Battleground: Holiday Edition – the Importance of Preparing for the Holidays in Recovery

The holidays are a battleground. Stressors rain down like bullets from a jet, and triggers line the ground like a minefield. Everywhere you look there is overwhelming people, events, words, and actions that add to the dysregulation building in your soul. How will we ever make it through?

Just like any battle, the key to success is preparation. Fortunately, you have some things on your side if you start early enough. You have your generals (your team) who will help plan attack strategies (preparing for triggers and planning coping mechanisms), you have your ammo (your skills and resources) and hopefully a few men on the inside (familial supports or maybe even a pup). Starting early and preparing for the holidays by analyzing how you may be triggered, what the circumstances will bring, and how you can get through makes a HUGE difference in terms of how dysregulating holidays can be. Holidays are stressful even for normative people, and adding on the ED triggers surrounding food and diet culture talk can be even more overwhelming. But a good plan can keep you in your window of tolerance even with all that coming at you.

I did not plan enough with my team this year. I had been doing so well with ED stuff, feeling so stable, that I thought whole-heartedly I would be fine. I was thriving! What could bring me down? But the holidays are a beast that should not be underestimated, and they did bring me down. Hard.

I had made some preparations. I made sure to have food options that felt safe, ordering in some Daily Harvest smoothies to my parents house ahead of time so I knew I would have solid meal options in a pinch. I discussed my needs with my mom and we made plans to shop as soon as I got there for food for me so I didn’t succumb to and be triggered by a scarcity mindset. I knew I had my team if I needed them. I was really looking forward to seeing my family. I felt like I would be fine. 

Two days in we had to put my beloved childhood dog down. She was nearly 13 and it was necessary, but it was hard. Fortunately it was an emotional burden shared by the three of us, and that made it a little easier. Then I found out my Daily Harvest was delayed. Suddenly my safety net of meal replacements was gone. By the weekend I was beginning to feel anxious, and this was amplified by everyone else arriving. Six people in the house, buzzing with activity, was more than I was used to and was super overwhelming. But I was happy to see everyone and was really enjoying my time with them. Then my period hit me like a on of bricks, filling my body with pain so severe I was stuck on the couch for two straight days glued to a heating pad. I started having GI issues, probably due to the increased anxiety, and all around wasn’t feeling good. I could feel my anxiety increasing and depression seeping in, but I just wanted to enjoy time with my family. By the end of my 10 days I was a mess, and had had the worst panic attack I have had in years on the floor of my parent’s kitchen after a very bad experience at a restaurant. I had been so depressed I couldn’t help but sob to my mom at the breakfast table. But most of all, I was angry.

I was angry that I couldn’t just enjoy my time with my family, which I so so wanted. I was angry that my disorder and my mental illness was keeping me from being able to connect and celebrate and be with my family. Disordered thoughts came into my head. Why do I not get to just have a good holiday? Why do I have to fall apart, like I always do? I just want to be happy. I just want to enjoy myself. Why do I not deserve that? These questions come from a desperate place of longing for normalcy. Of wishing my stability wasn’t so fragile as to keep me from the experiences I crave. 

Unfortunately, even though I am doing so much better and I experience long periods of stability within the confines of my carefully constructed and excessively supported life at home, Holidays are hard. They are stressful. They are full of triggers you don’t even realize consciously are there, affecting you, until you are so far gone you are falling apart. For me, that was the fact that a year ago I celebrated the holidays at my parent’s right before going to treatment, in a much smaller body, with my then partner of two years, and using behaviors multiple times a day, every single day. I never even considered this would affect me the way it did, but that plus everything else was just too much.

And sometimes, thats how recovery works. You want so badly to be able to be the person you know you can be so you can live and enjoy the life you know you deserve. But you can’t – yet. You aren’t there and that is okay. I so desperately wanted to be okay this holiday, to be able to enjoy my time with my family and to not fall apart the way I did. But I’m just not there yet. And that is okay. It was still better than last year — I fought with my family less, I was healthier, I wasn’t using behaviors, and I had so many skills to deal with what was coming up. That is worth celebrating. 

Sometimes we want something to be a certain way so badly we are blinded to the progress we have made. I may not yet be able to get through a holiday without a panic attack. But I did get through without a behavior. With less fighting. With enjoying every second even though it was hard and painful. We have to remember to celebrate our progress, even if it isn’t where we want it to be. Especially if it isn’t where we want it to be. Because that recognition is so validating, and it is the fuel for the journey towards the next step.

Next year I will prepare more thoroughly with my generals. I will have had the experience from this year’s battle to season me, and I will fight the good fight even better than I did this year. And even if it is hard again, I will relish in the little victories. Because recovery is not a linear path. And because I am a warrior.