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Why my disorder makes Christmas dinner so triggering

After recovering from a 15+ year experience with an eating disorder, Courtney opens up about how food-centric holidays, like Christmas, could be so hard.

Note: This article discusses eating disorders. Please take care while reading, and see the end of the story for helpful resources.

An Aussie who lived with an eating disorder for over 15 years has shared just how much "pressure" there is around Christmas and other food-centric holidays.

Courtney Rattle, 35, was in her late teens when she was diagnosed with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. "I feel like it took over my life," she told Yahoo News Australia. "It took over my relationships and my ability to enjoy study, work and travel."

She said the constant "eating disorder voice" that was always there "running the show" would be egged on by the holiday season. "I always just felt this pressure. What's it going to be like? How much food is there going to be? Are people going to pressure me to eat?"

Photos of Courtney Rattle, who speaks to Yahoo about what it was like having an eating disorder during the holidays.
Now recovered, Courtney Rattle shares what it was like living with an eating disorder over Christmas. Source: Supplied

Around one million Australians experience an eating disorder, and anorexia nervosa is just one of the many complex, potentially life-threatening disorders that fall under this serious mental illness. This extra distress around Christmas means the Butterfly Foundation is anticipating a giant surge in people contacting their national helpline and other services over the break.

Courtney, from NSW, describes living with the disorder as "like having a full-time job". "[It's] a job no one can actually see but you're doing at least your best to manage all the time, and still trying to deal with all the other things in life," she reveals.

Like 75 per cent of others with an eating disorder diagnosis, Courtney struggled with a persistent inner dialogue revolving around weight, shape, and eating behaviours, referred to by the Butterfly Foundation as "noise" or a "voice". "Sometimes it [was] confusing to know definitely who you are and where your voice is".

Eating disorders exacerbated during Christmas

Butterfly shares they have seen a "consistent year-on-year increase" in calls to its helpline during the holiday period — something made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year between December, 2022 and January, 2023 Butterfly received 15 per cent more calls than the same time in the previous year, and a substantial 32 per cent increase compared to 2019.

While Courtney was living with her eating disorder, the holiday season was always filled with exhaustion and fear. "It was just a nervousness all the time, trying to keep up with planning in my head [and] pre-planning what was going to be okay [to eat], how much I could have".

Image of a large Christmas tree in Australia.
Christmas is a holiday that focuses heavily on food which can add stress for those living with an eating disorder. Source: Getty

What can family and friends do to help this Christmas?

A group Christmas event is not the place to confront someone about an eating disorder, or to comment on the way they eat or look. During holiday events, support your loved one's presence there, talk to them as you would normally, and do not pass judgment on their consumption, Courtney says.

"If I knew someone with an eating disorder or disordered eating I would talk to them about different stuff so it's not so food orientated — if it's all food orientated, they're never going to feel included," Courtney says of being at a Christmas Day gathering.

Recovery is different for everyone and may require distance

Though Courtney has been recovered for three years now, she shares that she still has not been back to have Christmas with her "bloodline" family in five years.

"I feel like I have a family where I live and they've supported me in different ways throughout the end of my recovery, so it's really whatever is working holistically to bring someone back to themselves," she said.

"For me, my mom was triggering and at the end of the day, we just have to do what we have to do to recover and that would look so different to everyone".

How to bring up concerns if you suspect a person has an eating disorder

Butterfly advises that if you suspect your close friend or family member has an eating disorder and you want to approach them about it, plan when you are going to approach them and choose a time and place — away from food — to meet that is private, quiet and comfortable.

Courtney notes that bringing it up is an important thing to do, but it's also important you don't expect a certain reaction as each case is very individual. For tips on what to say, click here.

Showing support for someone getting help for an eating disorder

There are many ways you can show support if a loved one is living with an eating disorder. One key way Butterfly shares is to "act normally around food".

"If you are going out somewhere and there is likely to be food involved, don’t avoid asking your friend to come with you," Butterfly Foundation advises. "If you are asking a group of friends if they want something to eat or drink then include this friend. If they say ‘no’, that’s fine." For other ways you can show support, click here.

Eating disorder warning signs: What to look out for

People who suffer from an eating disorder are all different so there is not one symptom or group of symptoms that fits all. Below are just some that may be present according to Butterfly:

  • Rapid weight loss or frequent weight changes

  • Feeling anxious and or irritable around meal times

  • Dieting behaviour (e.g. fasting, counting calories/kilojoules, avoiding food groups)

  • Avoiding meals with other people

  • Evidence of binge eating (e.g. disappearance and/or hoarding of food)

  • Frequent trips to the bathroom during or shortly after meals

  • Compulsive or excessive exercising

  • Obsessive rituals around food preparation and eating.

If you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder, contact the Butterfly Foundation national helpline on 1800 334 673 or chat online. For mental health support contact Beyond Blue online or on 1300 22 4636; or Lifeline on 13 11 13 or visit lifeline.org.au.

Do you have a story tip? Email: newsroomau@yahoonews.com.

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