What I Wish My Family Knew About My Eating Disorder on Thanksgiving

Ruthie Friedlander
Ruthie Friedlander opens up about what she wishes her family knew about her illness over Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted to food and awkward social situations.

Thanksgiving is a few weeks away and at InStyle, that means an uptick in holiday content—what to wear for your Thanksgiving Day dinner, how to deal with politics at your table, recipes to cook. For many, Thanksgiving is a time of great excitement, a mark to the beginning of the holiday season ... and a few days off work?

But for me, and—I know—many others, Thanksgiving puts my anxiety in overdrive.

I finished treatment for anorexia at The Balance Eating Disorder Treatment Center in New York City earlier this year. During my year as an outpatient, my life completely changed. Now, I’m happier, healthier, stronger, and, frankly, more pleasant to be around (I think). But group meals continue to be a stresser for me. They trudge up complicated emotions about self-image, control, relationships, and food in general. So Thanksgiving? Sort of a nightmare.

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To plan ahead and hopefully help some other people out there, I spoke to my primary therapist from Balance, Cassandra Lenza, about my specific anxieties and how to deal with them. Here are the things I wish my family knew about my eating disorder during Thanksgiving:

I don’t want you to tell me how good/better/healthy I look.

I can’t tell you how much weight I’ve gained since I entered treatment (I do not look at the scale when I get weighed at the doctor’s office). But I can tell you I’ve had to buy a lot of new clothes. I know I look different. And while I’m so incredibly proud of my recovery thus far, I really don’t want to be reminded of the way I look, especially with the pressures and mixed feelings I attach to the turkey and stuffing sitting right in front of me.

“We can’t avoid comments,” Lenza says. “But remember that the person you see once a year making those comments isn’t the person that’s in the nitty gritty of everyday of recovery with you. If those comments do happen, it might bring up something real for you. That’s your eating disorder holding on for dear life. But remember, it’s one thing to feel and another to react. If those comments come up, feel whatever you need to feel, but coming back to your plan of action is the way to get back on track."

My anxiety is both entirely and entirely not about the food.

Confusing? Sorry, not sorry. I appreciate when people are sensitive to my needs, but I also want them to understand that being in recovery doesn't make me an expert on eating disorders—meaning I may not know what I need from them. I may not even understand some of my triggers myself. Someone asking me how to make a big meal like Thanksgiving more comfortable is a lot like a flight attendant asking a phobic flyer how to calm them down mid-turbulence. Thoughtful? Yes. But the entire thing sucks. So when the people closest to you—yes, even those who went through your recovery with you—ask you “how to make it better,” you sort of want scream. That said, it's often an important conversation to have.

“Eating disorders are complex, complicated, mental illnesses,” Lenza says. “They’re not just about the food. Of course, the hallmark is an overvaluation of shape and weight, but that’s really the coping mechanism. There’s so much more underneath that. Increased attention to the food will always yield more anxiety. That’s why, at the core, holidays are so stressful.”

So what to do?

“It’s about making the holiday an experience with food being a component but the not the whole thing. Make it about traditions, culture, family—while also remembering [to acknowledge] the family brings up so much,” she says.

There are, like, 9 things I anticipate happening on Thanksgiving that will cause me stress. I can voice them but also don’t want to be the Eating Disorder police.

“The goal is that you have a plan set up with your treatment team, and you’ve troubleshot specific anxieties,” Lenza says. “We certainly want to have a conversation ahead of time about trigger topics, like food, exercise, body ... we all have that one family member that’s like, 'I’m going to need to blah blah blah to make up for this meal.' Not only should you try to redirect those comments as they come up, but try to come back to your recovery."

I may need a break. And I may need your help.

Things are going to get hairy. I know this. There will be a time during dinner when I need to take a breather for a reason that may or may not seem obvious to you. And I also could use your help.

“If you need to take a break, have communication ahead of time,” Lenza says. “Say to your loved ones, 'Trust in me that this break is what I’ll need for 15 minutes, and I’m going to use my skills to get myself back [to the table].' "

I’m sorry. And I'm trying.

Many people that aren’t in the "nitty gritty" of recovery, as Lenza puts it, don't understand that being comfortable around food is a complicated thing will probably be a lifelong struggle for me. They think: You’re sick. You get treatment. You’re better. It’s not like that. And I’m sorry. I hate knowing that I’m causing anyone to be concerned or have to “deal” with something during a time where everyone is already dealing with a million things. Truly. As a fellow recovery once warrior said so brilliantly, “I wish I could turn off the voice in my head.” But I can’t. We can’t.

Trust me that I'm trying my best. That I want this sickness gone. And that you just sitting there, giving me a wink across the table, is sometimes enough.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.