A person suffering from anorexia sees themselves as fat when they are, in fact, skinny and underweight. Their weight does not match their height, activity level or age. They get bad memory, feel depressed, have a fear of gaining weight, feel light headed, and often faint. Women with anorexia may have problems with their menstrual cycle such as missed or late periods, as well as trouble getting pregnant. Woman who are pregnant have a higher risk of a miscarriage and a higher risk to need to deliver their baby through C-section. People suffering from anorexia can also have muscle and joint problems, kidney stones, kidney failure, anemia, bloating, constipation, low levels of potassium, magnesium, and sodium in their bodies, low blood pressure, slow heart rate, and heart failure. Some physical signs that can be seen on a person suffering from anorexia are dry or yellow skin, brittle nails, more hair growth on their body, and thin and brittle hair. A person with anorexia may also get cold easily, bruise easily, and feel down a lot.
At Center for Change, we have asked many patients over the years to share from their private experiences what the Holidays have been like during the years they suffered with an eating disorder. The women quoted in this article are of different ages, but all suffered with the illness for many years. As you read the following passages you will feel something of the agony of suffering with an eating disorder at this festive time of year.
“My life with an eating disorder during the holidays is a living hell – constant hiding and fear, confused about life and hating every moment being surrounded by food. There was so much pressure, so many stares and glances, and days with endless comments. My whole life was a mess. There was so much pain and guilt inside of me and I didn’t know where to turn, except to my eating disorder. I hated the pressure of eating the food, the constant worrying of offending others.” -Twenty-two-year-old woman “It’s hard to be around all the food and festivities. When I’m hurting inside and struggling with what “normal” food portions even are, I need the help, emotional understanding, and support of family and other people. “Handle with care, but please handle.” Accept me the way I am. Let me back in the family” -Twenty-three-year-old woman.The Hidden Beast of Holiday Feasts Tales of Bulimia and Binge Eating.On the other end of the eating disorder spectrum, a woman with severe bulimia or binge eating disorder finds the holidays are a genuine nightmare because there is so much emphasis on food that they become preoccupied with it. Binge eating and subsequent purges become even more prevalent because many of the foods and sweets that are associated with holiday celebrations are very enticing to them. The holidays can be a time of convenient indulgence, but also a time of great shame and self-reproach because of their secret life. Some even use the binge eating and/or purging as a form of self-punishment throughout the holidays.
Eating disorders have a big impact on society on a small and on a large scale; meaning both individuals and society as a whole dedicate significant parts of their lives to the struggles of dealing with eating disorders. A lot of money and time go into the troubles of dealing with an eating disorder, as well as into the measures taken in order to treat and prevent them. Eating disorders are very common amongst celebrities, mainly because their profession puts pressure on them to be skinny. The majority of celebrities that we see in the media are all skinny, and most of them are anorexic or bulimic. The fans of these celebrities look at the bodies of their idols and they want to be like them. The problem with this is that anorexic and skinny celebrities do not make good role models for their fans because their skinny figures are not a healthy look to follow. Famous people believe that in order to be successful they must be skinny. This is not true. Celebrities expose their looks and body image to the media where fans can see them and get the wrong idea that their idol’s looks are acceptable when their idols are only trying to lose weight for their own “success”. In a weight article, Monica Seles stated that “Women in society have much tougher pressure to be thin.” It is like a cycle; celebrities are skinny in order to impress their fans and companies. They send their fans the wrong idea, thus making their fans lose weight. In the end, everyone has the idea that they must be thin and they must lose weight, thus, being skinny becomes the norm.
There is no need and there is no good time to feel guilty or at fault for your loved one’s eating disorder. The Holidays are especially not the time. Eating disorders are complex illnesses that are not caused by one person or one relationship. It is also important for the eating disordered person not to feel responsible for their family and friend’s emotional response to the eating disorder. One helpful agreement around the holiday season is, “We will spend time focusing on the need for nourishment as previously agreed upon, and primarily, we will spend time focusing on each other and the things that are available and that are meaningful in our family or social setting.” Let them know that you can look beyond the outward manifestations of the eating disorder because you are also concerned about the hurt, pain, fear, and guilt they are feeling inside. In acknowledging the pain inside, no one has to be at fault or to blame for the eating disorder, allowing positive family associations and caring to become the emphasis. There is no need to “walk on egg shells”, especially when everyone understands and acknowledges the underlying needs associated with the eating disorder. Compassion is a wonderful holiday gift for someone with an eating disorder.
Some family dynamics, such as conflict, can be triggering to those with eating disorder difficulties. Struggles with perfectionism, feelings of rejection, disapproval, and fear of being controlled, are all cited frequently by women who suffer with the illness. Harboring strong feelings and beliefs that parents, family members, or friends find them unacceptable, inadequate, or disappointing is challenging for anyone, but is particularly devastating to someone with a painful eating disorder. Being immersed in a family setting during the holidays has the potential to dredge up old issues, fears, conflicts, and worries about family relationships. The resulting emotional disruption can feed the eating disorder and exacerbate the problem.Holidays, with all the food and family commotion, are pure hell when you have an eating disorder. For me, when the focus isn’t on food and is on the real reason for the holiday, it’s a big help. My family helped me out with this one, but I had to do most of it internally. Remember, it’s just food, and we have more power than food.” -Thirty-nine-year-old woman
Cognitive behavioral therapy allows psychologists to see the patient’s thought process, interpersonal therapy involves dealing with difficult relationships with others, rational emotive therapy involves studying a patient’s unhelpful beliefs, and psychoanalytic psychotherapy involves looking at a person’s past experiences. All of this information can help a psychologist find the problem, and come up with the solution to the problem. Group therapy is a helpful part of treatment that allows sufferers of the similar eating disorders get together to discuss their problem. Groups are able to discuss coping strategies, ask and answer questions, and talk about ways to change their behavior. Medical treatment is necessary in order to make sure that the patient receives full treatment. Drugs such as anti-depressants can be prescribed by an experienced doctor who knows your condition in order to help treat your illness. Nutritional counseling is another effective and good way to help treat eating disorders. Dieticians and nutritionists can help patients understand what a well-balanced diet is and what foods they should eat on a daily basis. Nutritional counseling can also help patients face their fears about food and get over their fears of being afraid to eat.
The importance of these quotes from clients in treatment for anorexia is found in their honest expression of the tremendous pressure and conflict they feel inside in response to the normal food and social activities of the season. Their internal suffering and pain are often hidden from those around them by their continual remarks about “being fat,” or may also be hidden in their patterns of avoidance and withdrawal from social involvements.”The secrecy and lying make it very difficult for me during the holiday season. I have to decide whether to restrict my food or to binge and then sneak away to purge.” -Twenty-two-year-old-woman.”Having an eating disorder during the holidays presents quite a contradiction in my mind. I anticipate all the food and get excited, while at the same time I dread the many family members around. I feel that the family is over to “watch”. I know that they simply want to reach out and help, but I feel that a big help would be to make a concerted effort to shift the holiday focus from the food to the underlying purpose. I wish the food could be a minor deal, just an accessory to the holiday, rather than the focus.” -Twenty-year-old woman
It is not your job to fix or solve the eating disorder. It is your job to encourage nourishment of the body and provide nourishment to the soul. Working too hard to stop the eating disorder behaviors during the holidays can fuel dishonesty and defensiveness which actually feeds the problem. You are not responsible to say or do everything right. Nothing you do or not do will take away your friend or family member’s own responsibility to overcome and recover from their eating disorder. She/he is the only one who can do that job, but you can care, empathize, encourage, and share the process with them. The good intent you express is often more helpful than what is actually said or done. If your friend or family member knows that your heart is on their side, then you become a source of comfort, support, and safety to them.These general holiday suggestions by patients and professionals are not a complete list, but they do emphasize some positive approaches to help and support someone suffering with an eating disorder. The specific ideas, strategies, and agreements that can come out of your interactions with your loved one before and during the holidays will allow these ideas to be personalized and unique for each situation. Remember also, that the person struggling with the eating disorder has her own list of positive things that she can do to help her through the holiday season as well. We hope this article is helpful in better understanding the significant and difficult ordeal those who suffer from eating disorders will face at this season of the year. We hope this awareness and understanding will help us identify the best gifts of the holidays for those we love and care so much about at this time of year.
Personally, I don’t think that the media will ever be an effective resource for people to learn the truth and to learn about eating disorders. The media spreads a lot of false information and people tend to misinterpret the messages they hear on TV. Companies try to sell us products that will reduce our weight and make ourselves look “beautiful” by spending millions of dollars on advertisements. Consumers spend a lot of money and time trying to lose weight and buying these products that are not what the body needs. I believe that our bodies know what they need and ever one’s body is different. Everyone has a different metabolism and shape, and we have to learn how to love ourselves for who we are. We need to teach children at a young age that what they say on TV is not what it is cracked up to be and that they need to have self confidence, because if they don’t create an image for themselves, the media will do it for them.