thanksgiving anxiety

The scene in my house at Thanksgiving is fairly consistent every year. My mom will have taken on way too much but will refuse help, or if we’re with my extended family, will be bickering with her mother and brother about who’s supposed to be doing what. My dad will pop in and examine the cooking food, trying to help but mostly getting in the way. He’ll pick at various items and say “Well, now we’re cooking!” with glee. My sister and I will drink the alcohol we brought over and stay on the fringes of things, and if we’re with the whole family, will mingle with our cousins. It’s a pretty standard affair. Except that my sister Rosie and I are both constantly trying to keep our anxiety levels from going through the roof, even if we’re having a fun, pleasant time.

Our family isn’t awful – generally everyone gets along. Nobody says outwardly rude things to each other (except when my grandmother tried to compliment me by telling me that since I let my hair grow and lost weight, I looked less like a boy), and we even have fun together. Rosie and I aren’t anxious because we hate our family, or because we hate Thanksgiving. We’re anxious because we are both specifically triggered by large meals with our family, either immediate or extended. When these meals happen, it’s like we have one brain. She knows with one glance when she needs to make an excuse for us to both get up and go outside to get some fresh air (I’ll never forget her loudly saying “Celia, I left a tampon in your car. Can we go grab it?” in front of my entire family), and I know exactly when to put my hand on her leg to make her feel steady.

It’s rare that I come across a person with an anxiety disorder and an otherwise clean bill of mental health. Anxiety frequently comes with a whole variety of other maladies, including but not limited to OCD, depression, and eating disorders. I’ve dabbled in my fair share of the first two, but I really hit my mentally ill stride when it came to disordered eating. And so did Rosie, because we are so horribly similar (in fact, I sometimes wonder how I can bear to be around her, given my champion self loathing). We both had what’s called EDNOS (click here for a great, in depth explanation), or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, which basically means that our behavior didn’t fit neatly into a recognized disorder like anorexia or bulimia.

We were both treated for our EDNOS for a number of years, and I’m grateful that nowadays, neither Rosie nor I am controlled by eating. For me, learning to cook was the most effective treatment, even more so than medication, and cooking and food have become actual passions of mine. You should see me in a restaurant supply store or Whole Foods. I get so excited and overstimulated that sometimes it manifests as anxiety and I have to do my breathing exercises. And then I run around like a lunatic wanting to buy everything. I want to cook everything in the world.

While I still struggle with body image issues and feelings like I have to lose just a few more pounds to truly feel attractive, food and weight don’t control my life like they used to. I can eat an extravagant meal without obsessing, puking, crying, or starving myself for the next week. It was just a meal, and I enjoy it and move on. Even something like a Thanksgiving meal.

So why, then, do Rosie and I find large family meals so difficult? It has a lot to do with the behavior of our parents around food, which gets magnified at big eating sessions like Thanksgiving, and also the way that they dealt with our eating disorders, which is to say that they didn’t. They still deny it ever happened, even though you can find years of treatment in their bank statements. We only got into treatment because my high school called home and said I couldn’t come back until I got help. I don’t blame them for this, because I know they didn’t ignore or repress our eating disorders because they’re awful people, but because it was too painful for them to think of both of us going through that. But unfortunately their denial is super detrimental to us, and has real effects in our recovery.

As high maintenance as it sounds, neither Rosie nor I can bear to hear our parents talk about food in the following contexts: eating a ton of it, remarking on the large quantities of food present, mentioning calories, or talking about being exceptionally over-full. I get it. I get how weird it sounds. But, we both feel like asking our parents to respect these boundaries occasionally isn’t out of the question, given the stakes.

We’ve communicated that we can’t hear the yearly “So, do ya think we have enough food?” joke, and that even saying something like “I don’t even care how many calories this has!” is triggering for us, but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. I’m only three years out of treatment and Rosie’s on a similar timeline, and I don’t know if this is really too much to ask.

Instead, neither of us are going home this year. The anxiety of having to deal is too much, so we’re just removing ourselves from the situation and staying in our respective east coast cities while our family gathers in California. We’ll have separate Friendsgivings that we’re both doing a ton of cooking for, and we’ll enjoy our meals around supportive, drunk idiots that we love.

Photo: Flickr