As a person who struggled with an eating disorder for 13 years—the entirety of my adolescence and much of my young adult life—I also know the business of sharing a meal is not always straightforward.
When I look back over my history of shared meals—not only the big ones, like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but also dinner parties, work lunches, birthday parties, dates, and a host of other gatherings that transpired at the table—I have more memories of anxiety and aloneness than of festivity or cheer.
Years from now, this won’t be the case. I’ll have amassed countless memories of good times that were had with food and friends. Right now, in spite of having settled into a solid recovery, I still feel close to those memories of isolation and anxiety and I can identify with others who feel it, especially at this time of the year.
I’m often asked how to navigate the holiday season, with its many gatherings and food-centric occasions, if you’re caring for or supporting someone with an eating disorder. I don’t have an easy answer, and I hesitate to generalize because I know that eating disorders vary dramatically from person to person. Gestures that might disarm one person could alienate the next. But I do remember what helped me, and it feels like a good time to share.
If you’ve always regarded food and eating as means of communion, then it may be difficult to understand them as anything but. Even now, nearly a decade into my recovery, I sometimes forget what it was like to greet shared meals with resistance and dread. When I sit at a table with another person who is clearly struggling with disordered eating, and even as my empathy comes up, so does my frustration. Why can’t he or she just eat, along with the rest of us?
For many years I was the object of such speculation, so it’s pretty incredible I can feel this kind of exasperation. But I do, and it makes me aware of how many family members and friends of people with eating disorders must also feel: mystified, frustrated, worried.
If someone you love is struggling with disordered eating, know that the fear and anxiety you see is probably much worse than it looks—and that there are ways to help, handle, and think about having dinner with someone who struggles with their relationship with food.
They say eating disorders are family diseases, which implies that the healing process is a family matter, too. This extends to chosen family—friends and loved ones—as much as it does to biological family. Taking the first step is hard, but it begins with small moments of empathy and shared understanding.
When I was sick, I was often challenged on why I couldn’t simply get over myself and eat this-or-that: “It’s just one bite,” or “A little bit won’t kill you.” Looking back, I know how ridiculous my paralysis surrounding food must have seemed. I can understand the bafflement of friends who urged me to get over myself and eat something. But what they didn’t understand at the time—and what people sometimes don’t understand about eating disorders in general—is that one bite really does feel like a life or death matter. That’s the disease. It’s a struggle for survival, both real and imagined, and most of the time it does seem as though one tiny misstep or “wrong” choice will be the end of the world.
If you’re struggling to stay connected to someone who is in the throes of an eating disorder, this is the place to start. Know that, no matter how unfathomable or absurd the fears seem to you, they don’t feel at all ludicrous to someone who’s in the thick of it. Your loved one’s behaviors may come across as alienating, destructive, and self-centered, but what underlies them is a very vivid and real struggle, from which escape feels impossible.
If your loved one is working with a care team—a physician, mental health professional, and dietitian—you should use that team as a resource. Ask your loved one if you can talk to the dietitian or therapist in charge, especially if the task of meal planning falls to you. The dietitian can make you aware of the current treatment plan and help you to select some appropriate meal options.
If care hasn’t been put into place yet, do your best to have a conversation in which you and your loved one map out a few meal options. Unknowns are particularly terrifying for people with eating disorders. While freedom and flexibility may be the long-term goal, creating some mutually agreed-upon boundaries and structure will help to make the holidays smoother for everyone (including you).
When someone in a family develops an eating disorder, food is transformed from a source of shared pleasure into a something fraught and divisive. Everyone suffers. I’ll never forget how hurt my Greek grandmother was when I habitually refused her luscious cooking, or how greatly I mourned the loss of food I’d once loved, even as I rejected it. No matter how it seems, people who restrict food usually feel its absence profoundly.
Whether the meal is a success or a struggle, know that your offerings haven’t gone unnoticed, and your cooking isn’t being rejected. It might feel this way—it probably will feel this way—and it’s natural for you to experience hurt. But it’s important to remember that eating disorders change people, and the experience they create is not one in which it’s possible to enjoy food in the usual way. This is every bit as painful and baffling for people with eating disorders as it is for those who care about them.
When I was sick, I experienced a sense of superiority at my abstinence and felt disdain for the act of eating. At the same time, I missed food desperately, never stopped being hungry, and I knew I had lost touch with one of life’s greatest pleasures. It was a conflict, a knot I couldn’t untangle.
For a while, I witnessed people eating with a sense of pride, a feeling of power that emerged from having seemingly outsmarted one of my basic human needs. Over time, the feeling started to wane, giving way to sadness at my own estrangement from appetite and pleasure.
I think many people who’ve had eating disorders experience this. To witness others savoring food can be a reminder that something important has been lost. While it’s not fair to suggest that everyone at a holiday table act so as to influence a single person, I do think that it can be helpful for the group to model excitement about and enjoyment of food.
One of the most difficult parts of eating disorder recovery is that, just as you’re trying to respect and cultivate your own hunger, you continue to live in a society that condones restriction, self-policing, and guilt around food. It’s everywhere, including the interior of many family homes. If you’re hoping to encourage a person who is recovering, it can be helpful to take a good look at how food is spoken about at your table. Is dieting a common topic of conversation? Is it normal for people to express guilt or shame about what they’ve eaten?
If so, can you approach this holiday season as an opportunity to shift the language you use to talk about food in your home? Can you find words that reinforce the importance of nourishment and self-care? Can you celebrate food as a source of pleasure and sustenance? Everyone—your loved one included—will benefit from this kind of positive dialog.
As helpful as it can be for you to reach out privately to your loved one in the hopes of creating a positive mealtime experience, it almost certainly won’t be helpful if the eating disorder becomes a topic of conversation or a point of focus over dinner. Do your best to keep conversation neutral and respectful, for everyone’s sake.
Putting aside the challenges of shared meals and the holiday season, it can be difficult to know how to act around people with eating disorders. This is true for family as well as for friends, mentors, teachers, peers, and colleagues.
When I was sick, I was not only fiercely defensive, but also in profound denial, which gave added fuel to my refusals of help. Still, I can remember vividly a few moments when words and gestures really did reach me.
I recall sitting at a lunch table with a good friend in college, watching her intently as she ate her lunch (I was picking deliberately at mine). She sighed and said with genuine sadness: “Why do you always pretend you’re not hungry when it’s so clear that you are?”
I was stunned at first, but she delivered her words gently, which allowed me to hear them. It was one of the first moments in which I realized my yearning for food was visible to everyone else. It didn’t spur an immediate recovery, but it did help me to understand that my behavior had an impact on the people around me.
Years later, I sometimes wish more friends spoke up. My defensiveness, secrecy, and proficiency in hiding the degree of my illness prevented them, but as soon as I entered recovery, it became clear to me how much they all knew and saw.
If someone you love is struggling, find a way to let them know that you’re there and you know something is wrong. You don’t have to directly challenge the disease or behaviors, especially if you’re not sure how. But you can say something simple, like, “I’ve noticed lately you seem to be anxious around food. If I can ever listen or help, I’m here.” Your expression of concern might trigger some immediate resistance, but it will probably resonate over time.
It’s all too easy to avoid speaking up about eating disorders; there’s still so much shame, discomfort, and confusion that pervades our dialog about them. The impulse is to ignore and speak about them in hushed tones, or to hope the problem will go away on its own.
Chances are, it won’t. And as natural as it is to try to smooth things over, honest dialog and open communication are often what’s needed for someone—for everyone—to begin healing. The holiday table may not be the right place for such a dialog, but it is a space in which small gestures toward mutual respect and understanding might catch hold.
Tell us: Do you have any thoughts about helping a loved one struggling with an eating disorder at the holiday table—and beyond?