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The Anxious Artist: Meeting Eating Challenges Posed by the Excesses of Christmas

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

I was unsure about what to write about in this first blog of the new year. Christmas has been a challenge and my mind has been rather chaotic. I have not felt able to channel my difficult feelings into any grand creative projects, which I may have hoped for. It is nice to have something to show for one's troubles! During the season, when it feels we are told we should be having fun, it can be easy to lose one's grip on the things that would otherwise get us through difficult times, I often get quite paralysed. However, as I reflect, I have far from been entirely abandoned by my creative resources.

Ghost of Christmas present. From 'A Christmas Carol' In Prose (1843). By Charles Dickens.

Anybody who struggles with an eating disorder will know how challenging the excesses of Christmas can be. So much temptation is everywhere and I experience so much anxiety in the feelings of longing to indulge, alongside the terror of losing control if this longing was given in to. I often feel that even just by looking at the food, I have suddenly doubled in size. It can be very hard to get the balance right and so there is an inclination to play it safe and just not go there. This can often result in actually restricting more than usual and so the aftermath of Christmas is the challenge of avoiding falling down that slippery slope cutting out even more essential nutrition.

Illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, By Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Tove Jansson. Alice having responded to the invitation to 'drink me' and 'she went on growing and growing...'

I have recently been working very hard to restore some of the weight I have lost. This has been because my body, as I get older, is complaining more and more at being mistreated such a lot. My immune system, bones and digestive system are all causing me a great deal of problems. I have been doing my best to focus on getting the fuel I need. I am not at the stage I am really able to say I am enjoying eating, it provokes far too much anxiety and feelings of shame. Nutritional drinks, as supplements help and foods that take very little preparation, but contain everything I need. Years of restriction has left my stomach very inflamed, so it just isn't possible to be adventurous.

It can be very hard when people notice that I have gained weight and comment on this by telling me I ‘look well’, which happened to me the other day. To all those who don't already know this, you should NEVER tell somebody with an eating disorder, who is restoring weight that they ’look well’. This might seem a hard thing to get your head around, as people mostly want to hear they are looking well, but that is only true if they are feeling well. By eating and restoring weight, something very precious is being sacrificed. Food restriction/binging/purging is not about losing weight to look good. These behaviours are used as a means of coping with overwhelming thoughts and feelings and so when that behaviour is surrendered, what rises to the surface can feel pretty terrifying. Being severly underweight is also a powerful communication of need, which cannot otherwise be easily expressed. This is why the relapse rate in eating disorders is so high and why I am grateful for my creativity. So, I may look a bit better, but I am really not feeling it. This, with the added layer of having started trauma therapy; I am feeling very raw and overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings, which are being easily triggered. I am needing to tread very carefully.

So, Christmas has been difficult. Forcing myself to prepare a nice festive meal for Adam and I was painful. I did it because I didn't want him to miss out, that would be unfair. I also did it because I am trying to step back into that crucial aspect of being around others that involves the sharing of food. Food sharing is an expression of love and a means to bond and connect and I miss out on this so often, leaving me feeling very isolated. It helped that I was the one to prepare the meal (with a little help), as it meant my mind was occupied. I would have otherwise been sitting with my anxiety and dread and that wouldn't have been good.

The feeling following a meal can be hard to manage. Feeling bloated and ashamed at having 'given in' and been 'weak'. I reminded myself of a strategy I have used in the past for managing anxious feelings and put it to good use over the holidays. I have quite a supply of paintings, which you may well imagine and have recently discovered the therapeutic (and aesthetic) benefits of hand sewing into the canvas, or paper. In the past the sewing has been like doodling, creating swirling lines and loops of different threads that dance, crossover and overlap each other. There is something mindful in allowing the thread to take its own journey, with no preconceptions. The results of this have looked quite playful and ponderous. Almost like a stitched daydream.

Doodles on canvas, by Naomi Elfred-Ross (2022)

On this occasion, however, I was in no mood to be playful and ponderous. There are no meandering and dreamy lines. I have wanted to scribble! I have a very good friend, and fellow blogger; Pen.. who often reminds me of the therapeutic value of ‘scribbling’, although her tool of choice is different. She has often told me of how she would exorcise an unquiet mind, following perhaps, a difficult phone call with family, or receiving worrying news; by taking pen to paper and allowing herself to vent. It is something she will do as a matter of routine and so ensures there is always a pen and piece of paper to hand. What emerges can often be revelatory of her unconscious process allowing itself to be seen and acknowledged, offering new understanding. Like me, Pen.. is well versed in the healing benefits of art therapy, as a means of expressing what cannot be put into words and what the conscious mind may not even be aware of. Her 'Scribbles' are often very beautiful pieces as well, with so much rich imagery, mark making and symbolism. I am so often grateful to her for her wisdom, insights and life experience in learning the importance of prioritising taking care of oneself, especially when there are mental fragilities involved. She is someone I admire and trust and so adopting her strategy, using my own means, has felt like a true gift. Thank you Pen..!

These ‘scribbles’ by Pen.. were made during the Covid pandemic lockdowns (2020/21). They were created in response to deeply upsetting news from family, recieved by phone (top), and distressing news reports on the TV (lower). A vital tool to process what overwhelms through creative means, particularly during times of enforced isolation.

Looking at my ‘scribble stitching’ puts me in mind of a stormy and tumultuous seascape. When I showed Pen.. she observed a tangled fishing net. All of this feels very reflective of my unsettled state of mind. I have no idea when I will stop sewing over this particular piece. The canvas is beginning to tear by all the needles holes I am making and so, as I overstitch, the tear it is mended and a new layer, or skin is forming. This puts me in mind of scar tissue, or Japanese Kintsugi, which is the ancient art of embracing imperfection, by using lacquer mixed with powdered gold to mend a cherished piece of broken pottery.

Scribble Stitching’, Christmas 2022, by Naomi Elfred-Ross.

An example of Kintsugi. Finding the real beauty in the cracks and blemishes. by Terushi Sho 2021)

Perhaps it will become quite three dimensional, like a Frank Auerbach painting, which has been layered with thick oil paint. Auerbach’s paintings are sometimes wiped away and repainted and are made over a protracted period of time, until the original subject becomes all but completely obscured and something almost sculptural emerges. I think I will rely on my instincts to tell me when I no longer need to continue with this particular scribble (I write this before the New Year celebrations and am guessing I will need it when the fireworks get going, loud bangs do me no good at all). Perhaps something will feel reconciled in me. Then, I know I have the tools at hand to pick up once more and create a new scribble, that tells its own story; making the overwhelming somehow manageable and expressive of the beauty of the width, breadth and depth of the human experience. That for which there are no words, but which we may all recognise, as we negotiate the complex layers of life.

Frank Auerbach, ‘Looking into the Fire II’ (1962)

For the purpose of this blog I had googled artists that explore eating disorder challenges, but this had been a mistake. It is so easy to be triggered by what the vast internet churns out at the touch of a button, via a few misinterpreted words. I very quickly closed the search. I am learning to take care of myself. I think, as I have written, I have discovered and developed new understanding and so, the artists have naturally come to me (including myself!) and I wasn't even looking.

I hope, as you are finishing reading the first Anxious Artist blog of 2023, that you have a sense of peace and hope in your mind. If not, I hope you can locate whatever tools help you channel those troubling feelings and that, in doing so, you might be permitted a little headspace to let you take a step back and take a breath (as I have just done, as I finish writing).

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

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