Lady Smarts This is what New Year’s resolution season is like when you have an eating disorder

Griswold was 14 when she fell into a clinical depression after transferring to a particularly rigorous private school.

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This is what New Year’s resolution season is like when you have an eating disorder play

This is what New Year’s resolution season is like when you have an eating disorder

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"New Year’s became just one more excuse to punish myself."

Despite the cookie towers and eggnog refills, Christmas season was never the most intimidating time of year for Nicole Griswold, who suffered from anorexia nervosa for nearly 15 years. The month after—when everyone else was making New Year’s resolutions—was the real rough patch.

“When I was in the midst of anorexia, New Year’s became just one more excuse to punish myself and set unrealistic and unhealthy goals,” says Griswold, an Eating Recovery Center alum from Bellevue, Washington. “By the time it came around after the food-centric holidays, I felt exhausted, overwhelmed, and angry—and the constant weight-loss ads and social media posts from friends and family shouting, 'This is the year my diet will work!' always made me feel like I needed to be ‘better’ at my eating disorder.” 

Griswold was 14 when she fell into a clinical depression after transferring to a particularly rigorous private school. She went from the top of her class to struggling to pass, and her appetite disappeared. "Before I knew it, I was in a full-fledged battle with anorexia nervosa," an illness characterized by calorie restriction, fear of gaining weight, and an extremely negative body image, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

"I was forced to withdraw from school, I lost most of my friends, and I was hospitalized more times than I can count in treatment centers all over the country," she says.  

Walking a Thin Line

For the 20 million women in the U.S. who will suffer from an eating disorder at some point, warning signs can include repeatedly leaving meals or always using the restroom immediately afterward, excessive exercise, and consuming an abnormally large amount of food in a discreet period of time, according to NEDA. When the holidays rolled around, Griswold says her “indicators” only got worse. 

"The end of the year is typically a time that people reflect on their last year and hold hope for the next,” says Griswold. “I didn’t want to do either of these things when I was sick, so instead, I would simply shut down and stay home—and not eat.” Some years, she talked herself into making an appearance at a party but would “feel disgusting because I tried the cookies. Later, I’d feel hopeless because I’d leave parties feeling lonelier than when I arrived.”

Resolution season was still worse though, says Griswold. With everyone around her making resolutions to eat healthier and lose weight, she felt pressured to do the same. “The goals were health- and fitness-related, but at the end of the day that didn’t matter,” she says. “It still always became a competition with others.” Seeing if she could lose the most weight, eat the fewest calories, or exercise the longest became her obsession. 

The difference between a healthy resolution and one fueled by an eating disordered can be hard to spot at the outset—but the signs are more obvious as time goes on, says  Rebecca Wagner M.D., clinical director at the Eating Recovery Center in Houston, Texas. "When the target weight is never enough and keeps getting lower, or if someone starts eliminating item after item or entire food groups from their diet because they want to eat 'clean,' I start to worry," she says.

A Better Resolution

After about 15 years of struggling with anorexia—and thousands of hours of therapy—Griswold was eventually able to push through to recovery and find herself at a happy weight. And it started when she ditched the resolutions.

“In January 2013, I decided I was done being sick. I got a full-time job as a nanny and I slowly nourished myself back to health,” says Griswold. Since then, she has worked hard to avoid associating with anything eating disorder-related. “I ended friendships that hinged upon obsessing about health and wellness, and I walk away from conversations about resolutions or goals that I feel would not be healthy for me. My recovery is the most important thing to protect.”

That’s why Griswold and Wagner both recommend ditching the resolution mentality. Regardless of whether you struggle with an eating disorder or not, “most people set resolutions because they want to feel better, but when they’re not able to attain or maintain their lofty goal, they run the risk of feeling like a failure,” says Wagner. “That’s the exact opposite feeling they were intending to create with the resolution, and it can quickly turn things into unhealthy territory.”

Instead, Wagner suggests focusing on goals that you can achieve year-round, rather than specific ones for January. She also says to be flexible with your expectations—it’ll decrease the risk of feeling like a failure—and try not to jump on the bandwagon when your friends set goals for themselves. What works for someone else won't necessarily work for you, says Wagner. “If a goal isn’t consistent with something you value, you’re far less likely to achieve it,” she says. 

Plus, at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to deal with the consequences of your decisions—your friends don’t. It’s a lesson that took Griswold a long time to learn, but now it’s one she takes to heart. 

"I feel happiness and peace that I never knew existed before,” she says. “Now that I’m not constantly trying to be like everyone else, I’m able to successfully run my own small business and enjoy traveling the world as a solo backpacker. I really feel as if I'm catching up for lost time.”

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