Like many children, when I was younger, Christmas was my favorite time of the year. From the abundance of presents to the delicious food to the fun traditions to the time spent with my family, it was a magical experience. Memories like riding the “Polar Express” in Essex, portraying an Archangel in my UU church’s Christmas Pageant, and visiting the enormous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center have stuck with me to this day, many years later.
But the holidays haven’t always been a time of joy for me, largely due to my mental illness. In eighth grade, I was completely entrenched in my eating disorder. Food, once one of my favorite aspects of Christmas, had suddenly become something I dreaded. I wouldn’t let myself enjoy the treats I couldn’t get enough as a kid, like peppermint bark and sugar cookies, I despised the way my new clothing looked on my recently weight-restored body, and I was constantly at war with my parents. Everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, was a battle with them to the point where there were days when we barely spoke to each other at all.
Ninth grade was—somehow—even worse. I was at such a low point in my life that I genuinely believe that the excitement of Christmas was the only thing worth living for. So, when Christmas morning came, I tortured my family by opening every gift painfully slowly, desperate to drag out the experience for as long as I possibly could. And then, when there were no more presents under the tree, I cried. That small shred of hope that I was clinging to was gone, and it was devastating.
This idea that Christmas was the temporary cure for my problems persisted in the years that followed. While my fear of food gradually decreased, I continued my new tradition of making Christmas last all day. I would block out times to open gifts around my scheduled meals—an hour after breakfast, thirty minutes after morning snack—and would frequently take breaks in between. And, of course, when the time came to open my final present, I was overcome with sadness and disappointment. No matter how many presents I received or how amazing they were, it was never enough to compensate for the fact that the next morning, I’d return to my miserable daily grind. The vicious cycle of deprivation, denial, and defiance that dominated my life since eighth grade seemed like it would never end. But, like a Christmas miracle, it ultimately did.
The past few years of my life have been all about reclamation, and one of the many things I’ve reclaimed is the holiday season. Even this year, amid this exhausting, demoralizing pandemic, I’ve found ways to spread holiday cheer in the safety of my home from decorating the tree to lighting the Menorah to watching favorite holiday movies (shoutout to Elf and The Polar Express) to baking—and eating—sugar cookies. Make sure to check out that recipe if you haven’t already!
Coping skills and support from my family and treatment team make it possible for me to persevere through difficult moments at the holidays and move past harrowing memories from darker times. Additionally, having ambitions and goals for my future allows me to get over the post-Christmas blues and embrace the upcoming New Year. This year in particular, I can’t wait to watch the Time’s Square ball drop and put 2020 behind me once and for all. I’m quite literally counting down the days—and have been for a while!
If you’re struggling this holiday season, know that you’re not alone. There are people and resources that exist to help you so please don’t hesitate to seek them out. For more advice on navigating food and family-centric celebrations, check out my post Surviving Thanksgiving with an Eating Disorder. Whatever holiday you’re celebrating, I hope it’s filled with good health and happiness.