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December 16, 2021

Finding Moments of Light this Holiday Season

Finding Moments of Light this Holiday Season

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

Katie Price is a registered nurse and yoga teacher whose understanding of what it means to care for bodies—both hers and others’—has been shaped by her recovery from anorexia. She cares deeply about walking alongside those who are struggling with eating disorders and hopes that by sharing her story, she can offer hope and support.

I spent Thanksgiving this year in an eating disorder treatment program. Laminated index cards with encouraging phrases like, “You are enough,” “Recovery is worth it,” and “One bite at a time,” decorated our long wooden table. When we sat down to eat, each person shared an intention for the meal: “Stay present,” “Ask for help if I’m struggling,” “Just get through it.” Then a timer started and forks were slowly lifted. Legs jittered beneath the table. We talked about funny family holiday traditions. There was some conversation, some laughter, and then long silent pauses. The internal battles being fought were almost palpable. Some battles were won. A young woman looked at the girl sitting beside her and asked, “First bite of dessert together?” And they sunk forks into pumpkin pie in unison. But others were lost in their struggle. Wide eyes stared frightened at stuffing and turkey. Tears welled up and fell silently. I know this battle well, when you sit down at the dinner table and your body reacts with panic like it needs to run away from a bear. I remember how it feels for your hand to shake with anxiety as you lift a bite to your mouth and how the food seems to expand on the plate as if the portion could continuously grow. But now, working for the program as a nurse, I don’t think too much about the food; my mind is present and my body is relaxed. I have recovered from my own eating disorder, a grace I am endlessly grateful for and do not take for granted.

In the decade that I lived with anorexia, I struggled through many Thanksgivings clouded by fear, restriction, and deprivation. I have one foggy memory of weighing turkey breast on a food scale in my aunt and uncle’s laundry room, terrified of consuming a fraction of an ounce more than my eating disorder allowed. Another of sneaking exercise behind closed doors, hiding the compulsion from my family. One especially miserable November I had just had my wisdom teeth removed, which became a triggering excuse not to chew and the beginning of a slow and scary relapse. My junior year of high school, I spent the holiday hospitalized and ate Thanksgiving dinner from a mauve hospital tray. My junior year of college, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family, but I was numb and dissociated as I anticipated admission to residential treatment the following week.

Throughout those hard years, the grief and shame I felt around my illness was particularly distressing during the holidays. At the time, it felt like a loss to be so painfully unable to engage with tradition and family during such a meaning-rich time of year. But the loss was temporary, and in retrospect, I don’t consider those holidays wasted but rather part of my journey and integral to my growth. Because I remember the sting of that loss, I have the deepest gratitude for the joy and ease I now feel when around a table with my family and for the peace and presence I experience in connection to my body. Reflecting on those Thanksgivings when my eating disorder was so dominant, it is also clear to me that there was goodness even in the midst of the overwhelming fear and deprivation. There were miraculous moments of laughter and sweet connection. There were deeply meaningful friendships that formed and people that touched my life with encouragement I will never forget. Love never disappeared. I can look back on those hard years and my scared, depleted self with tenderness; she was doing her best and even when the eating disorder was at its loudest, there was a flicker of life strong enough to hold hope for healing.

I feel this same tenderness for the clients I now help care for. I see their light and their kind, wise, sensitive selves peak out through the shadow of their struggle. I see their strength as they face their biggest fears multiple times a day, every day. I am honored to be in community with them. As our Thanksgiving meal drew to a close, each person shared how they were feeling: “overwhelmed,” “proud,” “disassociated,” “defeated,” as well as what might feel supportive to them after leaving the table. We passed around frozen oranges; holding something cold is a simple tool for soothing an escalated nervous system. We stood outside in the November wind and talked about breathing through discomfort. There were a few tearful hugs. Then we made tea, played cards by the fireplace, and found something to laugh about. Residential treatment is hard, uncomfortable work. It is often heavy with tears, frustration, anxiety, homesickness, and exhaustion, yet I see such profound goodness in and among the people there. They are vibrant in their compassion, fierce in their support of one another, creative in their ability to find humor, and courageous in their pursuit of recovery. All of this, the fullness of struggle, the resilience of laughter, and the hope for healing, was present this Thanksgiving, and it was awe-inspiring.

If you are in treatment this holiday season, honor yourself for making this investment in a lifetime of holidays to come. You’ve made a brave choice to seek recovery and you are right where you need to be. Lean into the support of the professionals and peers around you; let there be a sense of family with them. You get to be an active participant in your own healing; let that agency be empowering. Recovery is hard, necessary, loving work and it is work you are capable of doing. I can assure you that life without an eating disorder is worth all the effort. I promise that healing is possible.

If you are struggling and don’t have the support you might want or need in this season, know that it is okay to be where you are. It is okay for the holidays to be more challenging than joyful right now and it is okay if you don’t feel up for celebrating. Allow yourself space to grieve what the holidays aren’t this year and also try to pay attention to unexpected moments of light; there is room for both. Participate in what you can and have grace for your limits if there are aspects of the holidays you don’t have the capacity to engage in. Simply existing right now is a victory. There is no shame in your struggle and the struggle will not last forever.

If you are supporting someone with an eating disorder through the holidays this year, thank you. It is not easy to walk alongside someone on this journey, but your love and care is invaluable. Invite your loved one to participate in traditions and celebrations. Let them know they still belong, but try to be gracious toward their limitations if they cannot be as present as you might hope. Stay attuned to the moments when their true self shines through the clouds of their illness and anchor this beauty amidst the struggle. Your loved one needs to be reminded that your hope for them runs deep, that you believe in their healing. Know that this time isn’t wasted; sometimes growth happens below the surface of what we can see.

Whatever you are carrying this holiday season, I want to affirm the fundamental goodness of your body and the resilience of your spirit. Be abundantly gentle with yourself. The strength and courage it takes to keep showing up when part of you wants to disappear is truly remarkable.

Get help. Find hope.