No Regrets Only: the art of uninviting food fear to your birthday.
October 16, 2017
(Content Warning: Eating Disorders)
Hatred. Sadness. Guilt. Confusion: Not exactly the words most people associate with birthdays yet those were the strongest feeling I’d experience throughout that special day year after year with my eating disorder. Sure, I felt the love in birthday cards, phone calls and hugs, but nothing could compete with the always-louder, ever-angrier voice in my own head.
In the days leading up to my twenty-fourth birthday, I’ve been more emotional than I thought I would be (No YOU cried is shavasana this morning…). Case and point was the small but powerful moment of pride I had this past weekend after hosting a small birthday party for myself because, as I realized the next day, it might have been the first birthday in over ten years that I’d actually felt fully present. I spent an entire day living in the moment rather than being pre-occupied with anxiety, dread, self-loathing and overwhelming sadness. For one afternoon, it appears, I successfully managed food fears, attempts at “controlling” my snacking, wondering how the celebration would affect my body, etc. This was the first birthday party in years where I’d cooked party snacks and actually enjoyed them myself. This was the first birthday party in years I didn’t fear that the beginning of an endless spiral into depravity and binging.
It was the first birthday in years where I could just be.
Birthdays are particularly tough for folks in recovery from an eating disorder. Even if you don’t struggle with ED, you might be familiar with food fear and the overall anxiety that comes with celebrations (especially if you’re stuck in the cycle of dieting). Birthdays with an eating disorder are exhausting. I’d spend days or even weeks ridden with anxiety as people asked me where I wanted to eat, what I wanted to eat, what my favorite dessert or snack was – and on top of that anticipating getting clothing as gifts and being in a montage of photos. Weeks are spent in a suffocating panic because people want to celebrate your life: a life that you’re too busy panicking about food to be present for. Queue: sadness.
They say birthdays are a huge relapse day for many folks in recovery, often even a planned one, and I know it’s been true for myself in the past (as is true for many holidays). A birthday is a perfect storm for folks living and recovery from ED. Binges, starvation, and general changes in behavior can sneak by unnoticed by loved ones or even by the person themselves since regular meals and schedules are often disrupted. Triggers stack up so quickly that it’s maddeningly overwhelming – imagine having not one but two (or three or eight) of your darkest fears dropped on your doorstep at one time. And that? That overwhelming wave of fears would leave me feeling even more sad, and guilty, and in utter hatred of myself and my eating disorder than I was before. I’d be left not celebrating my life but cursing it.
This year has not been like that. Whether you’re in recovery from an eating disorder or simply trying to navigate a more healthy, balanced relationship with food, your birthday doesn’t have to be like that. It can be a celebration of your life once more. Imagine how wonderful it would be to celebrate yourself (and your newfound food and body peace) without anxiety or guilt. Imagine it because it’s possible.
You can reclaim your birthday from the fear:
First of all, remember that this is YOUR birthday. It’s a celebration of you, and that means your overall health and goals are important. So celebrate in a way that serves YOU. You shouldn’t feel like you need to put yourself in harm’s way to satisfy other people’s needs to celebrate you. Be aware of and set your limits. If you’re actively in recovery, it’s okay to have boundaries. Maybe going to a restaurant and having cake is too much in one day for you this year. Just explore the one of those celebrations that will leave you feeling the happiest and most fulfilled. It’s okay to make small progress, even if that means saying, “No, thank you” when you’ve reached your limit.
Second, know that this moment can and will end. The day or week will end and the cake will go away and your life will return to normal. This food will not be in front of you forever – and neither will all the opportunities for making memories. Both are fleeting and worth enjoying while you can. Think about why that food is present, as well. We love food for a reason; it carries emotion. Food has stories and culture and history. Does your mom only make that cake once a year? Do you go back to the same restaurant you’ve been visiting since you were a child? Can you taste the nostalgia and smell the love? Then enjoy it! Enjoy the food moments where food is more then just food. You deserve that.
Lastly, use your resources. Maybe you need to schedule an appointment with your therapist the week before or after your birthday, in case you do find yourself feeling out of control or unusually anxious. Check out some mindfulness apps and recovery tools* to help guide you through triggering moments. Ask for help if you're feeling overwhelmed.