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Let’s Talk Turkey

November 22, 2012

Trigger warning: Brief discussion of eating disorders.

Holidays aren’t the same for everyone!

I wonder if I am the only person who thinks that Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday.  There is no doubt that part of my ambivalence about Thanksgiving stems from my childhood. Up until I was 12, Thanksgiving was all about going to the New York City Macy’s Day Parade, followed by a dinner where we were allowed to eat our favorite foods with abandon. The usual scrutiny and admonishment for eating a full meal instead of the typical array of carefully measured-out diet foods was suspended for the Thanksgiving feast.  In its place we were given a “blank check” which was good for an unlimited amount of talking about the meal, preparing the meal, eating the meal, eating more of the meal, eating the leftovers, and, without a teaspoon of self-consciousness, rolling off of our chairs at the end of the meal comparing our “stuffitudeness”

We all intentionally wore baggier clothes on Thanksgiving in preparation for the feast we were going to be ingesting. Thanksgiving Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, was about what was good in the world, what was working, what was right.

Then everything changed.

In 1969, one month before my 13th birthday we went to the parade as usual, but afterward we went to visit my mom, who was in the hospital. I hadn’t seen her since October when she was admitted because hospitals back then were very strict about kids being in the unit and getting in the way. I gingerly perched on the edge of her bed and we talked about the infamous gigantic balloons. She asked me to describe which were my faves this year, which weren’t, and if I saw any famous people on the floats?  Of course, I had no idea this would be the last time I would see my mom alive.  As I hugged her goodbye, careful not to disturb any of the tubes, I was anxious to leave this imposing hospital room with the strange sounds and smells that I didn’t associate with my mom at all. When I was finally back on the street, I breathed a sigh of relief and just assumed that my mom would be home very soon.

I don’t remember what we did for our Thanksgiving meal that day. Whatever it was, the food and celebration were eclipsed by the experience at New York Hospital, one I was eager to forget.  This doesn’t mean that I never enjoyed another Thanksgiving again after that, but it did give me a taste of the reality that every holiday is NOT a holiday for everyone.  I became aware of certain generalized assumptions that are made about how people are supposed to feel and behave around holidays. The darker underbelly of the holidays is often not addressed, and many people may feel worse because they can’t buck up and get into the holiday spirit when the demands to be jovial are coming from all around them.

In one of my monthly Schmoozeletters, I explained that while working in residential treatment and in-patient pscyhiatric facilities as an Expressive Arts Therapist, I made a point of giving the option to my clients to explore and express both the holiday blues and the holiday glees.

What I found was that just being given permission to voice their ambivalence about the expectation to feel celebratory was inherently therapeutic. After all, holidays can bring back memories of being with people who have passed or, like in my situation, may be anniversaries of times that were not quite filled with so much ho ho holiday cheer.

Additional reasons that Thanksgiving may be challenging for some folks include: political reasons regarding Native American issues; protests of vegetarians on behalf of the turkeys; obligatory visits with family members that may not be entirely comfortable; having to look a certain way to join in on the festivities; and then, of course, if there are any Eating Disorder issues, holidays frequently exacerbate those behaviors.

So what is the perfect recipe for a perfect Thanksgiving celebration? I am so glad you asked! Here are my recommendations:

  1. Remove the word “perfect” from the equation — Often times the focus of Thanksgiving is predominantly on serving the perfect meal on the perfectly set table and being the perfect host/hostess. Try to relax and remember that almost everyone who is sitting at your table is already at least 94% thrilled that you are taking on the work of the Thanksgiving feast and they don’t have to!
  2. Remember that this is just another dinner — When I gave up on dieting I realized that I could have Thanksgiving favorite foods all year long, and because I wasn’t living in a constant state of deprivation through dieting, I knew that I didn’t have to eat an insane amount of sweet potato marshmallow casserole or sausage stuffing. I could eat this meal like any other meal, savor the flavors and understand that the success of the event was not measured by how far into a food coma I would find myself. I always put aside leftovers so that I don’t activate that Binge Eating Disorder (BED) part of me that defiantly needs to binge proactively because I fear not having access to that wonderful food ever again.
  3. Honor the diversity of people’s associations with the occasion — Usually Thanksgiving has some kind of ritual that involves each person saying something they feel grateful for. In order to lessen the pressure to squelch  feelings or risk being labeled as negative or non-participatory, offer the option of an open-ended question. For example: “What does Thanksgiving mean to you?” or “If you could add anything to the celebration of Thanksgiving what would it be?”
  4. Include generous amounts of humor, cook with joy, and acknowledge our fabulous miraculous bodies for what they CAN do and do not negate or hate them because of what they look like — No matter what your opinion is of the reason for getting together to celebrate this holiday, it offers us an opportunity to take a moment out of our busy lives to appreciate some of the wonderful acts of kindness and grace that we bestowed on ourselves and others and to acknowledge the goodness that has come our way.

Add a few cups of unconditional loving self-acceptance, and perhaps a slice of your favorite pie… and you have the fixings for a luscious and meaningful Thanksgiving.

Til next time!

Dr. Deah

P.S. if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area please join me, editor Virgie Tovar, and several other contributors to Ms. Tovar’s new anthology, Hot and Heavy:  Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, and Fashion. November 30, 2012, 7:00 p.m. at Modern Times Bookstore 2919 24th St. SF

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2012 1:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience of Thanksgiving. Why does it seem like family tragedies occur around the holidays so often? My friend Larry died a few days after Thanksgiving. It’s like a double punch in the gut. You already have to cope with losing that loved one, but now the Holidays are inextricably entwined with this tragedy, that it is difficult to feel celebratory in your mourning. I’m so glad you shared this, Deah. There are so many people who need reassurance that the Holidays are still worth celebrating. I hope yours was wonderful.


  2. November 27, 2012 9:42 am

    Shannon, I am not sure what that double punch phenomena is but it is really intense! I am so glad you found the post resonated with your experience! Hugs to you and your family for the upcoming season!


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