While the festive season may be a celebratory time for many, it can be particularly stressful for those with an eating disorder.
A time of year when food becomes the focus of many celebrations, Ellen Maloney says that for her, she would begin to dread the festive period around September.
“Christmas was always a really stressful time of year for me, particularly because everything I relied on – routines and familiarity to feel a bit safer – for a few weeks, nothing was familiar, everything normal was suspended for a few weeks,” she explains.
“It’s really a disorientating time of year, I think there is a lot of pressure for people to be happy and be celebrating.”
The 37-year-old was first hospitalised at 12 with anorexia, spending most of her teenage years and her 20s in and out of hospital and treatment facilities.
“It occupied every second of my time and energy, every thought was just about food and calories, what I was going to eat, when I was going to eat it,” she says.
“I couldn’t really think about anything else, so it was really isolating. It was hard to have any kind of life outside my eating disorder. It was just really debilitating and lonely.”
With such focus placed on eating during the festive period, Ellen would become concerned about comments from people and eating at parties.
“I would be worried about people commenting on my weight and saying things like ‘you’re looking really well’, which for me I might interpret as ‘you’ve gained weight’.
“That was always really stressful.”
Now in recovery, Ellen says that plans for an eating disorder charity to help support Edinburgh-based parents and carers over the Christmas period is welcome.
Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, will offer Coping with Christmas, an interactive one-day course designed for those who have been caring for someone with anorexia, bulimia and/or binge eating disorder for less than five years.
The training will empower carers and equip them with the skills to support someone with an eating disorder over the festive period, so that they feel more in control and less overwhelmed.
Alongside the training, carers will also hear from other families affected by eating disorders who have been in similar situations.
It is estimated that there are 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder, with illnesses costing families an average of £32,672 a year in travel expenses, lost income and other costs.
Colleen Rowley-Smith, training manager at Beat, said: “Christmastime can cause a lot of anxiety for people with eating disorders and their families as it is such a social occasion.
“It’s easy to feel “on show” and the extra pressure can sometimes lead to an unpleasant experience.
“This course was developed after receiving feedback from carers that they need a little extra support during the festive season, and we hope to provide them with the skills to make Christmas easier for all.”
Ellen says that for her, talking to people about her concerns about the festive period can help, as well as reducing the amount of pressure she puts upon herself.
“When I think about that glass wall between me and other people, reaching out to other people is really important and talking about these things makes it feel a bit less scary and sometimes you can get a different perspective on them,” she says.
“Ease up on the pressure you put on yourself. I think there is a lot of expectations at this time of year and I think so much of it is unnecessary.
“I still find this time of year really stressful, so now I find my own ways to manage things.
“I don’t need to prove that I am recovered by going to a party and eating in front of people, I just think ‘I’m going to enjoy this my way’. I think people should do that more.
“I think eating disorders are a symptom of a much bigger problem and it is about how people think and feel rather than just a label which means the same for every person, because no two people experience it the same way.”
The Coping with Christmas course will be held on Saturday November 30 at Edinburgh Training and Conference Centre from 9:30am to 4.30pm.
Places are limited and a refundable £10 deposit is needed to secure a place, which will be returned upon attendance.