Eating Distress and Christmastime

13 Jan

Catherine Collins

For most of us, Christmas is a time of celebration, a happy time filled with raucous family gatherings, new gifts and toys and presents, too much wine and too much food. Children rush around with buckets of energy, no one stopping them because it’s Christmas, and no one cares if they are making noise or making a mess. People wear silly hats and crack unfunny jokes. The expensive cutlery comes out and the house is full of delicious smells of food no one has time to make any other time of the year.


Credit: Catherine Collins

But for those suffering with an eating disorder, or eating distress, Christmas can be a highly stressful time, a potential minefield of volatility and catastrophe. We might expect that this would be because of the focus on food. The reality, as I found out, is much more complex.

“The main problem with Christmas is that it is a very emotional time,” says Jacqueline Campion, of the Marino Therapy Centre. “People with eating distress are very sensitive, and can be overwhelmed by Christmas. But the main anxiety about Christmas is not the food.”

This might sound surprising, and indeed, to me personally, it is. Jacqueline tells me that this is a misconception a lot of the general public have. “These days, people think that they know a lot about eating disorders. It’s in the press, the media. I feel that a lot of people don’t think that it’s a big deal. It can be a fatal condition. People have died, are dying, and will continue to die from this.”

“The main anxiety is not the food. It’s the loneliness, and the pressure to be happy. The pressure to connect with the people around you. You can feel guilty, because your family doesn’t look like the ideal family on an M&S ad, because inside you’re not happy. Inside you don’t feel you know who you are.”

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The pain, and the complex emotional conflict of people suffering from eating distress sounds like complete torture. According to Jacqueline, sufferers are extremely sensitive. They experience a need for their families and those around them to like, love and accept them: they want to join in with the frivolities of Christmastime; but are completely paralysed by fear. The fear seems to be of rejection; of wanting to interact with loved ones but not knowing how, because of a lack of knowledge of self. Jacqueline describes the person with eating distress as experiencing a “constant internal emotional turmoil”.

The behaviours associated with eating distress: overeating, anorexia, bulimia, gorging and purging; are merely a response to these deeper emotional issues. “Behaviours are a result of thoughts and feelings,” says Jacqueline. “And a person with eating distress has all these negative thoughts and feelings, and the behaviour is how they express them.”

“Inside, you feel like you don’t know who you are. It’s a very very complex condition.  Food is your solution to these problems. Food is an area where you take out the distress. But when you’re fully recovered, you don’t want to hurt yourself [like this].”

Credit: Iceberg Eating Disorder Self-Help

Despite all the negativity, Jacqueline is adamant that there is a way out for people struggling with eating distress. It doesn’t have to be something that you just hold with you forever and learn to “manage” she says. “I hate it when I hear people saying that they are ‘managing’. I wouldn’t want to just learn to ‘manage’ this through my life. That would be a constant torture. If you’re just managing, you’re not fully recovered. You’re not fully free. And you can be fully free of this.”

Most of the anxiety felt by people with eating disorders at Christmastime will be caused by other people, not food, says Jacqueline. Sufferers often worry about family get-togethers because of what their family will think. There is a real fear of certain family members finding out. There is still a shame associated with eating disorders, Jacqueline says. The worry is that someone will notice something. People can make throwaway comments which will have devastating, lasting effect. There can also be inconsiderate talk of weight loss, as we discuss our New Year’s Resolutions, while in the presence of someone struggling.
“It’s a fragile time,” Jacqueline agrees. “If you are fully free of it, you will be fine.” But for people in the various stages of recovery, additional support is often needed over Christmas. Christmas Day is the only day that Marino Therapy Centre is closed, and an online anonymous chatroom is available throughout the period.

One of the most important things, Jacqueline says, is for a sufferer to learn how to enjoy themselves around Christmastime. “Playing with kids, watching films, all of this is really important,” she says. “Learn how to enjoy yourself again.”

september 12 006

Catherine Collins

Catherine Collins


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