Warning: This article describes an eating disorder that some readers may find disturbing.
“I eat until I’m so full it hurts,” I told my therapist who, as therapists are meant to do, nodded understandingly. “I lie down in bed until my stomach hurts, then I eat until my stomach hurts again,” she continued. Although I knew I had an unhealthy relationship to food, I didn’t consider my excessive eating to be a problem. It is easy to eat in comfort, but binging eating is not as severe as when I was starving myself.
I was a witness to many women doing this in my childhood. It’s not clear if this was the cause of my problems, but rewarding myself with a cake and punishing yourself for eating too many Slimming World “syns”, (how they calculate food’s supposed “health value”), when you gain weight is very similar to BED.
When it comes to food, this language of “saints & sinners” is all around. It is a central pillar in the diet industry complex. These angelic and demonic qualities are often attributed to food, but it is most commonly thrown out the window during Christmas. The homes of our families are filled with After Eights and Pringles cans. Feasting is an integral part the celebrations. The themes of excess and indulgence are forced upon us from all angles. This can lead to mental illness and eating disorders, such as general disordered eating.
Aimee, a 23-year-old who has suffered from BED for over 10 years, feels similarly. She explained that her house is always filled to the brim over holidays. “Overeating is encouraged, and having easy access to food at all times can trigger. It is difficult to control my eating habits and hide my binges from my family when I’m at home.”
Aimee says that “Christmas helps to normalize my eating patterns and makes me feel less guilty about binging because everyone is ‘overindulging’ at this time of year and their regular eating habits are gone. However, normalizing these traits is not always a positive thing. Feeling less shame about my eating disorder – that is a real condition and affects my life all year – does not help my situation.”
Kirsty, a 34 year-old woman who self-diagnosed BED throughout her entire life, agrees with Aimee about the most triggery time of the year. “My binge-eating tendencies are exacerbated by Christmas themes. It is related to how I feel around Christmas, which in turn influences my eating habits.” She continued: “Feeling low triggers my need to comfort eat. Since the season is all about freedom, it is tempting to binge-eat to make promises for a better year.
Kirsty says that the season’s excesses are not just associated with overindulging or overeating. “The “new year, different me” mantra that is spewed by our mothers, mates and gym membership programs feels like a free pass to eat and do whatever we want during December, even if it is unhealthy. It helps to avoid guilt for disordered eating by allowing the promise of “doing better” in the future.”
Beat, the UK’s leading charity for eating disorders, gave me this advice when I asked what they would recommend to anyone who is struggling during the holidays. To make the holidays less overwhelming, plan ahead whenever possible and talk it over with your loved ones at Christmas. Rebecca Willgress, Beat’s head for communications, says it might help to have a plan of the foods and their locations in your house. You can also try to minimize exposure to food ads and supermarket aisles through using an ad blocking tool online or asking someone to do the shopping.
Talking things through is a great piece of advice for any type of mental health issue. However, it assumes that the listener can understand the BED struggle. Aimee and Kirsty both confessed to their binging issues and that they struggle with sharing their story with others.
Kirsty believes that BED can be described as “weakness and immaturity combined with greed.”
If feeling isolated at Xmas is a trend for you – and not simply a symptom of 2020 – Beat’s helpline services are open from 4pm to 8pm from 24th December through to 1st January. People who are unable to communicate with their loved ones might find it extremely helpful to confide in someone else.
Beat recommends that you plan ahead, even if your mental illness is a solo one. Rebecca suggests that you plan a Christmas Day meal. Restricting food can lead to binging. You can arrange distractions after your meal, as this is when you are most likely to binge. This could include a walk with the family, playing board games or watching funny films.
It is crucial to recognize any missteps in a season of food and talk about food as a sign of your condition and not a sign that you are failing. Although the new year does not necessarily bring a new person, it is sensible to wait for a better time to address your BED. Accept any binges as part of stressful season, and not as a sign that you are failing. You are not alone and it is not a sin to struggle.