dwell on when we Ruined Everything And Broke The World - celebrate the victories and maybe it'll help you remember them. Cheer when you get it right and be gentle with yourself when you don't: a bit like training an adorable puppy - because you ARE the cutest puppy ever - but maybe without the reconstituted meat-juice infused dog-biscuits, eh? (Well, to each their own, mind you - i'm hardly about to judge.)
The path to recovery is necessarily a hard slog, as is anything truly worth having; things might get a bit messy, but that's called life - and if you survive the latest obstacle, you've succeeded. Well done. Have a biscuit (arf!). And if you do mess up a bit, it doesn't make you a bad person. You're great. Just get back on track straight away. It makes no sense to blame yourself and wallow in your slip-up till you can't get up again. When you're weary and need to get out of a pit of despair, don't you think perhaps the very least helpful thing you can do to spur yourself on is to punch yourself in the face? We can only ever start from where we are now, so do it - that much, at least, definitely is in your power.
*I'm trying to be universal, here, so bloody put up with it, all right? Seriously, i know not everyone celebrates Christmas or New Year; besides, this sort of thing can be relevant at any time and any other festivals during the year, because they all place emphasis on food (and booze and plenty of other addiction-unfriendly things) damn and blast it. Then again, there are those in such a strong position of recovery, that it no longer affects them, which is something i, for one, aspire to like some kind of insane toilet striving towards Plato's world of ideal latrines - er, forms. Oh dear, am i going off on a tangent - getting a bit abstract (yet substantial), if you will - again? I digress...