Festivals are a time of joy and celebration, and are often extremely centered around eating and drinking! Earlier this year, I lost my grandfather to Covid, and as I sat down to think about how my family and I won’t be celebrating Diwali this year (after already spending it apart last year), I couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of the Festival of Lights in my life – and how it has changed over the years!
Being with family, wearing bright new clothes, decorating the house with flowers and lights, playing teen patti – growing up, Diwali had always been the festival I looked forward to the most. It was one of two occasions in the year when we got to buy new clothes…such a treat in those days! Running around the house, filled with the smell of kaju barfi, the sound of firecrackers outside, the initial nip in the air, the sight of bright lights, rangolis and diyas – Diwali for me meant a time of true celebration and pure, collective happiness. As a child, I couldn’t fathom anyone not enjoying Diwali. I mean how could you not? What’s there not to enjoy and love about this incredible time of the year?
Well, I found out soon after.
The year I allowed ED (a way for me to refer to my eating disorder) into my life, it sucked all the joy and fun out of all the things I looked forward to in life. This included my beloved Diwali. In the days leading up to my first Diwali with ED, I remember feeling this strange knot in my stomach, a paralyzing explosion of negative thoughts in my brain. “What am I going to wear?” “I look so sick, how will I hide that from my family so they don’t worry?” “How will I eat with everyone else looking at me?” “What will I eat?” “Should I start working out extra hard so I can afford to eat all that unhealthy food?” “Everyone will be in such high spirits and expect the same from me. But I don’t feel joyous at all!” “Ughhhh how am I going to do this?”
Just the thought of having to deal with ALL of these emotions together on one day was daunting (to say the least). That feeling of crippling anxiety before festivals lasted a loooong time. I would have to start mentally prepping for Diwali (or any other festive occasion for the matter) weeks in advance – with my therapist, the friends I trusted, and my family. Workout plans, conversation plans (how I would respond to uncomfortable comments about my weight and appearance, if they came up), food plans, journaling, support groups – I did it all, and it helped tremendously. I quickly realized that what made me anxious about festivals was the idea of functioning outside my everyday normal. From food and clothing, to social interactions – everything was different than the routine I was familiar with – and while that’s exactly what I loved about the festive season growing up, I could no longer keep up with it. ED wouldn’t let me.
But guess what? Through numerous therapy sessions, asking for accountability and support from friends and family, and many months of hard work, I got through it. Just like I got through all other rough festivals for many years after that. ED’s voice slowly started to get weaker and, eventually, faded away! I remember the first Diwali, just a few years ago, when I no longer felt that overwhelming feeling of social/ food-related anxiety. I still prepped for the get-togethers, and set accountability check-ins with my friends, but I could spend the festival really enjoying myself. Like my old, authentic self! And today, I’m oh-so-grateful for being able to make new memories every year for Diwali – whether the celebrations are big or small, in person or virtual.
For many of you reading this, I’m sure it can be hard to empathize with such feelings around festivities if you haven’t experienced them yourselves! It’s also important to note that in the absence of research and general awareness around eating disorders, most Indians don’t even know they have a disordered eating pattern. And while most of us can immerse ourselves in traditions and really enjoy the moments together with friends and family, those of us living with eating disorders can feel a much more heightened sense of anxiety and overwhelm. A small gesture goes a long way in making someone feel acknowledged and comfortable. Checking in with someone, asking if/how you can support them and encouraging them to seek help if they’re ready, takes little effort but is very impactful!
Festivals can be difficult for people living with eating disorders. This Diwali, let’s try to be mindful of the fact that we don’t know what everyone around is dealing with at an emotional level, and of what we say to them!
As I pen down this note, feeling grateful to be able to feel that familiar sense of excitement for Diwali, I want to also tell all near and distant friends reading this, who may be struggling with disordered eating patterns, that you are not alone. I get it. The pressure to be happy, because everyone else around you is in that frame of mind, triggers the opposite and you feel burdened. The pressure to eat in front of others, food that you wouldn’t otherwise eat, feels overwhelming. The pressure to look good and dress up feels like quite the opposite of fun. That’s OKAY!!! You have to take care of YOU first. Know that the most important thing is for you to honour your needs – whatever that may look like for you! It is absolutely okay to focus on yourself, even at a time when socialising seems to be the one thing everyone is doing. Remember to tune in to your body and mind’s cues.
So on that note, I want to wish all of you a very happy Diwali! May you find hope, joy and strength. May the lights lead you home… to you.