Disclaimer: This piece discusses eating disorders.
An eating disorder is a powerful thing. It can ruin many years of your life. It can take away your joy to eat. It can damage your body nearly beyond repair. It can leave lasting physical problems. It embeds itself in your mind like a parasite. It is consuming. It is enduring.
And, it can rob you entirely of your identity.
During my MSc, I completed a dissertation that focused on the perspective of those who considered themselves non-stereotypical in their experience of an eating disorder. I interviewed them on said experience and how it compared against those who were more stereotypical. Although it did not emerge as a main theme, many of the participants spoke of issues with their identity. In other words, their eating disorder became an important, if not total, part of their identity.
However, there is a deeper idea behind the identity issues with an eating disorder. While there is the stereotypical concept of what someone looks like with an eating disorder, there holds a concept of an eating disorder taking over a person’s original identity. The eating disorder becomes the individual. The more it consumes the stronger it grows and the further and further away from the light you get. Once an eating disorder gets in there, it’s hard to get it back out.
You no longer exist.
People don’t notice it completely, but they know something isn’t right about you. You don’t seem the same. They know it’s you, physically, but it’s like you are wearing a mask. So clever that it can expertly fool people, but not clever enough that people can see through the cracks. They can see you trying to get out, but the further entrenched you become in the eating disorder, the slimmer the cracks get. It becomes paved over by some plaster. You disappear and a new you emerges. You and the eating disorder have become one and the same, except the eating disorder is the dominant personality.
When you go through recovery, one of the first things you do, or are taught to do in therapy, is externalise the eating disorder. This is probably one of the hardest things to do. It’s not: I didn’t eat above (insert number of calories) for seven days. It’s: my eating disorder didn’t allow me to do that. Not: I have to binge all of this food and then find a way to purge every bit of it because I am worthless and out of control and disgusting. But instead: my eating disorder has taught me to think these things and have distorted my sense of perception. You have to spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what is you and what is the eating disorder. Which can prove to be beyond difficult when you’ve lost yourself to an eating disorder and don’t really know who you are anymore. It has become so ingrained within you. It has you fully believing that you are your eating disorder and that the old you wasn’t really you. This version of you is a higher you. The one you always wanted to become. Your eating disorder sold this identity to you in all its glory. You’ve practically trascended!
Who in their right mind would want to give that up?
Well, the funny thing is: you’re not in your ‘right’ mind at all when you have an eating disorder. Your perception has become so warped that you’ve forgotten what it felt like to be yourself pre-eating disorder. So through therapy, a lot of time and patience, the eating disorder becomes IT and not YOU.
But where does that leave you?
The fear we experience when we begin the process of of externalisation is just that: what are you once you’ve let go? You’ve spent the whole illness being taught that the person you were before was irrelevant and worthless. Where are you meant to go when what you used to be has been destroyed in favour of horrible maladaptive coping mechanisms?
You’ve been put through this traumatic event. You’ve been restricting, binging, purging, over exercising … whatever pattern your eating disorder fell under. You’ve completely shifted your identity to align with an eating disorder. You know what you were like before it happened, but things – things are different now.
I remember who I was before my eating disorder. I was a confident young girl. I ran and kept fit. I played piano. I sang in choir and regularly performed in school musicals and theatre. I was in drama groups. I wrote stories. I liked to do a lot.
When I had my eating disorder, I was almost transformed; a term it will want you to think is a good thing. My bad qualities were accentuated, as you can often observe in a lot of mental health difficulties. Other qualities emerged. A new identity formulated. I was completely affected by my eating disorder, and the stronger my eating disorder became the more pre-eating disorder me disappeared. That part barely existed anymore and was pretty much there to keep up appearances. If my eating disorder had it its way, it would have created a new identity where I didn’t exist at all.
So, when I went through the process of recovery, and externalisation, I had the impossible of task of trying to scrape together the remaining pieces of my old self. An old identity that had been obliterated by an all consuming traumatic experience such as an eating disorder. I tried for a while to get back to who I was before the disorder. And, in doing so, I avoided the fact I had one in the first place. It wasn’t something to be thought of again. It happened and that’s as far as I’ll entertain it.
However, the fact that I was ignoring it was not going to make it magically disappear. I had gone through some serious years of physical and mental damage to my body. Drowned myself in some of the most intense self-hatred I’ve ever experienced. There’s no way I didn’t alter my brain chemistry doing this. I wasn’t going to be the same person.
So, I had to figure out who I was to be now.
Truthfully, I am still trying to really figure out what my identity is post-eating disorder. But right now, I am no longer someone who is their eating disorder. I am someone who had an eating disorder. I am able to discern what thoughts are mine and what thoughts are the illness. I have achieved externalisation.
But, I am always going to have the experience of having an eating disorder living as part of my identity.
And that’s okay to me.
I can face it now it is not ingrained in me. I can see it for what it is. Knowing I can see it means it is no longer seeing for me.
I have a different outlook on the world and a different experience to offer to it. I am someone who has been affected by an eating disorder and bad mental health, and I have been given the chance to speak about how it affected me. I identified as someone consumed by an eating disorder and now I identify as Adrienne: someone affected but now recovered.
Even if I don’t know who I am fully yet, to be in this position in the first place is an incredible position to be in. I don’t know everything; I am learning a lot about who I am becoming.
But, I do know that I have not become my eating disorder.
If you are affected by any of the above, please do not hesitate to contact the Beat website for further information and online forums, or contact your GP.