Bat-shaped chocolates, ghost-shaped marshmallows, bags of mixed candy bars, and lots of candy corn. Halloween candy or a set up for a binge? Maybe that’s not how everyone experiences Halloween, but for many people during the haunted season, the fear of a binge is one of the scariest parts. How normal is it to go home after a long night of door-to-door candy collecting and dump a sack full of candy on the living room floor, sorting and picking out which chocolate bar will be eaten first? It is culturally acceptable on Halloween night to eat as much candy as you want, often stopping only when feeling sick.
For many, this is just a normal part of Halloween. But for many of us who struggle with disordered eating behaviors, this is an uncontrollable nightmare. Suddenly a feeling of anxiety extends through our chest, heart beating loudly, and we find ourselves out of control . Whether they were binges that I planned ahead or those that I fell into, once the behavior started, it was virtually impossible to stop–at least, that’s how it felt.
Maybe that is the difference between having an eating disorder and engaging in culturally normal and acceptable practices–the control part. Kids eating large amounts of candy because it’s tradition, its fun to trade favorite candies among friends, and it tastes good is not necessarily a problem. It’s when mind and emotions become hyper-focused and obsessed with that candy before, during, and after collecting that it starts to be a concern.
Until I was about nine, Halloween was one of the best times of the year for me. I got to dress up in my favorite costume, a witch costume my momma made for me that I wore three years in a row. All my friends would meet at my house and we would begin an adventure to show off our disguises, scare each other, and collect the most and the best candy in the neighborhood! Halloween wasn’t about the food then, it was about the experience and the fun.
That all changed when I entered fifth grade. I became concerned about who I was going to hang out with, what I looked like, and how much food I ate compared to my peers. Halloween night was not yet about the food or the feelings, but it was about how I could be “good enough” to fit in among my peers. That feeling of inadequacy continued to grow until I discovered that food could fill that hole inside of me, at least temporarily. In my early teen years Halloween became solely about getting the tastiest, richest, and ”baddest” (i.e., best) candy. I couldn’t wait until my friends left my house so I could be alone with my eating disorder.
Now twelve years into recovery, my attitude about Halloween has changed again. I still love the “scariest day of the year” and all of the events and activities that surround it. I love carving pumpkins, creatively designing my own costume–this year my husband and I are going as Marty and Doc from Back to the Future–decorating my home and office with scary and ghoulish creatures, and of course playing haunted music through my garage door (the theme song from Halloween the movie).
The difference, though, is that I now focus on the parts of Halloween that I love, not that scare me. Awareness however, is key to my recovery. I have to be aware that I struggled with an eating disorder for a very long time and that my first reaction to stress is to go right back to comforting, but destructive behaviors. During the Halloween season, and all food-focused times of the year, I have to make sure I take care of myself. Whether that is being sure to feed my body three meals a day, moving my body in some fashion every day, or taking time to evaluate what I need throughout the day.
When I struggle with symptom use, I know that it has started long before I actually put food to mouth. Self-awareness, self-care and taking action are the tools I use to stay on higher ground where I do not need to fill my not-good-enough feeling with food. As long as I am in line with my body and self mentally, physically, and spiritually, I can not only participate in Halloween without obsessing about the candy, but I can enjoy the activities that come along with it and the friends I spend it with.