I love Christmas.
I love the extended family time and the blessing of creating precious memories with our nearest and dearest.
I love the widespread merriment and the illuminating blanket of twinkling lights that engulf every town and village with soothing cosiness.
I love using the cold, dark nights as an excuse to bury myself under a blanket on the sofa in-front of The Holiday at 7pm.
I love the bold colours that escape the cannonball of a frosty sunrise on my early morning commute to work.
So why do I actively dread the festive period almost as much as I look forward to it?
The simple answer? I’m an anorexia survivor – that’s why.
Christmas has the potential to play havoc with even the most resilient individual’s mental health for a variation of reasons, including loneliness, money worries, and generalised heightened stress. For those struggling with eating disorders, Christmas can present as an absolutely terrifying and triggering time. Even those in recovery from an eating disorder can find the holiday season hard to contend with, and it can bring back a whole tsunami of buried anxieties.
My anorexia is triggered by stress and a lack of control. I am a perfectionist by nature, and I like my life to be meretriciously planned with precision. If my routine is disrupted, it can really send my wellbeing spiralling. In the past, if I felt as though I was failing in any aspect of my existence, I would plough every morsel of my commitment and effort into over-exercising in a bid to gain a quick-fix of temporary utopia and success. My obsession spilled over into a fixation with food and calories. Before I knew it, anorexia held me captive in its relentless grip.
Christmas – and indeed its entire build up – is very different to any other time of the year. December sees more parties, more celebrations, more outings, more socialising... And more food. Whether it’s a turkey with all the trimmings, the taste of that first mince pie, or a tin of Quality Street passed around the office – food is such a huge part of Christmas. There’s no escaping it.
People have no idea what it’s like to have your thoughts race at a million miles an hour before eating. It’s so incredibly hard – even in recovery – not to reel at the red ‘traffic lights’ on the front of packaging, and it’s difficult not to mentally start counting calories.
Every single mouthful takes a great deal of courage and inner strength. Your body tells you that you’re hungry, while your mind screams at you to stop and threatens you with labels of worthlessness and failure.
To the outside world, I am simply taking a chocolate from a box and eating it. It’s a task so ordinary that it’s almost unnoticeable. But inside my head, the usual tennis match of turmoil is already in full swing, warning me of the implications.
Even the onset of the prior mentioned heightened socialisation can be distressing and strip one of their control. In the past, I would have to fight to agree to attend the work’s Christmas do if it fell on one of my usual jogging days.
If a friend suggested a spontaneous meet-up to exchange Christmas presents in a location I might have been tempted by ‘off limit’ foods, I would decline, until anorexia had me right where it wanted me: isolated.
In the darkest hours, anorexia really does control every decision you make.
Recovering from anorexia is hard. It’s a life-long commitment, and sometimes, it can be unexpectedly exhausting. But it’s worth it. It’s so worth it.
I don’t want this Christmas to be tainted by recollections of inner tumult and gasping bouts of anxiety.
I don’t want to look back at photos from the big day and recognise the pained mask of a smile on my face, and remember the beads of sweat that scratched at my back as I mentally added up every calorie I had consumed since breakfast.
I don’t want to buckle under the pressures of anorexia and give it another second of the time I’ll never get back.
This Christmas, I vow to enjoy food.
I’ll take a Quality Street – or three... or four – from the tin at work.
I’ll accept more than just vegetables on my plate during Christmas dinner.
I’ll eat treats outside of my designated cheat days.
I’ll be guilt-free every morning upon opening my advent calendar.
I’ll say yes to the cheese board, or lunch at the country pub down the road (Tier Two life!).
On Boxing Day, I’ll have a Bridget Jones marathon with my Mum, instead of forcing myself out on a run.
This Christmas, I vow to fight The Voice with more conviction than ever before.
I refuse to ruin another Christmas.
This article was also published for my blog page on SANE Mental Health Charity's website: http://www.sane.org.uk/how_you_can_help/blogging/show_blog/2463
Cara Jasmine Bradley ©