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Recovery Survival Guide: Birthdays

For anyone in recovery, especially at the beginning, birthdays can be extremely stressful, if not panic inducing. Birthday cake, birthday dinners, birthday drinks, birthday parties, having your picture taken more than usual…all of these carry potential to be triggering in eating disorder recovery. For years I used my birthdays as an excuse for relapse because I felt helpless in the face of so many triggers. It wasn’t fun, and it certainly didn’t serve to celebrate my life. If you find yourself in the same boat, then you’re not alone. The good news is, it doesn’t have to stay that way!

It may not feel like it yet, but compared to some other occasions (like weddings, for example) birthdays are relatively easy to navigate. Why? Because YOU get to call the shots! It’s YOUR birthday after all. That means you get to design a day that honors you and your commitments, and that includes recovery. If you’re willing to follow the 4 guidelines below, this birthday will be a catalyst for positive change in your life, and bring you one step closer to health and happiness.

(Note: If it’s someone else’s birthday, use the tips I outlined for weddings and parties. They will help you stick to recovery during any kind of celebration!)

1. Do at Least one Thing That’s Just for you – What nourishes you? Drawing, meditating, hiking, gardening, dancing, praying, listening to music…? The options are endless. Pick at least one thing that feeds your soul, and do it! I recommend doing more if you can, but at least one is essential. For many of us in recovery, the drive to please others often has us overlook our own needs. Giving yourself permission to do something you love simply because you love it, is very healing. Don’t worry about it if no one wants to join you. I’ve done solo hikes on my birthday, and spent time all by myself in quiet contemplation. Those experiences are extremely valuable to me, because they are gifts I have given to myself. All the presents in the world can’t top that.

2. Write Yourself a Letter – Birthdays are ideal both for reflection, and setting new intentions for the year to come. Take a few moments to write down what you’ve accomplished over the last year, both in recovery and in life. If you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything, look more closely. Have you gone even one day without relapse? Have you finished a difficult project, or even simply managed to get out of bed on days when you haven’t felt like it? They don’t have to be monumental accomplishments, but acknowledging the small stuff gets you to see where you’re improving. For those of us that are extremely self-critical, this is crucial. Once you’re finished listing the achievements you’re most proud of (or at least most present to), write to your future self about what you plan to accomplish by your next birthday. Putting your goals into words and getting them down on paper makes them more real. The more detailed you can be about how you plan to accomplish them, the better! The purpose of this is not only to help you see that you ARE moving forward, but also to help you keep the forward momentum going. Positive reinforcement works better than beating yourself up every time. Don’t just take my word for it–it’s been scientifically proven!

3. Communicate with the People Closest to You, & Don’t be Afraid to put your Foot Down – This is a wonderful opportunity to practice asking for what you want, and sticking to your guns. Is it going to be triggering if your Aunt Patty makes her famous chocolate cake? Then tell her not to make it! (Nicely, of course) Are you going to be stressed out if your friends want to take you out for a bunch of meals? Then ask them to help you plan activities that don’t center around food. You absolutely need to eat, but if planning your whole day around going to restaurants is going to be too triggering, then fill your day with other fun things. Plan a trip to a beautiful park, go to a museum, race go karts, visit the zoo and look at cute animals…there are lots of things you can do that will take some of the pressure off. It is important to allow yourself to have treats (I like gluten-free cupcakes, myself), but know your limits, and don’t try to force progress before you’re ready for it. All things in due time.

4. Go Easy on the Partying – Recovery is not the time to go nuts and party all night long. Your body has been through a lot, and for your health and safety’s sake I recommend taking it slow on the drinking, or not drinking at all. When I was new to recovery, I would relapse eight times out of ten if I was drinking more than just a glass or two of wine. As I mentioned in my article about weight loss in recovery, alcohol reduces your inhibitions. When you’re recovering, you’re already using a lot of your inner strength to stay away from triggers. If you’re intoxicated, that’s harder to do. If for some reason you don’t feel like you can avoid it, then make sure you have a support person there to help you stay on track. If you are concerned that you may have a problem with alcohol as well (which is very common for eating disorder sufferers), there are a lot of resources out there to help you. If you haven’t relapsed in a few months, and you’re at a healthy weight, then it may be safe to let your hair down, and party it up. Ultimately the choice is yours, but it can’t hurt to err on the side of caution, and it could hurt not to. We all know how bad it feels the morning after a slip up. It’s not worth it.

It has been several years since I have relapsed on my birthday, so I speak from experience when I say that these help! If you have any questions, or feedback, please don’t hesitate to comment below.

All photos by Daryl Henderson.