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November 23, 2020

Disordered Eating, the Holidays & a Pandemic—a Painful Combo.

Comedian Louis C.K. is known for his standup routines on self-deprecation and body image.

This post I came across online is no different.

And it’s apropos, especially as we gear up for the holiday season, even with Covid-19 and its restrictions altering this season of overwhelming food.

“The meal is not over when I’m full. The meal is over when I hate myself.”

Indeed.

And, coronavirus or no coronavirus, for those of us with food, weight, and body image issues, including full-blown eating disorders, we are all too familiar with the comedian’s self-loathing statement.

The meal. The infamous meal. The tempting, tormenting, guilt-and-shame-inducing meal.

It’s just never quite as easy and simple as a holiday feast, is it?

We often joke about how everyone overdoes it during this time; we all become gluttons. We are all passed out on the couch, belts unbuckled, bloated, and, possibly, snoring. When we’re officially awake, we are moaning with discomfort, desire, and stress. We return to the food, even though we are way past full. We are not hungry. We are not starving. We are consumed with the “too much.”

We accept that we will binge, put on weight, be at the mercy of thousands of calories, and, in general, not be too proud of our ravenous behavior.

Now add the even more struggle-filled complication of the coronavirus to this feasting season, and what do you get?

It has been speculated that this pandemic has caused most of us to overeat, to turn to food, to overdo it, simply because of the intensity of the situation. We are stressed. We are frightened. We want comfort food; we want all of the comfort food, in fact. At least, we want as much as we can get our hands on. Economic hardship, unemployment, the daily reality of life and death threats, changes to our everyday way of life—like quarantining, social distancing, and mask-wearing—further amplify the intensity of this already tricky food holiday.

Binge during the holidays? How many of us have already been doing so since last March?

We feel terrified, lonely, and empty. So now, more than ever, yes, we want to push past full. Diet and fitness routines, for many of us, have gone out the window. It is survival now. And no one is especially concerned with it being “survival of the fittest.”

Yet, those of us plagued with disordered eating and image issues are always kicking around those “fit” thoughts. Or, perhaps, more specifically, more accurately, those “fat” thoughts.

Let’s get real. There are a number of us for whom the worst fear we dread is not necessarily losing our lives or our loved ones to the pandemic; it is getting fat, putting on weight, and feeling that hopeless loss of the control we so prize, yet never are capable of obtaining or maintaining.

Life dictates how, in fact, we have little within our control; it’s an illusion.

That scary thought can drive many of us to food, to binges, to restricting nourishment, to any number of coping strategies, all because we feel threatened with the increasing struggle in our daily lives. We are maxing out credit cards and going to food banks, waiting through long phone trees, hoping to get a hold of someone to somehow help in this era when help is stretched so thin.

We are trying to survive. Filling up a gigantic chasm seems to promise us the answer and the relief we are seeking. We hope and pray that it does.

“The meal is not over when I’m full. The meal is over when I hate myself.”

Let’s take a closer look at the comedian’s statement. Let’s look for some extra healing perspective, extending beyond “the holidays,” even extending beyond the pandemic, all the way to the essence of our real and much more complicated and painful, yet valuable, lives.

“The meal…”

Food really is never just food, is it? It is our mother, father, friend, lover, enemy, wish fulfillment, comfort, punishment, reward, and, of course, love. Therefore, whatever “the meal” is to us, here and now, let’s try to take some pressure off of ourselves concerning it.

Permission to express self-grace and self-love?

How about if you and I respond with, “Permission granted?”

Whatever this meal is and was to you and I, whatever enormous or scarce amount it contained, however good or rotten about ourselves we felt dealing with it, let’s try to remember it is one meal. Not the first. Not the last.

There is no eternal shame affixed to us for what it was. It is one moment in time. We will have more moments, other moments, happier moments.

And there is no such thing as “a perfect meal.” Let’s stop chasing the lie that there is. We ate it, or we didn’t eat it. And we’re still worthy of love, good and kind treatment, forgiveness, second chances, hope, and a good life.

“The meal” is not the end-all, be-all of us and our lives. There’s more.

Let’s not give the meal more power than it deserves.

“…is not over…”

For many of us who struggle in this area, we don’t want the binge to end. We want to numb, to be sedate from pain, to feel ongoing joy brought by our comfort food. But, as the old saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.” That applies to food, to “the meal,” to any meal. We only have so much capacity.

And there is more to our lives than eating.

Many of us are distressed and disheartened at that thought. But this is not supposed to be bad news. On the contrary, it’s the gentle, hopeful reminder that there are more blessings, more wonderful avenues for us to explore beyond a delectable food experience.

What else can you and I be excited and joyful about? All pleasure does not solely hinge on eating, bingeing, or restricting. There’s more. Let’s remember to explore what that looks like for each of us.

“…when I’m full…”

The overpromise and under-delivery of “full” is akin to perfectionism itself. “Full” is elusive, at best. Destructive, at worst. It keeps us chasing the dragon, pursuing our next “hit” or “fix.” It keeps us in discontent, as we don’t appreciate the beauty of imperfection, circa now.

We are waiting for our handsome fairytale prince to come and rescue us, sweep us off our feet, and deliver us from any further hardships, heartbreaks, or disappointments.

It’s even more pronounced in the extreme conditions of the coronavirus.

Who doesn’t want out of here already?

So, we can romanticize “full,” especially concerning our eating behaviors. But “full” is misleading. It’s often not a “feel-good” feeling. It, more often than not, is the experience of discomfort. We are not supposed to be stuffed, to “survive.” We are to eat an amount to keep us alive. There’s a difference.

Be mindful of what “full” promises to us, individually and uniquely.

Let’s ask the question, “Can this really deliver on its promise?”

“…The meal is over when I hate myself.”

We are back to self-loathing, an all too familiar and natural default setting for many of us, food issues or not. Concerning behavior, it can be all too easy for us to believe and serve this lie.

Food—or anything or anyone else, for that matter—should never make us hate ourselves. There’s nothing holy or noble about that. We are not improving mankind’s plight by taking that stance. And we certainly are not helping ourselves.

Many of us mistakenly believe that if we just “act right,” then we will feel better about ourselves. But “acting right” is a slippery slope.

What is the definition of “acting right?” Is it perfect? Pleasing? Never admitting weakness or frailty? Never asking for help? Rescuing others, but only with complete perfection?

It’s a moving target. And it’s not possible. Because we must first believe that we are worthy. And then, more desirable, healthy behaviors and actions result. No cart before the horse here.

We are worthy. Right now. In spite of what just happened with any particular meal…or all of them.

And the life and death fragility of this coronavirus should spotlight that reality even more. If this pandemic killed us all, one by one, think about the devastating hole that would leave behind. (It would leave an enormous chasm.).

So, how about we not make ourselves our own pandemic, killing ourselves in small and big ways? What if we could settle on the truth that hating ourselves should never be any goal or marker in life? What if we just started to get closer to that concept, right here, right now, imperfectly inching to it and loving ourselves, no matter what?

What if?

I frequently refer to and mention NEDIC’s helpful resource material, especially at this time of year.

Because, after all, “The meal is not over…”

“Holidays and special occasions are often very stressful periods for individuals with food and weight problems. The emphasis on spending time with family and on celebrating with food can be very difficult. Based on past experience, and an understanding of yourself and of the people close to you, you may be able to avoid, or cope constructively with, uncomfortable situations. For example:

>> Predict high stress times and places; decide which events you will and won’t attend, and plan to have some time to yourself to restore yourself and take care of your own needs.

>> Predict which people might make you most uncomfortable and plan appropriate ways of excusing yourself from their company.

>> If at all possible, allow yourself to enjoy a moderate amount of ‘special occasion foods.’

>> Predict what people might say that would lead you to feel uncomfortable. Plan and practice responses. Ask people not to comment on your body, appearance, or eating habits.

>> Predict negative thoughts that you might have during the holidays, and practice thinking differently.

>> Carry with you a list of phone numbers of friends and crisis lines, and a list of self-soothing activities.

It may be helpful to realize that the ‘picture-book’ holiday sense is not a reality for many people. Some cannot afford it, there are many single people who are not close to their families or do not have a family, and there are many families that do not fit into the dominant cultural model of ‘family.’ Do not blame yourself for family or friendship conflicts. People are not different during the holidays than any other time of the year. Remember that you are responsible only for your own actions and for taking care of yourself.”

(From NEDIC Bulletin: Vol. 7, “Coping With the Holidays,” National Eating Disorder Information Centre.)

Although our gatherings, because of COVID-19, may be much smaller or even non-existent this holiday season, it still does not change the fact that we have a relationship with ourselves. Please respond, therefore, in a kind, compassionate way with yourself.

We need to eat, deal with our food, weight, and body image issues every day. We need to play the long game here.

And, with pandemic challenges, patience with ourselves and with others is at even more of a premium.

Please go easy on yourself. You’re too important not to do so.

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