As I swallowed my third bite of peppermint bark, a voice in my head started screaming, Ã¢â‚¬Å“What are you doing? You are so gross and have no self-control. Look at you. You are a fat failure.Ã¢â‚¬Â
It was Dec. 22, 2010, but instead of attending holiday parties with my family, I was one week into my stay at the Carolina House, a residential eating disorder treatment center in Durham, NC.
After suffering from both anorexia and bulimia for nearly 15 years, I had lost the motivation to pretend that everything was OK. They say there are functioning alcoholics; well, I was someone functioning with an eating disorder. I was able to write my phases of severe weight loss off as a Ã¢â‚¬Å“teenage phaseÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“the bride diet.Ã¢â‚¬Â My struggles with bulimia were easy to hide from those around me, so not even my husband realized my dark secret. The eating disorder had turned me into a master of manipulation.
This holiday food-induced panic attack sparked by the peppermint bark was nothing new. What was new, though, was that I now had no way to Ã¢â‚¬Å“get rid ofÃ¢â‚¬Â the poisonous sweet I had just consumed. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t lace up my shoes to burn the calories, nor could I go to the bathroom to purge the Ã¢â‚¬Å“caloric mistake.Ã¢â‚¬Â There was only one place to go. I stumbled down the hall to find my therapist, Christy.
I collapsed onto ChristyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s couch and began sobbing uncontrollably. I was never one to cry or show raw emotions in front of others, but I no longer had the energy to keep it all together. I wanted out of my own mind. I wanted freedom from this cruel voice that controlled my every bite and thought.
Christy sat calmly across from me as I covered my tear-soaked face with my hands. My emotional tidal wave made it nearly impossible for me to breath, let alone speak.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Look at me, McCall,Ã¢â‚¬Â Christy said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Take your hands away from your face, and look at me.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Um, what?Ã¢â‚¬Â I thought to myself. My face was drenched in snot and tears; there was no way I was looking up. It was bad enough that I was crying in front of someone.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Look at me,Ã¢â‚¬Â she said again.
Slowly, I lowered my hands and looked Christy in the eye. I sat before this person I barely knew, feeling completely vulnerable and ashamed of my raw emotions. Christy tried to guide me through a few breathing exercises, but I was unresponsive. All I could mutter was, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t.Ã¢â‚¬Â
She reassured me that I was OK, and then she asked me to name a place where I felt safe and describe it to her.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The top of the Blue Ridge mountains with the sun setting,Ã¢â‚¬Â I said.
We talked more about my beloved mountain happy place, and I eventually regained my breath. Without my even realizing it, my peppermint bark panic had diminished. It was the first time I had truly let go. Let go of my fears of imperfection, fears of judgment and shame, and fears of discovering the real pain behind the numbers on my scale.
Christy explained that my panic attack was normal and that it would probably happen again. However, I was in a safe place and was learning how to deal with these emotions without my eating disorder.
You might think a Christmas spent in treatment would be a nightmare IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d want to forget, but my Carolina House Christmas brought me the gift of recovery and gave me the skills I needed to cope with lifeÃ¢â‚¬”without my eating disorder.
Recovery has taught me that the holidays arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t about the number on the scale or fitting into a certain party dress. The holidays are a time to be mindful and present with the people in our lives and to let our hearts be open to the not-so-obvious blessings that surround usÃ¢â‚¬”whether thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s allowing yourself to truly enjoy a bite of peppermint bark (which I often do now) or to see the magic of the holiday season through my 2-year-old sonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s eyes. My holidays arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t all about food now, but they arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t all about avoiding it, eitherÃ¢â‚¬”and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s exactly how it should be.
McCall Dempsey is the founder of Southern Smash, an eating disorder awareness group. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA.