Of all the holidays I celebrate, Thanksgiving is my least favorite. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; that I, an introverted vegetarian recovering from an eating disorder, do not enjoy a day where large groups of people gather to eat large amounts of rich and meaty food. But it almost always does.
My family isn’t doing anything special for Thanksgiving this year for obvious reasons, yet we’re still somehow in the minority in America. So, if you are celebrating the holiday and are struggling with eating, here are five tips I’ve learned in my recovery that have helped me survive—and even have a bit of fun along the way.
Number One: Bring dishes you’ll enjoy.
Even before I got sick, I wasn’t a huge fan of Thanksgiving food. But when the buttery mashed potatoes and thick slices of pumpkin pie I enjoyed as a kid suddenly sent my mind into a full-blown panic, I realized my options were super slim. In eighth grade, a couple of weeks after I was diagnosed with anorexia, I spent most of Thanksgiving locked in my cousin’s bathroom crying and dreading the moment I’d have to face the food. I think I ate salad and a few curds of cauliflower that evening, and that’s literally it.
Since then (aside from the year I was inpatient during Thanksgiving), I’ve made sure that we bring dishes I like and feel comfortable eating and are also nutritious. Deviled eggs, butternut squash soup, and pumpkin bread are my routine go-tos. I can usually count on a relative to bring a simple salad, and I’m far enough along in my recovery that I can eat a slice of pumpkin pie for dessert without having a meltdown and actually enjoy it too.
Number Two: Take breaks.
If you feel overwhelmed or worn out or just need to catch your breath, find a quiet space and cool off for a bit. I’ve done this almost every year, usually around the two or three hour mark when my energy and patience starts to dip. I excuse myself, quietly tell my mom that I need a break, and find a vacant room in my aunt’s house where I can have a moment all to myself. In the past, I’ve even brought earbuds (keeping them in my jacket pocket or purse) and listened to music during these breaks, which always soothes me. Everyone has coping skills that work for them, and music is one of mine.
Number Three: Choose carefully where you sit.
For me, this means sitting near my relatives who are either vegetarian themselves or I know won’t be gnawing on a turkey leg for the entire feast. For others, this tip will apply to politics. I’m fortunate that my extended family (with a few exceptions) shares my liberal political beliefs but I know that often isn’t the case. Especially this year, with the divisive election having happened so recently, tensions might be running high. So sit with people who won’t make your blood boil; people who care more about you and how you are than who you voted for.
I love my extended family very much, and many of my cousins who I click with I don’t see very often. Instead of worrying about feeling overwhelmed by the large number of people, I focus on seeing the individuals who I know I’ll enjoy catching up with. When it comes time to eat, I’ll probably be sandwiched between one of them and my mom (for moral support).
Number Four: Don’t compare yourself to others.
Thanksgiving, for most people, is an excuse to eat a lot of food. While this was the case for me as well before my eating disorder, it isn’t anymore. I deliberately avoid stuffing myself until my stomach hurts because I know it’ll send my mind into a panic or trigger the disordered thoughts. Of course this is perfectly reasonable, however there have been times when I’ve felt awkward or even ashamed of my normal-sized meal when everyone around me was feasting on such a high volume of food. But, like most areas in life, comparisons aren’t healthy. Everyone needs to do what’s right for them, and by eating an amount of food that I’m comfortable with and is still meeting my daily nutritional requirements, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Number Five: Try to have fun.
The more I progress in my recovery, the more I realize that Thanksgiving is so much more than the food. Sure, it’s a big part of it and what many people look forward to the most, but there are other aspects of the holiday that are actually pretty awesome. I already mentioned catching up with distant relatives, and who in my extended family could forget the epic, if not very chaotic football games we’d play before the feast in pre-pandemic times? Taking leisurely walks around the neighborhood with my parents the day of is another one. Then there’s watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. Finally, reflecting on everything I have to be grateful for and being reminded although I still have plenty of issues, my life is pretty all right.
Thanksgiving will be different this year, that’s unquestionable. But whether you’re staying at home like me, meeting up with some family in a socially-distanced setting, or scrapping the safety guidelines altogether and attending a large gathering, you will get through.