Is It Ok To Give Food Related Christmas Presents To People With Eating Disorders?

As soon as winter rolls around, there are certain questions that suddenly pop up every time you interact with another human. These questions vary but include things like:
“Are you doing anything nice for Christmas?”
“What do you want for Christmas?”
“Do you really need to buy more penguin themed decorations this year?” (Yes. Yes I do)…
And of course the ever sigh inducing “Have you started your Christmas shopping yet?”

Due to the birth of commercialisation and consumerism (two things that, although very much involved in Christmas, were not actually born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger), Christmas shopping is a big stress over the festive season both for money reasons and of course wondering what the hell to buy for everyone. Mental health wise however, there are further complications because sometimes there is a question not just to what you should buy a friend or relative, but whether there is anything that you should definitely not be buying…

As you may know, I have a lot of friends with eating disorders and several of these friends have come to me in the past exasperated and fed up, poised with a story to tell me about a distant relative who sent them food as a birthday or Christmas present. I know a lot of people with eating disorders might get frustrated, find the gift insensitive, rude, or even cruel, like taunting an alcoholic with a bottle of gin, and the majority of people I know have stated that “people should not give food related presents to people with eating disorders”.

I think that one of the difficulties in this issue, is trying to decide whose responsibility it is for someone to manage the whole gift giving/receiving situation. Is it the responsibility of the person who is choosing the gift to give (maybe an unfair burden considering not everyone will know every personal detail of whoever they are buying for this December and surely if it is “the thought that counts” any present is incredibly kind and generous), or is it the responsibility of the person receiving the gift, to manage what it is appropriately for them?
If you give a Dolly Parton hater (for-shame! Come on now, you have to at least like Jolene? 9-5? IT IS A SONG ABOUT THE MONOTONY OF WORK LIFE! DOLLY GETS US!), a copy of Dolly Parton’s Greatest hits, whose responsibility is it to deal with the CD? The gift giver for not knowing about a person’s hatred of the world’s greatest country singer and for not being too careful, or is it the responsibility of the gift receiver to simply donate the generous present to a charity shop where it can be enjoyed by someone else who is able to appreciate a bit of “I will always love you” blasting from the speakers? However, what if a gift is medically inappropriate? Whose responsibility is it to manage then?

For example what about Horris who is deathly allergic to peanuts? Maybe Horris didn’t write a Christmas list this year (always a risky move), and maybe his third cousin twice removed’s husband’s goldfish wants to send Horris a gift (for he is a very generous goldfish), but is unaware of Horris’ unfortunate peanut condition.
If this lovely Christmas loving goldfish sends Horris three tonnes of peanut butter, a t-shirt made from knitted peanuts and a trip to the “World of Peanut” theme park with the “Ultimate Peanut Experience Peanut roller coaster” (you ride around the track within the shell of a giant genetically modified peanut and then at the end enter a flume tube filled with peanut butter that will leave you utterly soaked upon plunging into it). If Horris uses this ticket to the theme park, surely it is partly his fault for not taking proper care of his health requirements (aka the requirement to not plunge into a pool of peanut butter at 100mph in the shell of a giant peanut). Then again, what if Horris is so allergic that the mere sight of the ticket and the tonne of peanut butter sends him off in an allergic reaction without him having any warning of the deadly gift? Who do we blame? Goldfish or Horris? Surely this is a very different kettle of ethics than the previous Dolly Parton debate? So what about people with eating disorders?

On one hand, as a person with an Eating disorder myself, I can see the point of those who say that giving food as a present to someone with an eating disorder is inappropriate or something they don’t like happening. It can indeed be frustrating to be given food presents that you fear every year and are possibly unable to enjoy due to your illness. I have heard people with anorexia say that it makes them feel more isolated from the rest of the Christmas festivities because being given, say a Christmas present that is a box of merry smiling gingerbread men with chocolate buttons, a freshly cut yule log or a batch of homemade mince pies is like being shown something “normal” about Christmas that others can enjoy and that they may want to take part in like other people, but due to their illness, feel they can’t. Some could say that getting food presents makes them feel misunderstood or like their problems/disorders have not been taken seriously, belittled and assumed to be “a mild difficulty with food” that can easily be solved if you put a nice bow on a box of chocolate penguins, rather than a fully fledged eating disorder ruining their lives no matter how many bows you stick on top of that box of rich 70% cocoa waddlers.
As well as food presents for disordered eaters being problematic in the sense the present receiver may be too scared to enjoy them, there is also the risk that food presents could trigger someone in other ways, for example someone who feels the compulsion to binge and maybe purge afterwards. Some sufferers keep certain foods that they are likely to binge on out of the house to make them feel more in control, so when that food is suddenly handed to them wrapped in glittery ribbon tied paper, they struggle to deal with it in the way they might like to when fighting their disorder.

That said, though what I am about to say is something most Eating Disorder sufferers would disagree with, I don’t think that people should put a full-on ban on food presents for people with eating disorders and I think that getting a food present once in a while is more likely to help rather than hinder your recovery.
What if one Christmas as the countdown to the 25th was underway, you went into some form of new treatment that you started to find more beneficial than any you had tried before. What if an image of what life could be like without your eating disorder started to give you hope in a positive future and what if, like a Christmas miracle, your eating disorder backed off a bit and you felt strong and determined enough to kick some ass. What if in this Christmas miracle you became so inspired to fight your demons that you made a promise to join in on all the scary Christmas food things this year, finally buy that advent calendar, make that gingerbread house with the candy cane decorations, try one of Aunt Enid’s famous mince pies and join in on all the party canapé platters at the work Christmas buffet (I hear the brie and cranberry filo tarts and chocolate penguin profiteroles are a delight). What if all of these goals arise, all this determination to fight and join in with everyone else…and then nobody gives you the opportunity to do any of it because they are all too scared to offer you that filo tart or wrap up that tub of Celebrations. To me, that would be incredibly triggering, if I were to be there ready to fight, ready to eat and join in and everyone just left me out anyway because they assumed I wouldn’t do it. This year, considering i am in hospital and not particularly well right now, that assumption might be right but in my head, never being given food presents at Christmas or any other time of year like Easter or a birthday, is simply a way of other people confirming the idea you already have in your head that you don’t deserve or need food and therefore shouldn’t eat it. People treat you like an eating disorder and you will find it hard to see another identity for yourself. Furthermore, when would the food ban stop and would it ever? How would that be decided and wouldn’t that be more triggering in itself to have food presents suddenly reintroduced? If you have an eating disorder at one point, are families to avoid food gifts even if you are recovered “just incase” which again isolates you from certain celebrations. Yes food can be triggering as a gift but wouldn’t it be more triggering to be very unwell for years and then one year to be maybe doing a little better mentally and physically, so much so that people notice, give you food and then you freak out thinking that they are insinuating that you “aren’t ill anymore” or that they think you have put on weight so are clearly fine with eating again.
Personally to avoid all of these issues, when it comes to food presents, I would rather be treated as normal, like everyone else, receiving the odd box of Quality Street and being offered the iced mince pies. Even if I can’t accept the mince pies or have to give the Quality Street to my mum, I would rather they were there to make other people treat me “normally” until I am in a place to play that role of “normal person who eats food presents at Christmas and gets two candy canes stuck in their gums by getting a bit too enthusiastic when impersonating a walrus”.

Overall though, I guess that with this topic, it is impossible to make any conclusion because whether or not you give food to someone with an eating disorder is going to be a tricky thing to gauge and will vary from person to person. As I said, even I and my group of friends who share the diagnosis feel very differently about the topic so to be on the safe side, if you are wondering whether or not to give someone with an eating disorder a food related gift, you might want to check with the individual or maybe a relative of that individual first to see how they might react to it. There are many types of eating disorder and even people with the same one will experience them differently at different times, such as when they are going through periods of relapse or recovery, so as much as I would like to have given you a black and white simple answer (and we all know how much I love things that are black and white ahem penguins ahem), I am afraid I will have to conclude in a rather hazy grey as the answer will vary from person to person.
All I would say is, if you are the gift giver, try not to get too anxious or caught up in overthinking it because ultimately you have a 50/50 shot of getting it right and if you get it wrong, it isn’t your fault, nor does it make you a bad person. Similarly, if you are the receiver I am sorry if food present wise, things don’t go your way this year, but equally remember that other people may not be thinking as deeply into the meaning or significance of a box of chocolates as you might be and maybe it is just their way of trying to show they think you are pretty awesome. A Christmas present is a Christmas present, it isn’t a holy significant statement laden with meaning as to how someone views you or your body, it is a sign of appreciation, a sign someone cares, and at the end of the day, it is always the thought that counts.

Take care everyone x

Pudding blog

I’m Scared I Killed Victoria Wood – The Problem With Having OCD And An Inflated Sense Of Responsibility

In the past few months, an unusually high number of well known celebrities (well known in the UK at least), have died. It feels like every other day that I go onto Facebook and find new pictures of the recently deceased posted by friends in mourning. I understand that people die all the time, people who go unreported, people nobody mourns on Facebook because they weren’t “well known”, were just a nameless number in some horrendous incident in a different country that people care far less about because they don’t relate to it as much. I understand that all these celebrity deaths are not in fact a rise in the number of people dying overall, but still I can’t help but feel something has changed, something to cause it, and that that something is me.

When people have OCD there are various things that drive them in their rituals. Some simply carry them out until they “feel right”, whatever that “right” feeling is, but many, myself included, carry them out because they are fearful of what will happen if they don’t, that not carrying the tasks out is not just distressing but dangerous to either themselves or the people around them. Whenever I talk to professionals about this (professional people in the world of psychiatry I mean, not general professionals like professional penguin keepers who I feel would be less interested in my mental health problems), they call it having “an inflated sense of responsibility” a common symptom of OCD.
This symptom is pretty self explanatory from the name of it, but basically it makes sufferers feel as if their simple actions, like opening a door, are far more significant than they are, can control the world in irrational ways, that individually they have some great power which can cause events and impact the world. It can feel like tiny daily tasks have a ripple effect out onto the universe, like sitting down in a chair incorrectly will cause a totally unrelated event to happen elsewhere, such as an earthquake or tsunami. Of course when something “bad” happens that the sufferer wrongly blames themselves for, they are just connecting two totally separate things that coincidentally happened around the same time, but still it can be and is really frightening.

This sense of inflated responsibility is one of the reasons why OCD tends to get a lot worse for people when they are in stressful situations, things with a debatable outcome that they desperately want to have some control over or impact in favour of a positive result. In a way it is a comforting thought to think that you can influence things as if by “magical thinking”, even “sane” people without OCD do it all the time, like when musicians might wear their “lucky pants” with the aim of ensuring a good performance. The problem is that with OCD, this responsibility never seems to correspond to good events or making positive things happen, you can’t tap a door knob and “cause” yourself to win the lottery or anything, even to the irrational OCD, that idea is just silly. Instead, this power people feel they have can only do evil and not good, which when you think about it is quite possibly the worst superpower to feel you have of all time. I think I would rather feel I had powers like spiderman with the ability to spout webs all over the place, and I don’t even like spiders. Or close fitting lycra suits.

I remember sitting in the exam hall at school during my maths GCSE 8 years ago and being in a massive dilemma, a dilemma caused by this inflated sense of responsibility and not just a dilemma everyone faces when they are sitting before a maths paper.
In my world of OCD I had, and continue to have, both lucky and unlucky numbers, and for one of the questions early on, the answer was one of the unluckiest numbers to exist in my eyes. I can’t even write it here because it scares me, so I am just going to pretend the answer was “X” for the purpose of this post because that is what you are supposed to do in maths when you can’t write the number (cheers for that algebra). I knew 100% that the answer was X, I had checked it and rechecked it multiple times but still I could not write it down. I feared that if I wrote “X”, that my parents would die. I knew that in terms of maths, to write anything else would be wrong and I wouldn’t get the mark, but that seemed like a far preferable outcome to losing my loved ones. You might be wondering why I had this sense of a dilemma when obviously if the choice was ever “lose a mark or kill your parents” everyone would lose the mark, but whilst fearing this, I knew it was “just” my OCD freaking me out. My psychologist at the time was always telling me to challenge the OCD, to go against it because only then could you prove that all it spouted was lies. I wanted to do as she said, ignore the OCD and write “X” anyway because writing numbers doesn’t really have the ability to kill your parents, but I was too terrified, so in the end I had to write the wrong answer on purpose. This dilemma came up several times during the course of the exam (a surprising amount of my “unlucky numbers” came up in the 2008 GCSE maths paper), and every time I purposefully wrote the wrong answer. It was infuriating and I wanted to scream, but annoyingly that is something you are not allowed to do in a GCSE exam, as “no screaming” is in fact the rule just after “no mobile phones”, so I just sat there being controlled by this inflated sense of responsibility and importance I felt my maths answers had.

This influx of celebrity deaths has triggered me so much that I genuinely feel the need to apologise to everyone reading this for murdering these famous people of whom so many people are fans and are upset about. Nevertheless, I wanted to try and find some kind of positive or useful outcome from this trigger which is why I am writing about it to hopefully explain a bit more about this aspect of OCD. Now I guess the task is to just try and not let this impact my rituals more than it already has…I am just scared as to who my actions could hurt next.

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(Just incase you don’t get it, the picture above is literally an inflated “sense of responsibility”…this probably doesn’t need any explaining and is nowhere near as clever as I think it is but just wanted to point it out because I was pretty proud of that little pun…It’s hilarious…no?…Ok never mind I will leave now so you can get back on with your day)