Louise O’Neill: Christmas is difficult ... being surrounded by so much food and urged to eat as much of it as possible

This essay is from the Christmas Episode of The Women's Podcast

 “I need to go to toilet” I say again, and the year after, and the year after and my mother’s face pinches.   Photograph:Clare Keogh

“I need to go to toilet” I say again, and the year after, and the year after and my mother’s face pinches. Photograph:Clare Keogh

 

I am a winter person. I have loved crisp, cold mornings, where the light is a watery grey. I have loved reading my book by the fire, red-tinged noses, matching scarves and mittens in striped wool. Most of all, I have loved Christmas.

I love Christmas. Christmas is my favourite time of year.

I hate Christmas. Christmas is the hardest time of year.

I sometimes try and remember what the Christmas when I was 13 was like. That was the last Christmas I was normal.

It is Christmas. I am 14. My uncle has died ten weeks ago, too young. It feels as if everything is falling apart. There are no decorations, and my sister refuses to open her presents. It is very quiet.

I am not hungry. My bones are starting to thrust through my skin but no one seems to notice. Grief has made everyone blind.

It began there, I guess. Everything has to start somewhere.

Have some more turkey.

Where’s the tin of Roses/Celebrations/Heros?

Go on. It’s Christmas.

There is so much food everywhere and I do not want any of it and I want all of it and if I start eating I will never be able to stop and I will get fat. I cannot be fat.

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(How many calories were in that? How many calories were in that? How many calories were in that? How many calories were in that? How many calories were in that?)

It is Christmas and I am fifteen. I have eaten too much and the outfit that I want to wear on St. Stephen’s Day is tight. Too tight. It will show my sins and my weakness and my greed.

That is the first time I make myself get sick after Christmas dinner and I tell myself that it is a once off, that I won’t do it again.

I don’t know then that it will be the same, every Christmas, until I am 28.

Christmas at 16, Christmas at 17. At 18. At 19, at 20.

At 21, I am hospitalised with anorexia. It is December so the nurses play carols on the ward. They have a limp Christmas tree with cheap tinsel on it. They try and their trying makes it worse.

Christmas at 22, at 23, at 24. I look better, I have gained weight. I have finished college, I have met a lovely boyfriend who wants to make me whole, I have friends, I travel. I am fine, I am fine. I am fine.

“I need to go to toilet” I say again, and the year after, and the year after and my mother’s face pinches.

“Just sit with me,” she says and tries to distract me, but I cannot be distracted. I have poison inside me and I need to get it out.

Christmas at 25. I am home from New York for two weeks. I am skinny again, wearing jeans small enough for a child, nearly 28lbs lighter than when I had left Ireland in September. My parents are afraid, and they watch me.

Do you want a mince pie?

I made this pate myself, it’s amazing. Try some.

I am breaking their hearts and I cannot bring myself to care.

Christmas at age 26, 27. I am in recovery. I am trying my best, and I have more good days than bad days. Eating three meals a day seems, like it must to everyone else, normal. It is just something that I do. The evenings start to get darker, I hear ‘The Fairytale of New York’ on the radio for the first time that year, fairy-lights dripping off every surface. Excitement begins to build, and it still feels like too much. There are evenings out with friends where I feel as if I am fading away into nothingness, where all I can think about is the food (how many calories are in that?) rather than concentrate on those around me. Nights out, dresses to fit into, do I look thin enough? Do I look attractive enough? (When really all I want to ask is am I good enough? )

It’s all too much. It’s too much – too much pressure, too much expectation. Too much food.

Christmas at 28. Better. A few wobbles. I am working on my novel, I have signed a publishing deal. I am learning to say no. I am learning to take care of myself. I am learning to care less about what other people think.

Christmas at 29. The best one I have ever had.

And now, here I am, at 30. And it is Christmas again. And I know that it will be difficult, that it will still feel anxiety-provoking to be surrounded by so much food, and be urged to eat as much of it as possible. Maybe that feels scary. Maybe it will always feel a little scary. And maybe that’s okay too. Because Christmas isn’t about food, or at least it shouldn’t be.

I want Christmas to be about family, about spending time with the people I love. I want to feel gratitude for how lucky I am, to give thanks for everything I achieved this year. I want to sit on the couch with my dad and read, listen to him read out a passage that he finds particularly interesting. I want to sit by my mother’s feet while she watches yet another terrible movie on the True Christmas channel, feeling like a child when she strokes my hair. I want to take my dog for a walk on the beach, link arms with my sister as we watch him run ahead of us on the sand. I want to believe in miracles, I want to believe that anything is possible at this time of year. I want to stare into the inky black sky and make wishes on the brightest star, and maybe, just for a second, hope that I catch sight of a sleigh.

Louise O’Neill’s latest novel Asking For It is published by Quercus

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