This essay is about my eating disorder and treatment but it’s also about recovery and joy. It’s more graphic than my usual discussion of similar issues. Read at your discretion. If personal essays aren’t your thing, that’s cool too. Thank you.
I don’t know when my eating disorder started. I tend to blame it on the ubiquitous experience of pre-teen girls comparing how little they eat as a response to cultural pressure to be thin. I’ll also blame it on my mom. Depends on the day. I’m not sure you can pinpoint why some people slip into a life ruining spiral from the same kind of comments that don’t touch others.
All I know is about myself.
And that self has been deeply embarrassed for as long as I can remember. Painfully embarrassed. At the same time, I do want attention. It’s a silly dichotomy. Please look at me but only react in the way I want you to and only do the things I want you to.
Eating disorders are all about control. I can’t control the way other people react to me or what they do. I’ve never liked that.
When I was 16, I entered first a suicide and self injury treatment center at a hospital. After a while there they deduced the actual underlying problem was an eating disorder so I went instead to a different area to get treatment for that. There’s a lot of bizarre trauma that came from that. For example, learning people receiving treatment for eating disorders who have been patients had created hierarchies of what is a “good” vs “bad” disorder. The anorexics were cool. Bulimics were not. Anything else was made fun of. I’ll never forget someone making fun of another patient’s “barf breath.”
I don’t remember a lot of that time except it was the same time I heard my first Wonder Years song, what the waiting room looked like, and the day I entered treatment.
The first day I was there was Thanksgiving. It was a “challenge day” and everybody went in this little gymnasium where they had buffet style food. For me, a terrified teenager isolated from everything I’ve ever known, I couldn’t believe they’d had me admitted that day. I had some communication with someone recently who told me they decided to leave their job treating eating disorder patients in facilities similar to the one I’d experienced due to similar issues with admittance. Turns out admitting people right before weekends or holidays is kind of a non-starter for treatment! Who knew!
That Thanksgiving in 2013 lives in my mind everyday. I finished that program and convinced them to discharge me as quick as I could. I don’t think it was necessarily bad but I also don’t think I felt a sense of control over my eating behavior until over 5 years later. Part of that is my longterm love for things like high fashion and models. Part of it is dieticians and nutritionists that obviously were used to treating patients who desired weight loss. Part of it is my psychiatrist that insisted on telling me my weight every time I went in there.
These things that live in my brain as more painful than the purging I put myself through everyday. But everyday I think about that behavior and I miss it. I miss the feeling constantly. You’re not supposed to say that when you’re recovered. Certainly not when you’ve gained a bunch of weight in the last year. Certainly not 7 years after you got treatment.
I think I’d always had issues with Thanksgiving but after that first treatment day it turned into something I couldn’t even think about. I hate it to this day. A holiday built around eating was an issue for me always but that paired with the shame and embarrassment of a first day in treatment when everybody from patients to therapists were horrible? Unimaginably painful. I think this all tracks pretty east but the holidays don’t live as unilaterally horrible experiences and I guess that’s what this is really about.
I’ve always had a lot of affection for Christmas. I still do. It feels warm in a way no other holiday ever has for me.
I love putting up the tree in my parents’ front room by the piano that hasn’t been in tune since I was probably 10. I love the way my mom tells me I’m not putting ornaments on in the right way. I love the way the candles smell. I love the hyper intentional decoration. I love finding the books we used to read all together as a family when I was a kid. I love the movies and the songs. I love my mom’s Christmas dishes she has me and my sisters pull out from under the basement stairs to use maybe three times.
I love the formality. I love the tradition. I love knowing what to expect.
My family does Christmas Eve by making pizza and sort of bar food appetizers. Potato skins, mozzarella sticks, that kind of thing. We also open a gift. It used to always be pajamas but not so much the last few years. We listen to some Christmas radio station and talk loudly in the kitchen. My mom likes to make cookies but I’d bet over 50% get thrown away. We would usually go to the State Street Macy’s in Chicago and look at the window displays and the massive tree inside.
I think I can still be quite a formal person. I like having a lot of control and knowing what to expect. I like minimizing the possibility for embarrassing myself. In pursuit of that, I’m not a casual person in most respects. I think that’s why I don’t like Halloween. It feels too much like an excuse to embarrass myself. I never liked it as a kid because it felt like too much pressure and too much attention on your appearance and comparing that appearance to other people.
I’ve always found a lot of comfort in being able to hide behind Christmas music and movies and I think that’s why the overly early introduction of all Christmas radio all the time never bothered me. It told me some kind of comfort and warmth was coming after the hell that always is August to November for me.
The weather in Chicago always felt the worst January to March but if I could get there at least I could just be mad about the cold and the wind instead of the trauma of destroying my body for so long.
Religion was never a huge part of my life as a kid. I know I went but as soon as my two older sisters were old enough to play in weekend volleyball tournaments it kinda went by the wayside. They were confirmed, I wasn’t. I got more of a choice. My most significant church memory is of my grandfather bringing my cousin and I out of my grandmother’s church because the pastor started saying weird anti-abortion or homophobic rhetoric that he didn’t vibe with. I think we got food after. I don’t remember. I just know we left with him.
Christmas was not a fully secular thing, my parents maintain religion. I know and respect that. But it certainly had more focus on joy and togetherness instead of religious messaging. We had nativity scenes and stuff like that but when I think Christmas I think claymation films, 2D animated Frosty the Snowman, and White Christmas (or is it Holiday Inn?).
Listening to classic Christmas covers and seeing Mariah Carey’s Christmas album on vinyl and uncovering old No Sleep Records holiday comps always bring me a lot of joy. I’ve always had a preference for No Sleep Til Christmas 3. Balance and Composure, Into it. Over it., Seahaven, The Swellers, La Dispute?! Speaking directly to my teenage heart.
I also immediately think of my dad singing the Heat Miser/Snow Miser song from A Year Without A Santa Claus in an over exaggerated tone. Same goes for the Burgermeister Meisterburger song from my personal favorite Christmas film, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.
I think The Grinch and my oldest sister playing the song Cindy Lou Who sings way too much.
I think of the year we went to see the Polar Express in IMAX. To this day I'm freaked out by that movie but my mom loves it. It still makes me want hot chocolate though. My same sister played When Christmas Comes To Town way too much, too.
Christian holidays are without a doubt centered in a way that’s not fair. It is impossible to overlook that Christmas is seen as something to commit to while not even considering the possibility those of other faiths have already sacrificed their holidays. That’s always been true in America and is only highlighted by a pandemic that continues on.
But I’ll speak selfishly. For me Christmas, and the entire spread of December, will always represent an onset of media that can take up space in my brain usually being eaten alive by the pain Thanksgiving and Halloween cause me. Yeah that’s a lot of advertising. It’s materialistic in so many ways.
But I love playing that out of tune piano and I love my dad making coffee in the morning and I love hating A Christmas Story because that pink bunny outfit makes me cringe out until I have to leave. I love Chicago’s consistently disappointing weather over any holiday. This year my mom is making my sisters take the ornaments our grandmother has gotten us every year since we were little but I always loved that tradition too. She always wraps the package in way too much tape and it’s almost impossible to open the box. (I wonder where my constant worrying comes from?!)
I don’t really know why I wrote this and I know it’s not the kind of thing most of you signed up for but I think overwhelmingly we discuss how holidays can be harmful to mental health. Maybe I wanted to speak to a different experience through the difference the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas can make.
Before I moved to Philadelphia I’d be hanging around my parents’ house every so often updating their “Days Until Christmas” calendar and baking for my mom. Now I’m here and it’s not even cold enough to wear a winter coat.
I think holidays remind me of all the ways my brain isn’t normal. Food and my body take a front seat for most of the last third of year in a terrible way. But I can always find solace in the music and movies that would play for the entire month of December in the house I grew up in.
I guess maybe this essay is more of a reminder to myself that I don’t have to lose that even if I don’t feel like I can escape the pressure of November without being in that house. Those things still exist even when I’m 800 miles away from everything that ever made me comfortable and I can still feel some of that joy.
Miranda Reinert is a zine maker and law student based in Philadelphia. She is looking for friends. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other things like bait tweeting the music community and live tweeting The Sopranos: @mirandareinert. I also just opened up a paid tier of this newsletter which for $5 a month (or $40 a year! what a deal!) you’ll get free zines as I make them and one upon sign up! Wow! But as always, thanks for reading!