[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"Holy titties," I thought, "It's almost Christmas."
When I was a kid, I would count down the days until Christmas, eagerly waiting for what, I'm not sure. The anticipation was almost more fun than the holiday itself. Everything about the holiday excited me: the lights, the snow, the music, the food, the gifts, the bustle. I loved the long, cozy nights, the movies, decorating cookies, wrapping gifts. By now, most of you know I had an eating disorder. I've gained enough space and clarity to talk about it with ease, but it used to be a source of immense shame, something that rotted me from the inside out.
My joy surrounding the holidays slowly waned the older I grew and the deeper I sank into my eating disorder. Instead of looking forward to holidays, I began dreading them. Holidays presented an entirely new landscape of challenges and possible pitfalls: rich, decadent food, the eyes of friends and family, social gatherings, late nights, drinks. I dreaded the mental and emotional effort it would take to act normal. I made strict plans for myself regarding what I would and would not eat. I found excuses to leave stressful situations, spent a lot of time in a lot of bathrooms, and closely monitored my weight. By the end of the holiday season, I was either relieved or dismayed; happy that I'd resisted gaining weight or angry at myself for eating a stray piece of lefse. There was no joy, no relaxation, no peace.
When I was running in college, I had two coaches who tied performance to weight to an unhealthy degree. A pound lighter, in their mind, meant seconds faster, which was true, until it wasn't. And the more pounds I lost, the more they praised me. For a short time, my workouts were blazing fast. My PR's dipped. I felt light and fast and irresistibly happy, or so I thought. Before winter break, one of them sat me down in his office and asked about my plans. Traveling? Relaxing? A winter class, perhaps? No, I said, I'd be working at the bank I'd worked at the previous summer. Mostly I'd be sorting through stacks of paper files in a dingy, dark bank basement. This concerned my coach, because he thought me working meant less time to train meant weight gain. "Be careful," he told me, "you don't want to lose all the fitness you've worked so hard to gain."
His warning confirmed my deepest, darkest fear, which was that the holidays would or could or might upset the delicate routine I'd created for myself that I was certain would make me a successful runner. Run, study, sleep, sometimes eat, always coffee. Winter break was five weeks long, and the day I left campus happened to coincide with an enormous snow storm. The drive home usually took ~7 hours but it took closer to ten. I arrived home late, exhausted and stressed. I was supposed to start working at the bank the following morning, and I wanted to get a run in beforehand.
I woke up early, before the roads had been plowed, and ran in snow that covered my ankles, the cold biting at my skin. I changed, made coffee, and drove 45 minutes to the bank. After work, I walked across the street to a gym and signed up for a membership. I have long believed that health is priceless, so don't mind spending money on yoga classes or gym memberships or massages. I would go out of my way to workout, and this gym was almost too convenient. I handed over my debit card and signed a month-long agreement. Every night after work, I would go to the gym to lift or run on the treadmill or cross train. I arrived home past seven, ate dinner, and woke up to do it all over again.
Aside from my rigorous workout schedule, I wasn't eating enough. I did all the things you might expect an anorexic to do: avoid cookies, rolls, stuffing, butter, hot cocoa, candy canes. I brought two hard boiled eggs to work everyday, along with carrots and celery and a baggie of crackers. I drank coffee all morning and decaf coffee at night. One night, I ate a crunchy Nature Valley bar and felt waves of shame course through my body. So much sugar, I thought. So many carbs. What was I doing?
I moved through those five weeks like a zombie, avoiding conversation at work, avoiding eye contact at the gym, avoiding food always. When I returned to campus pale and 10 pounds thinner than when I'd left, my coaches praised my fitness. Relief washed over me as I realized that I'd "won" the holidays by not only avoiding weight gain but by losing weight. I felt somewhat smug at the idea that the rest of the world would be starting a new year's resolution to lose weight or get in shape that I wouldn't need because I hadn't let myself slack. But I hadn't let myself breathe either. I hadn't let myself enjoy the holiday, so whose loss was it really? I was thin, but I was severely sick and unbelievably unhappy.
I endured that holiday season like I endured most holiday seasons: with a fair amount of anxiety and a great deal of inner turmoil. My takeaway in telling this story is this: a lot of people don't find joy in the holidays. They find stress, discomfort, sadness. For a lot of people, the holidays are something to be endured, but you would never know it. Be kind this holiday season, to yourself and to everyone around you. Better yet, be kind always. You can never really know what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes.