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Sometimes life’s milestones can be cause for celebration and other times they can be a stark reminder of the ways we struggle to feel “normal” or “enough.” Birthdays, anniversaries, baby showers, weddings etc. are typically associated with joyful gathering but can also bring up feelings of sadness, anxiety and overwhelm. To add to these unpleasant feelings are often the secondary confusion and guilt over not feeling how you “should” during these special occasions. 

To start, every feeling is valid. You are allowed to feel it all. Experiencing grief and joy together, though hard to understand, is actually a normal part of being a human, living life. In particular, while struggling in my eating disorder I remember feeling a sense of dread over upcoming “big events” because I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm or joy that I felt was requisite. I felt drained by the prospect of “turning it on” for friends and family when in reality I was consumed by thinking how I could eat as little as possible and still avoid concern.

In particular, my heart breaks to think of the times leading up to my own birthday when I would restrict myself in anticipation of having to consume more food than what I thought was normal. I would deprive myself only to become overly fixated on the birthday cake in front of me more than the people gathered around me singing happy birthday. 

But the powerful thing about birthdays is that they come around again. And are a great opportunity for reflection in year-long increments. Though it felt like I “lost” some years of celebration due to my eating disorder, in recovery I now have the clarity to celebrate each birthday fully, with appreciation and uninhibited joy. 

This past weekend I celebrated my birthday with friends and it happened to include everything from nachos and bread baskets to bagels, pizza, milkshakes and birthday cake. This was food I previously deemed “bad” and shuddered to think about in my eating disorder. In the past I would have felt the need to immediately “make up for” the food by completing a high intensity workout. Now, I don’t want to “burn off” those foods any more than I want to forget the happy memories made while having them. Every meal wasn’t a reason for stress but rather a memory in the making – a moment in time where my friends and I gathered and I felt loved. Food has emotion around it and that’s OK. It was a joyous part of our celebrations, but also not the only part. 

One of the wins I found in recovery was this ability to now be truly present in celebrating my own milestones as well as those of the people around me. Parties and gatherings are no longer a barrier to my meticulous meal planning, rather they are a way to enjoy the company of others and moments in life that spark joy.  In recovery I no longer worry about how many calories are in a slice of birthday cake. In fact, this year I found myself having birthday cake for breakfast the next morning and smiling with every bite. 

By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image