Thank you. The fundamental building block of Thanksgiving is a thank you. This thank you is different for everyone in a family, is different for everyone in a community. Many people look forward to Thanksgiving – a time to honor our gratitude over an abundance of food. But for many individuals struggling with eating disorders, Thanksgiving can be one of the most difficult days of the year.
You can think about it this way: One of the most challenging outings we offer at the residential level of care is a dinner outing to a buffet. Now imagine this: a super challenging dinner outing that’s hours long. All of your loved ones are trying to ascertain your health and happiness based on how much pumpkin pie you eat, or whether or not you leave the table in the middle of dinner to use the restroom. Thanksgiving can be really, really hard.
So as loved ones and family members, what can we do to try to support everyone in reconnecting with that fundamental building block of Thanksgiving, the thank you?
Every family and community is going to be different, but here are a few ideas:
Ask how you can help
You may have learned already that monitoring food intake or the bathroom is not always the best way to check in on your loved one’s wellbeing. But then what? This Thanksgiving, instead of trying to do elaborate guesswork, talk about it ahead of time. If relevant, involve the treatment team in this conversation. Let your loved one know that you’re aware that Thanksgiving can be hard, and you’re wondering what he or she needs from you. Ask them how they’re feeling about Thanksgiving. Give your loved one an opportunity to teach you how to support them on this day. You might ask them, “How will I know if you’re upset?” And, “What feels supportive to you? How can I help you if you seem overwhelmed or anxious?”
Take care of yourself
This may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best way to take care of your loved one is to take care of yourself. What helps you stay grounded? Does it help you to take a few deep breaths when you’re getting worried or anxious? Do you do yoga in the mornings to center yourself? Or cuddle with the dog? Thanksgiving is a really important day to practice the little routines that keep us present to ourselves. Do you have a list of things you are grateful for that you can check in with? Just as your loved one will be doing throughout the evening, try to check in with your own emotions and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Put on your own oxygen mask first so you can provide support to your loved one if he or she needs it.
Staying connected to your loved one will make it easier to provide support. Attuning to a loved one becomes exceedingly difficult when you’re drinking or otherwise disconnected. Especially if your loved one is working on sustaining sobriety, communicate with him or her about what she needs in terms of having alcohol present at the dinner.
Talk about qualities other than bodies
It will most likely be helpful for your loved one to refrain from any comments about their body, even if they are well-intended. Even, “you look so healthy,” can be triggering. Instead, talk about what else you love about them. Is your loved one funny? Generous? Courageous?
Take it a step further – try not commenting on your own body, or anyone else’s. This is a practice that can be continued past Thanksgiving. You’ll be amazed at how much closer you end up feeling to other people (and yourself!) if you comment on their personality and strengths, rather than their bodies.
Stay mindful of how you’re talking about the food
Complimenting the chef and expressing gratitude for the meal are crucial parts of any Thanksgiving dinner. That being said, try to stay away comments about the food or comments about how the food is going to impact your body. For example: “This is delicious,” is very different from, “I just gained 15 lbs.” In our culture these comments can just slip out. But they can be extremely triggering and, quite simply, aren’t true.
Ultimately, all of these ideas are about refocusing on the core of Thanksgiving – the Thank You. And ultimately, these are just ideas. The best source of information on how to support your loved one is your loved one. She is the expert on her experience and the expert on what she needs.
I think the only way to end this article is to say, “thank you.” This Thanksgiving I want to express the gratitude I feel towards all the families who are willing to show up for themselves and their loved ones. The work of healing from an eating disorder is hard work for individuals and their communities. At Reasons Residential I have seen the love of families who are willing to talk about the things that are difficult to talk about, that are willing to hear each other and love each other in the face of fear and pain. It is amazing. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.