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‘We can’t just switch it off’: How it feels to have an eating disorder at Christmas

‘Tis the season to eat and drink, but what happens if illness stops you indulging? Sophie Gallagher speaks to those living with eating disorders at Christmas

Saturday 21 December 2019 10:05
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Matthew Broberg-Moffitt, 37, remembers the first Christmas clearly. He was 16 years old and was helping his grandmother cook in the kitchen of their home in Nebraska, US. She asked him to taste the gravy she was making and tell her whether it needed seasoning. But he couldn’t bring himself to put the spoon in his mouth. Two decades later, he still has that feeling. Last year, when his mother-in-law took over a stuffing he was making, he felt so upset he had to leave the festivities for the day.

Broberg-Moffitt has had a non-specified eating disorder since late childhood and says, like many with disordered eating, that the festive period – with its intense focus on food, alcohol, treats and overindulging – is particularly difficult. In order to deal with it he tries to be involved in the preparation of food, so he can control what goes into the dishes. Pretending to snack while cooking is also an excuse he uses if he doesn’t want to eat later.

Daniela Beck, from Woking, was diagnosed with anorexia in 2017 and also makes sure she is in charge of cooking at Christmas to manage her food-related anxiety. “I find it easier that way,” she says. The 23-year-old also practices eating the components of her Christmas meal in the weeks before, and asks family not to gift her any food or clothes. But the hardest bit? The narrative of over-indulging and then dieting in January. “You have to participate and then a week later are told to go on a diet because you were ‘naughty’ at Christmas,” she says.

(Getty Images/iStockphoto

There are approximately 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder, according to BEAT, the UK’s largest dedicated charity. The disorders affect predominantly girls and young women between the ages of 12-20, but men also make up 25 per cent of sufferers. Recent research from the NHS information centre showed up to 6.4 per cent of the population displayed signs of an eating disorder.

Although eating disorders can be triggered at any time in the year, many with conditions like anorexia or bulimia – which the NHS says are characterised by people to try and restrict their weight – can find Christmas particularly challenging. “With such an intense focus on food and family, Christmas can be an understandably difficult time for people managing an eating disorder,” Sarah Murphy, associate director for advice at Rethink Mental Illness, tells The Independent.

Caroline Price, director of services at BEAT says she often sees people particularly struggling in December. “The Christmas period can be extremely difficult for people with all kinds of eating disorders. The pressure to eat large amounts can be triggering for people with binge eating disorder and bulimia, as well as causing anxiety for people with anorexia.”

“Christmas itself doesn’t trigger my eating disorder but the opportunity to be triggered is much more than usual because of all the things that are associated with the holiday,” says Jason Fisher from Manchester who has had binge eating disorder since he was 10. Although the 20-year-old loves Christmas – “I put my tree up on 1 November” – his coping techniques, like meal prepping, are hard to maintain with lots of spontaneous meals out and abnormal treats like advent calendars. “My most shameful memories are from pre-recovery when I was much younger, I would regularly find myself sneaking extra food during the holidays,” he says. “I desperately wanted some help and support for how I was feeling.”

Some people find the period so hard they create ways to remove themselves from the festivities entirely.

Sophie Smith, 28, from London, who suffers from periodic anorexia and recurrent bulimia says she would purposefully ask for more shifts in her bar job in the weeks leading up to Christmas, so that she could avoid socialising and therefore reduce her calorie intake. She would also spend long parts of Christmas Day in bed asleep for the same reason. “It was a safe way to remove myself from these situations without being judged or questioned,” she explains.

Others find that they are unable to cope at home and are admitted to hospital or a treatment programme over the period. Rebecca Quinlan, 31, from Chelmsford in Essex, who was diagnosed with anorexia in 2008, had to spend several Christmases in hospital because of how extreme her eating disorder became around the holiday period.

Before she was admitted she remembers getting up at 5am on Christmas morning to exercise in the kitchen for two hours, before anyone woke up. She worried having one extra Brussels sprout would make her gain weight, and would even stop herself smelling the food in case she “inhaled calories”. One year she got so angry at the portion of turkey served by her mum she threw the plate across the room in front of her family.

“[Christmas] was a stark reminder that while I thought I had been doing well and my eating disorder was getting smaller, actually it was still very much there,” she says. “I was so down the whole time because I was obsessing about what I was eating and how I could burn calories.”

Similarly, Hope Virgo, 29, from London, who was diagnosed with anorexia 16 years ago, says she remembers a Christmas that really showed her how far her illness had come to taking over her life. She was so determined to avoid eating she caused a scene at the dinner table and used the distraction to hide food in her pockets.

“I would shove it in to my pockets then empty it out later on when I had the chance. It was horrid looking back there was meat and gravy in the pockets of my jacket, dripping through. But I felt like it was the only way. Up until that point it had been fairly easy to go under the radar, but my family were on eggshells around me that Christmas.”

Ms Quinlan says what triggers her eating disorder at Christmas, more than food, is the perception that it is the “most wonderful time of the year”. She says: “I feel so far removed from this so Christmas heightens my feelings of sadness and loneliness.”

Ms Price, from BEAT, says this is common among those with eating disorders. “People with eating disorders often try to hide their illness and at Christmas when eating is a social occasion – often with people who they do not see frequently – they may feel ashamed and want to isolate themselves from others,” she says.

This emotional impact cannot be underestimated. Jodie, who did not want her surname to be used, 24, from Hertfordshire, was diganosed with anorexia in 2019 and says getting ready to spend her first Christmas with the eating disorder diagnosis is “terrifying”. “This year I don’t just feel stressed. I don’t just feel anxious. I feel absolutely terrified. I feel full of dread.”

Cara Sturgess, 29, from Hampshire, who has had anorexia for 17 years, also says that one of the most misunderstood parts of eating disorders is that it cannot be “switched off” just because the social calendar requires you eat and drink. She says: “We can’t pretend that everything is okay for the sake of Christmas.”

So how can the festive period be managed best for those managing eating disorders? Ms Price says for the sufferer themselves there are a few things they can do, including planning ahead and sharing concerns with those closest to them. “It’s important to plan ahead and openly discuss when and how food will be involved over the Christmas period.

“It can help to steer attention away from food, so once meals are over, find activities that focus on something else, such as a family walk, playing board games, or watching a funny film together.”

But more importantly, for family and friends, avoid comments such as ”don’t you look healthy?” or “haven’t you done well eating your dinner?” as these could be misinterpreted and cause more harm than good.

Ms Quinlan says people should try not to talk about over-eating. “This triggers my ED into panic mode and I [feel] I must never ever do that.”

Rebecca Lindley, 26, from Sheffield, who has had anorexia for 12 years, says: “Stop talking about the diet you’re going to go on in January and don’t use words like ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ around food. This whole mentality makes people with ED feel that they can’t enjoy themselves around Christmas without making up for it later.”

Ms Murphy recommends that the most important thing for friends and family to do is show patience, love and understanding. “Accept that you might not understand everything that a loved one is going through. Instead positively reinforce your relationship with them as much as possible.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can contact the following organisations for support: the BEAT helpline on 0808 801 0677​ or Mind on 0300 123 3393​.

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