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November 12, 2015

Learning to Love Thanksgiving

Learning to Love Thanksgiving

**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.

By Liz Rognes, a former Emily Program client in recovery. She is a teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Spokane, WA.

My partner and I met in the fall, and, on one of our first dates, he mentioned that he was looking forward to Thanksgiving. He said that his family all gathered together, shared a meal, and people talked and laughed and played games. He spoke with such warmth and genuine appeal; it occurred to me that some people actually enjoy Thanksgiving. I, of course, dreaded it.

Even after years of recovery, the approaching food-centered holiday can make me a little uneasy. Thanksgiving, for a long time, felt like a thing to survive. Not only was it a day that felt completely focused on food, but it was a day that deviated from any safety of routine: the meal was at a weird time of day, relatives crowded the house, it was noisy, and there was no escaping the daylong smells of food. After the meal, people napped on couches or in one of our bedrooms, and the long afternoon was permeated with a soundtrack of muffled cheering from the football game and occasional snoring. The sitting around worried me just as much as the food. I loved my family, but all of the bodies and personalities, the unusual sounds and schedule, and, yes, all of that food added up to a day that felt wildly out of my control.

I moved to Spokane from St. Paul six years ago, and Thanksgivings changed for me. I was far away from my family, and I was suddenly facing the prospect of spending the day alone. While I feared the noisiness and abundance of food I had come to expect from Thanksgivings at home, a day alone seemed equally unsettling. That first fall after I moved across the country was difficult; I was swamped with work for graduate school, the days were getting shorter and darker, I was struggling with some depression and anxiety, and my thick network of support had been left in the Midwest. But that first year, some of my new friends from grad school planned to gather at a house that belonged to one of our classmates and her partner. It was snowing, and, in addition to feeling nervous about a new way of spending this holiday I disliked, I felt nervous about driving in the winter weather. Sure, I’d driven in Iowa and Minnesota winters for years, but it was flat there. In Spokane, I lived halfway up a steep hill, and to get anywhere, I would have to brave the snow-covered road, which flattened out right where the bottom of the hill met the off-ramp of the freeway. I envisioned my car sliding down the hill and smashing into a car sliding off of I-90.

I called my friends and said I couldn’t join them for Thanksgiving. I was not going to drive in this weather. Secretly, I had urges to use eating disorder symptoms. Why not—I was alone, I was overwhelmed, I was a little depressed and lonely, and it was Thanksgiving.

But my friends wanted me to be a part of the gathering. They offered to pick me up and to drive me home, and I agreed. Soon, my new friends drove up the steep hill in their car with all-wheel drive, and together we carefully slid back down. Our driver was a pro: she gently steered us toward the curb when the brakes did not brake, and the fresh snow stopped us so we wouldn’t coast into the intersection. We drove on, slowly up and down a few other hills, and soon we arrived safely, at a warm, bright house that was filled with our new friends–transplants from all over the country, some who came from places where snow rarely or never fell. We all talked about the crazy drive and the weather. For all of us, this gathering on Thanksgiving was new. We were all in a new place, our crew of writers and writers’ partners, with our dishes to share and our stories of our varying Thanksgiving pasts and our emerging friendships that would turn into strong and enduring relationships. We circled around the table and laughed and ate and talked about poetry and snow fell outside the windows. I felt happy, just spending time with these smart and funny new people. I felt my anxiety lessen. I existed in the beautiful, snowy, out-of-routine moment in a new and strange city, and I enjoyed it. I sat still, I ate, and I felt thankful.

Now, I have a partner and a son in this city that has become my home. Our little family spends Thanksgiving together with my partner’s mom and extended family, here in Spokane. I have grown to love gathering with friends and family, talking and laughing across the table, and sharing food. Over time, the anxiety about food has eased, and I’m able to enjoy the time I get to spend with people I love.

Looking back, I have empathy for the girl who was so scared and anxious at the Thanksgiving table—of course, she was overwhelmed! Thanksgiving is not an easy day for a person with an eating disorder. If I could talk to the young woman I used to be, I would encourage her to try to be gentle with herself. I would encourage her to try to focus on the positive and on what she’s thankful for. But I would also let her know that it’s okay to feel upset and anxious—that she can be overwhelmed and scared and brave and grateful all at the same time. I would ask her to try to take the day one moment at a time, to look around at the family who surrounds her, those beautiful people who won’t always be there.

I suppose that a day set aside for giving thanks is a day to notice those things, and it makes sense to pause our usual routines, to share what we have with people we love. I am grateful for the time, I am grateful for the people, I am grateful for recovery. Now, I don’t mind pausing for a day to notice what wonderful abundance surrounds me. In fact, I enjoy it.

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