Image: @vinganapathyWhere does the eating disorder end, and where does my personality begin? It’s a question so many of us in recovery struggle with – we often have no idea who we are without the eating disorder. Or how much of our apparent personality is truly ‘us’ and how much of it comes from the eating disorder.
It’s a question that has been at the forefront of my mind recently, triggered by a conversation with someone I care about in which we discussed my eating disorder, recovery, and the impact the disorder has. Some of the things that were said resonated strongly with me because it was not the first time I had heard them.
I often find that I’m leading the conversation, and it’s hard work. It’s like you’ve got no life in you. When you’ve got a drink or two in you, you’ve got confidence and it’s great, I wish you had that confidence all the time.
Hearing these words is painful, more so with each repetition. It is painful because I have to face the reality that I have no idea to what extent these observations are about my true personality, or how much is due to the eating disorder.
Am I boring?
Of course the disordered part of my brain tells me that this is all me. It tells me that I am boring, that I have no substance. That people don’t want to spend time with me. It tells me that those who do spend time with me do so out of pity, not because they gain anything from the relationship.
Could it be though that this is not the case? That perhaps if I had more energy I would find it easier to maintain conversation? That if I wasn’t so wrapped up in disordered thoughts I would show more interest in other people? If I didn’t so often doubt my self-worth I would have the confidence to throw myself into social situations?
The conversation then moved towards my recovery progress and all the good things that will come of recovery.
I want to see you full of life and have the energy to be everything you’re supposed to be.
This statement completely threw me. Who on earth am I supposed to be? I have spent 10 years consumed by this disorder, will there be anything left when that is taken away? Am I capable of becoming a fully functioning human being? One who lives life to the fullest?
In the few days after this conversation I spent a lot of time worrying about my identity and what I have to offer. I reflected on conversations where I felt inadequate. So many people my age have spent the last 10 years truly living; they’ve been traveling, gained qualifications, started careers, started families, all whilst I have been merely surviving. I feel as if I have nothing to offer when speaking to people who have been fully experiencing life. Whilst “well, I’ve not died” may feel like an achievement, it doesn’t exactly make for great dinner conversation.
I fretted about how interesting I was. Whether or not I had “a thing” that defined me. I quizzed my friends on the quality of my conversation. I tried to think of new hobbies and interests, tried to plan an exciting new persona for myself, one that I would no doubt be able to achieve during my recovery journey.
Is the worry worth it?
Obviously, none of this is healthy. Worrying about how interesting you are and putting expectations on yourself to be a certain way will only hinder recovery. It fuels thoughts of inadequacy, which of course can be the eating disorder’s best friends.
Aiming for an idealized version of yourself is inevitably an unrealistic goal, a dangerous thing to do when perceived failure is so often a trigger for ED behaviors.
Of course it took me a while to realize how unhelpful these thoughts were. I went to my first meditation and mindfulness class and had a realization, one that might be obvious to others but had not been to me.
The realization was this:
I have no idea who I am because I haven’t had the chance to grow into the person I’m capable of being. My entire adult life has been focused on this disorder. I have been feeding myself the bare minimum to survive; of course I have not been able to thrive.
If I was going to succeed in recovery, I had to change my approach.
What do I do with this realization? How do I fix this? Well, I start by realizing that it isn’t something I have to fix. It’s ok to not know who I am. It doesn’t make me any less beautiful. It doesn’t make me any less valuable.
I gave myself this advice:
1. Be kind to yourself
Who you are right now is worth all the love and care in the world. It’s ok if you haven’t learned to speak 7 languages, run marathons, done charity work, graduated with 3 degrees all whilst traveling the world. To not know who you are yet is fine. It’s ok if other people don’t know who you are.
What’s important is that you accept the person you are right now. As long as you feel in any way inadequate, as long as you berate yourself for not being more interesting, more active, more whatever, your recovery will be hindered.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others
Everybody’s journey is different. Other people may have achieved goals you have yet to conquer; those people may not have had the same challenges that you have had. Comparing your achievements to other people (much like comparing your body to other people) will do you no favors. We don’t need to compete to be interesting. You are unique, and that is beautiful.
3. Be patient
Recovery takes time and has its ups and downs. It can be easy to feel frustrated with slow progress. This journey of finding yourself, working out your full potential, and reclaiming your life from the eating disorder will not be an easy one. But it will be worth it.
The only way I’m going to find out who I am is to take care of myself. If I am looking after myself, and properly nourishing myself, then I have the chance to grow into my full potential. Just like a child making the transition into adulthood I need nurture and acceptance. I do not need to berate myself for not being good enough.
A final note from me to you
No matter what stage of recovery you are in, whether or not you know who you are: