Halloween was always one of the most triggering days for me in recovery. After all, binging on Halloween candy in my youth was part of how it all started. My mother (with good intentions) was extremely health conscious, and Halloween candy was highly guarded and rationed. We had a short window of time to eat candy after school over the course of a few days until the candy was gone. This of course made me want the candy even more, so when my window of time to eat came around, I gorged myself.
I think my mom assumed I couldn’t eat enormous amounts of candy in a few minutes (wrong), but it became almost like a challenge to see how much I could cram in there. This was very priming for me, and I began to associate candy benders with freedom, taking back control, and (guilty) pleasure. Of course there were lots of other factors that led me to develop bulimia, but this helped set the stage.
By the time I got into recovery, a lot of the messages I received in treatment deeply conflicted with my experience. The nutritionists and doctors related to me the same way they related to the girls who were restricting. I was told I “should” be eating the Halloween treats I was offered without guilt (without any guidance as to how), but that was only half right. Guilt is toxic, so that part was spot-on, but they didn’t offer any useful tips for dealing with that. They also seemed to ignore the fact that I was completely addicted to binging and purging. I tried it their way many, many times, but it always led to a binging and purging episode. Forcing moderation was WAY too hard for me at first.
I also tried the "eat your way to the other side" approach, which basically says to allow all foods, in any quantity, at any time, no matter what. I think that can be helpful if you're dealing strictly with binge eating, because giving yourself permission takes away a lot of the "forbidden fruit" appeal of binging. Eventually it loses its draw, because if you can eat at any time, there's no scarcity fueling the binge.
Bulimia is a different animal altogether. In my opinion, the health risks are too high with the "eat your way to the other side" approach unless you're well established in your recovery, and haven't purged in a long time. When I gave myself permission to eat with abandon--even fully intending not to purge--still resulted in extreme purging. Those purges had lasting impact on my health, and sometimes left me incapacitated for days. It wasn't worth the risk. I wasn't ready, and I didn't have the support I needed to be successful.
Eventually I started listening to myself, and what I internally knew to be true. The win for me wasn’t eating all the sweets and not feeling bad about it, the win was eating healthy, nourishing food without feeling deprived. Instead of going for the sweet, I went for the whole foods. Not because I was depriving myself–that always led to binging and purging as well–but because I knew that sweets were going to lead me into a world of hurt on Halloween, and whole foods weren’t. To be clear, it’s not that I never ate sweets in recovery, but on certain days like Halloween and Thanksgiving, I learned through trial-and-error that it wasn’t safe for me.
Eventually I could eat Halloween treats without guilt, binging or purging after, but that took a LOT of inner healing work, and it took time. If you’re dealing with bulimia, please don’t try to force it before you’re ready.
On the other hand, with anorexia, orthorexia or other restricting eating disorders, eating those sweets may be the best thing you can do! Treat yo’ self! Your recovery win is going to look completely different. THERE IS NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL in recovery, so listen to your intuition and do what you feel is in your best interest long term.
If you’re having trouble tuning into your intuition, ask yourself the following question: “Would my best friend think of this as a recovery win for me?” Even if you don’t have a best friend, imagine someone who loves you and has your back. If they would be proud of you for eating it, then eat it. If they would be concerned or worried in any way, then it might be best to skip it.
Sometimes it’s easier in the beginning to think of an external person looking out for us, because our own internal messages have gotten mixed up. Over time it gets easier to tune into what is best for us, it just takes time and practice.
If you’re far enough along in your recovery where you’re working on re-introducing trigger foods, one helpful trick is to make sure you’re not alone. Most of us don’t binge in front of other people, so if you are at home with your family, or at a very long event with lots of people around, that is the safest place to start working on moderation. If I knew I was going to be surrounded by people, and it would be very difficult to purge, I could practice eating moderately without spiraling out of control. Generally it’s best if you’re staying the night somewhere, so keep that in mind!
Best of luck to you all today, and wishing you a Halloween full of recovery wins!
For more practical guidance with recovery challenges (including holidays, travel, work, dating, children, etc.), download my free book Recovery Survival Guide.