Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of eating disorders that may be triggering to some.
“I want you to think of all your favorite foods at Christmas. Boxes of chocolate? A giant roast turkey with all the trimmings? A steaming Christmas pudding with lashings of brandy butter? Endless mince pies? Those were all the most terrifying things for me around Christmas. For over 10 years, I hated Christmas. I was terrified of it.
‘Come on, Joy, just one bite,’ my mom said. ‘No. I don’t think I can,’ I replied, willing Christmas day to be over.
‘Come on, baby, please. Just a little bit. It’s Christmas after all. Just one bite,’ she urged lovingly.
‘Please, don’t, Mom. I can’t,’ I stuttered running out of the room, crying. I reached my bedroom and slumped against the door covering my face with my hands, wishing the ground to swallow me up whole.
In my family, food had always been the greatest expression of love. Meals on birthdays. Chocolates for a good report from school. A warm meal made by my grannie when visiting her in Scotland. All my first memories were of food. I remember at 3 years old, sitting on the riverbank in my hometown with my mom eating KFC out of the bucket. That warm, crisp chicken in my chubby little hand and my mouth covered in grease. Pure happiness.
I became first aware I hated my body at 8 years old. I was bullied relentlessly at school for being ugly. This was the phrase constantly repeated to me, UGLY! UGLY! UGLY!’
I was pale, freckly, and chubby, which in comparison to the popular girls, who were blonde, tan, and athletic, meant I was the target of all their abuse. I look at photos of myself as a child now and just see a beautiful little girl but then I felt incredibly different.
So at 8 years old, I decided to quit sugar on a family holiday to visit my grandparents in Scotland. I just wanted to be thin like the other girls. For a whole week, I didn’t let any sweets, cake, chocolate, or any other item containing sugar to pass my lips. On the 1-week mark, I started to feel faint and very nauseous. Walking down the Highstreet of the small Scottish fishing town, I could feel nausea rising and was unable to control myself as I violently threw up on the pavement. I was absolutely mortified and it only re-iterated there was something ‘wrong’ with me.
At 10 years old, I became a vegetarian in order to lose weight. I didn’t tell anybody else this is why I was becoming vegetarian. I thought this was the best way not to cause alarm. At 13, I started exploring different diets. The cabbage soup diet, the Atkins diet, the G.I. diet, and possibly the worst, the baby food diet.
I didn’t tell anybody else I was trying to lose weight. My parents had recently separated, and my dad had moved across the country. I didn’t want to cause any more worry or concern than was already occurring. I wanted to be a good girl. I wanted to be loved by everybody.
Then I started cutting out more food whilst being as secretive as possible. I would hide breakfast biscuits down the side of the sofa or in DVD cases. I wouldn’t eat anything at school apart from diet energy drinks. I would excuse myself to the toilet after meals to quietly vomit the contents of dinner out of my stomach. Nobody noticed at first, which is just what I wanted: to disappear, to be unseen.
I started buying diet pills and laxatives to try and lose more weight. I bought caffeine pills to keep my energy levels up at school while my stomach burned and my brain whirred so slowly trying to keep up with the pressures of GCSE exams.
Then my mom noticed and was utterly heartbroken. She fought with me over meals. She urged me to eat. She cried as I continued to fade away. But by that point, anorexia had wrapped its way around my brain and I would do anything to keep my anorexic tactics secret.
I was sent to my first eating disorder clinic at 14 years old. I ate the food in order to leave so I could complete my GCSEs. But anorexia still lived in my mind. That first Christmas was painful. The first Christmas without my dad there. The first Christmas anorexic. At 19 years old, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
I collapsed and was sent to a heart failure ward. I was then sent to my second eating disorder clinic. Christmas after Christmas spent in fear. In fear of gaining weight. In fear of losing control. In fear of everything that Christmas represents. It followed the same routine every year: my eating disorder and mental health would get dramatically worse. I would restrict then loosen control and purge.
Panicked by the amount of food, my body dysmorphia would tell me the most horrible lies. ‘You’re getting fat, no-one will ever love you.’ ‘You’re a horrible person and you look disgusting!’
For 13 years, anorexia kept me terrified of Christmas and terrified of sharing food with loved ones at any time of the year. In 2017, Christmas’s got worse. I had started using alcohol as a crutch to support my mental health.
The year prior, I had gone through a heart-breaking end of a 4 year relationship, and my anorexia had relapsed. Alcohol drowned out the mess in my head. As soon as work finished, I would go out drinking with friends, or go home and drink until I fell asleep. That Christmas, I drank my way through, not letting other calories pass my lips. I drank to numb every feeling I could, only waking to start another tearful cycle of my depression. Then by the evening, the drinking would start again to numb that pain.
I went out partying until early in the morning, trying to drown out the thoughts in my head. One day, I came home at 7 a.m., completely high on narcotics to my mom sitting in the living room. She hadn’t slept, and there were tears in her eyes.
‘Oh darling,’ she said as she looked me up and down. My tights were completely ripped, and I had a split lip. I couldn’t remember a thing.
In 2018, I had a mental health breakdown. I was living on 900 calories a day. I was running 10 to 12 miles, 6 days a week. I was working 40 hour weeks. After 13 years of starving myself and a year of severe depression and medicating myself with alcohol, everything came tumbling down.
I could barely leave the house as my panic attacks were so bad. I would stutter and stumble over words working myself into fits of tears. I would have flashes of intrusive thoughts telling me what a horrible person I was and how I deserved to die. So I moved in with my mom for a month while I started to get help. Weirdly enough, this happened in December.
In this time, I had to start confronting everything that was not helping me be mentally well. For 13 years, I had been starving myself so much I couldn’t regulate my emotions. I asked myself, ‘Do I want to spend the rest of my life reducing myself? D0 I want to spend the rest of my life in so much pain? Do I want to spend the rest of my life half a person?’ ABSOLUTELY NOT!
I started getting weekly psychotherapy. I received treatment for an alcohol dependency, and now have a healthy relationship with it. I started eating regular meals and snacks. I cut down on the amount of exercise I was doing.
I started a blog called Joyfull Joy about recovering from anorexia and a mental health breakdown. I used it to document my exploration of food. I tried out different recipes. I made exciting porridges. I went to different restaurants. I celebrated the changes in my body. I cried over the changes in my body. I celebrated how much better my brain worked. I documented everything as a way of processing the changes in my life.
I threw myself headfirst into recovery, and for the first time in my life, fully chose it.
The process was incredibly difficult, and if it weren’t for my incredibly supportive friends and loved ones who held my hand while I cried over food or even leaving the house, I would not be who I was today.
As I became fully recovered, my blog developed into me becoming a mental health advocate. I spoke openly and honestly about my journey in order to help others who were suffering with their mental health. I converted my past into something positive to support the past version of myself who felt so alone in her struggles. I have a podcast now with the sole aim of bringing joy to people’s lives with mental health advice and recovery tips.
When Christmas comes by, I know and remember the trauma around this time, and I am radically kind to myself. I am not afraid of Christmas anymore because of how far I have grown and because of the love in my life from my family and friends.
Christmas will always have its challenges. It is a dark and cold time of year and we are all exceptionally tired. There will always be arguments. Something will always get overcooked. And this year’s Christmas, during Coronavirus, will be a whole new challenge for us all.
Instead of expecting Christmas to be perfect or myself to be perfect, I look for the moments of joy much like I do in my everyday life. I don’t expect pure happiness every day because that is not reality. But I always look for joy. By looking for those small moments of joy, Christmas can be joyful.
Even if it is the tiniest thing like a message from a friend, a Christmas card made by a child, a smile from the lady serving you at the checkout, or an extra serving of brussels sprouts at dinner. Those small seemingly meaningless moments are the moments of joy. They are the moments to hold on to.
This Christmas, you’ll find me eating a full Christmas dinner with both my divorced parents (who are good friends) and my stepfather zooming my little brother and his fiancee in Germany. It will be perfectly imperfect and joyful and I cannot wait.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Joy. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her podcast. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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