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November 12, 2015

How to Celebrate the Holidays in Treatment

Contributor: Leigh Bell, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

It was all gray that Christmas. Scratchy gray commercial-grade carpet covered the floors of the treatment center where I was being treated for anorexia. The washed-out gray walls were background to the room’s only splash of color: a crooked, misshapen Christmas tree.

It wasn’t how I wanted to spend Christmas, and I’m pretty sure my fellow clients felt similarly. Holiday celebrations in residential or inpatient treatment for an eating disorder can easily lack the hope and joy normally associated with Christmastime.

Yet, treatment is hope. Its hope for recovery, hope for better Christmas next year.

I told myself never again. I would get better within the year, and next Christmas I’d spend in my family’s home, like I always did. Surrounded by sounds of fire crackling and holiday paper tearing.

I would eat a stack of pancakes next Christmas. With syrup. And not feel like life was ending.

But I would go on to spend several Christmases (and many other holidays) in treatment centers. One Christmas I spent in a hospital bed due to anorexia-related health complications. But I was alive.

Make the Most of It

If you or your loved one are in treatment for the holiday season, you can only make the most of it. Contact the treatment center, ask what they have planned to celebrate, and if you can be a part of it. What can you do to make it as much of a holiday celebration as possible?

Mother and daughter in park.If you are the one in treatment, ask if you can help decorate or shop for the Christmas tree. Also do what is best for you regarding families and visits. If it will be helpful, encourage family members to come, but if it will make things more difficult, use the support of your treatment team to set boundaries.

That Christmas in the gray treatment center felt like every other day there. We ate for breakfast cold cereal with a plastic spoon from a Styrofoam bowl. We knitted, read, journaled, anything to fill the time and ignore our screaming eating disorders.

It didn’t feel like Christmas that day until my parents arrived. They brought one of my brothers and for every client in treatment with me a pair of Christmas socks my mom had wrapped.

What to Give

I didn’t realize it at that time, but my mother had carefully picked the gifts of socks. One size fits all. You don’t grow out of your socks, even if you have an eating disorder and are restoring weight.

If you’re giving a Christmas gift to someone in treatment, an activity is a helpful idea. As aforementioned, keeping our hands busy seems to calm our minds. Wrap up a book on how to crochet along with a crochet hook and yarn.

Give markers and an adult coloring book – which some psychologists say has a meditative effect. Blankets are also a good gift for comfort during group therapies. Music is beneficial.

Keep It at Home

Girl by creekClothes, I don’t care what kind, don’t give them unless there is a specific request. People in treatment for eating disorders experience body shifts when they abstain from binging, purging, and food restriction. This is a very difficult experience, and clothes are only a reminder of it.

If you are celebrating with people in treatment, don’t bring food. You don’t know where the clients are in their treatment, so allow the treatment center to handle it.

Avoid Guilt Trips

If you’re the one in treatment, you may feel guilty for not being with your family at Christmas. You may feel badly your family has to celebrate in a treatment center. Please don’t. Would you feel the same if you had cancer or broken a bone and were in the hospital? You are healing and getting the help you need.

If your loved one is in treatment, try to make him or her as comfortable as possible. No guilt trips because he or she isn’t at home. If you have feelings about this, it’s okay, but work them out with a counselor, not your loved one in treatment.

That first Christmas I spent in treatment went better than I’d expected. We sat in a large circle on the itchy gray carpet, sang Christmas carols, and opened gifts. We made the best out of what we had, and in that group of broken people all hoping, like I had, that next Christmas would be better, we laughed and felt thankful.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you or your loved one experienced the holidays while in treatment? What did you focus on to allow yourself to experience thankfulness while in treatment?


Leigh BellAbout the Author: Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 12, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

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