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How to Handle My Eating Disorder in Your Home for the Holidays

For those of us who have struggled with eating disorders, being home for this season -- the combination of food and family -- is an incredibly fraught scenario.
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This post was written by Meike Schleiff, 22, an author of RED the Book, a collection of essays written by 58 American teenage girls, now available in paperback. She studied at Berea College in Kentucky and has led numerous public speaking and workshop events surrounding body image, eating disorders, and violence against women. She currently works with the West Virginia not-for-profit High Rocks, which mentors girls through high school and college.

There are cookies and hams and mashed potatoes everywhere at the moment. You may have noticed this. You may be watching what you eat. If you have a teenage girl or young woman at your table over the holidays, she may be watching it more.

For those of us who have struggled with eating disorders, being home for this season -- the combination of food and family -- is an incredibly fraught scenario. Factor in this year's debate about health care, and it's a potentially terrifying threat to us, to your daughter or sister or cousin. Her eating disorder, which is all about secrecy, is at risk of being exposed in the worst way.

At least one in five women in this country has an eating disorder, and 95 percent of us are between the ages of 12 and 25. A young woman with anorexia is 12 times more likely to die than other women her age (15 to 24).

You may have heard these numbers, but they don't really hit home until you have to navigate weeks of food -- making it, serving it, eating it -- with someone you love who sees every calorie as the enemy. What do you do with her, there between semesters and seeming dangerously thin and sensitive?

I'll tell you what I know, because this time of year can be the turning point, for better or for worse. It was for me. Here's where I was, December four years ago, at home during my sophomore year of college: I'd lost a third of my body weight. My eating disorders had led me to pass out, to once drink laundry detergent to make myself throw up. I had panic attacks and I couldn't sleep.

But that Christmas at home with my family broke these patterns. Home was a relatively happy and safe place for me. Certain things the people around me said and did -- and didn't -- saved me from falling down so far that it would have been impossible to get back up.

If you have someone like I was then at your table for the holidays, helping her isn't about busting her or getting her on a doctor's scale. It's about showing her that you love and support her -- just being on her side, no matter what is easy or expected or comfortable. Only then will she trust you and feel secure enough to start taking care of herself, to ask for help.

When I came home, everyone knew something was wrong. How does bad news travel so fast and attract all sorts of curious, rude, and provocative comments? If you must say something, tell us we are smart or brave or special (anything out of the body realm), or that you are glad we're with you and happy today. Don't talk behind our backs about what you think our problems are.

If we're eating -- eating anything -- let us eat. Let us make our own decisions. Try to put your own weight and diet concerns aside. If we decide we don't want any dessert, let it go. If we decide to sample only the veggie tray, look the other way and enjoy your next course to show that it is OK, that no one's keeping score the way our own inner invader is.

I remember that December, walking through the kitchen in the jogging pants I'd just bought (because nothing else would stay up) and feeling my mum's eyes on me: too much hip bone. Still, she said, when I had my finger in the cookie dough: "You've been eating that stuff all afternoon. You shouldn't eat so much of that!" Who cares what I was eating at that stage? Point is, I felt like eating, and this should be encouraged.

A good way to do so is to make sure you're offering, right there with the holiday regulars, something you know your loved one will eat. Chocolate or pretzels or hummus or sunflower seeds--again, who cares? The only things I felt good about eating for a while were carrots, apples, and a little bit of peanut butter, so they were always well stocked. My brothers and I would all cut up apples and pass around a knife to spread peanut butter on the slices. That snack is a favorite in our house to this day.

Back then, it took some of the pressure off me for passing on the ham and gravy. I could stay in a comfort zone during a meal without calling too much attention to the matter. Stand by us, please, if we are being pressured by anyone to eat anything we don't want to. Intervene for us sometimes. Take the heat from Grandma.

Also, please don't sit there and say, no, you shouldn't have another piece of pie because then you will have to go to the gym in the morning and run an extra mile to burn off those calories you've started quoting for each dessert. It makes us start to shiver and feel sick to our stomachs and want to go work it off for you, on top of for us.

My oldest brother never questioned me about my weight or talked about his. He ate everything in front of him and enjoyed it. He really loved to have fun with me and brought his happiness that winter in the form of races up the driveway and snowball fights and sitting around playing Uno. He made me remember there was more to life than calories and scales and an impossible idea of perfection.

It helps to have something safe like this going on, something not involving food, at every gathering. That Christmas, when I had to escape from the constant dishes, people, questions, phone calls, I decided to organize the hay in our barn (we live on a sheep farm). It was the most peaceful thing to move the soft bales around and hear the muffled thud as they fell back down on top of each other.

Go for walks with us, listen to our music, let us pick the movie, try some of the things we like. Ask us to cook something for the whole family, or ask who we'd like to help who might be hurting this holiday season: Animals? Sick people, old and alone people? Hungry people? Come to the shelter or soup kitchen with us.

Most of all, don't panic. It won't help. What does help is having someone more experienced, steadier, standing there smiling so that we know we can get through this. Support us while we're struggling. Listen to us, and you can save our lives.