Family gatherings are inherently stressful for many of us. Family dynamics can be complicated, and our families have seen us at our best, our worst, and everything in between. When you are in recovery from bulimia or another eating disorder, family gatherings can be even more treacherous. Food is an integral part of most family gatherings, which complicates things. Family members may not understand your experiences or your recovery efforts. And, unfortunately, family members may not know (and honor) your boundaries.
Here are a few tips for making family gatherings more tolerable when you or a loved one is in recovery:
1. You have the right to say no
If your instinct is telling you to avoid your family gathering, you have every right to listen to your gut and opt out. Will some family members be offended? Maybe. The people who support you will understand, though, if you’re not ready to deal with the complexities of a family gathering. You always have the right to set boundaries, and if your boundary is not going there, that’s okay.
As an alternative, you could opt for a smaller gather with family members you’re comfortable with. Ultimately, though, there’s nothing wrong with saying no.
2. Talk to your treatment team
It’s okay to be nervous before a big, food-oriented event. Your treatment team is there to help. They can work with you on your specific concerns, whether they are around what foods will be present or about well-meaning but triggering comments from your great aunt. They can help you decide on a strategy that works for you.
3. Find (or be) a support person
You don’t need to cope with a family gathering alone. Find a family member you’re comfortable with (or offer to be that family member to your loved one). Ask them to stick with you during the event and distract you if you’re looking nervous or uncomfortable. You may even want to come up with a code word to escape uncomfortable situations or talk about what family members you want to avoid.
4. Find out the menu
If you or a loved one is nervous about the amount or types of food that will be served, ask the host what’s on the menu. It might feel a bit awkward, but it can help to know what to expect. It’s not uncommon these days to ask about what’s going to be served in a given situation. You don’t need to give a reason for asking; just ask.
5. Write a script
You probably have some idea of what family members might say that could be triggering. For example, in some families, it’s common for people to comment on someone’s weight. Write a script for how you plan to respond to those comments. It could be as simple as “Please don’t comment on my appearance. I’m doing well, though. How is your cat/dog/child?” People love to talk about themselves, so redirecting the conversation back to them is a great strategy.
If the person is someone you feel comfortable opening up to, you could let them know that discussing weight, body size, and dieting aren’t helpful for you. If the family member is particularly persistent or upsetting, work with your support person on an escape/avoidance plan.
6. Write a pep talk
Chances are, at some point during or after the meal, you might feel scared or uncomfortable. What sayings or thoughts have been helpful for you? Write a note on your phone to help you remember the sayings or strategies you want to use during the event. Even a reminder to take a few deep breaths can help.
7. Try to stick to your routine
Family gatherings are sometimes at weird times, so it might be tempting to skip a meal or “save your appetite.” Try to stick to your routine as much as possible. You don’t need to save your appetite or compensate for the meal you’re going to have later. It’s okay to eat.
8. Focus on your relationships
When you have an eating disorder, food and compensatory behaviors can become consuming. In recovery, you have a chance to refocus. During a family gathering, take the time to talk to the relatives you really enjoy. If you have social anxiety, think of a few questions you could ask your favorite family members. Even a simple, “How are you?” is a great way to start a conversation. Listen to their response, and look for ways to dig deeper and learn more about them.
Even though food might seem like the reason for the gathering, it’s really not. Family gatherings are about reconnecting with your loved ones. If small talk isn’t your thing (it’s not mine) maybe suggest a game like Pictionary or Scattergories for after your meal. Games are a great distraction, and are often pretty funny. You might discover your little cousin has the same dry wit you do.
Family members usually mean well, and it can be hard not to take their comments personally. Use your script, lean on your support person, and ask your team for help. You can do this!