Your Eating Disorder as Your Identity: Who Are You Without It?
I have had an eating disorder for fully half of my life. I’ve spent nearly as many years in eating disorder treatment as I did in college. I write a blog about eating disorders and recovery. So it’s easy to believe the lie that I am Jessica, the recovering and/or relapsing anorexic. It’s easy for any of us to believe that our eating disorder is a huge part of who we are. No, not just a huge part – but who we are in our entirety.
Your Eating Disorder as Your Identity
In my work with special needs children and adults, we try to use something called “person-centered” descriptors. Johnny isn’t “that autistic kid” – he’s a little boy with autism. Jane isn’t “that cerebral palsy girl” – she’s a young woman with cerebral palsy. We take great effort to make sure that we do not confuse the diagnosis with the person behind it.
But when it comes to eating disorders, we are “anorexics,” “bulimics,” “binge eaters.” We box ourselves in by telling ourselves that we are these things – not that they are things we struggle with. If I identify myself as an anorexic, of course I am going to find it easy to fall into a pattern of restricting – that’s what anorexics do, right? But if I am Jessica, a person who struggles with anorexia, then I have to ask myself, “What would Jessica do?”
Unraveling Your Eating Disorder Identity
Please don’t misunderstand me. Trying to find out who you are outside of your eating disorder is HARD, especially if you have spent any length of time identifying yourself with your eating disorder (or any other mental illness). No small amount of my time in treatment this time was devoted to determining who I am outside of my eating disorder. Before I left for treatment, I had multiple friends call me out on the fact that I have allowed my eating disorder to become my entire identity.
Yes, my eating disorder will always be a part of my story. But that’s not all there is to it. I love to read and write. I’m a total word nerd and would be just as happy staying in playing Scrabble as I would going out to a bar or club. I am innately curious. Give me an interesting topic and I could research it for weeks. I am a loyal friend. I am a follower of Christ with a heart for justice and mercy.
Admittedly, it is very, very hard to see those things when I am stuck in my eating disorder. It is so much easier to think of myself as an anorexic, period. In reality, having anorexia or bulimia or ED-NOS says nothing about who I am, what I desire in life, what I might achieve. By telling myself that I am “an anorexic,” I sell myself short – I am ignoring all of the other amazing, wonderful things that I am.
How are you selling yourself short?
What do you want to do in life?
What brings you joy?
What do you value most?
I’d love to hear your answers to these questions – and leave some questions in the comments for others to answer!
(Also, let it be noted that I am so excited to be co-authoring this blog with Patricia - she has done a great job in my absence and it's so refreshing to get another perspective! Make sure to pop over to her first article to get to know a bit more about Patricia, and read her tips for how to rebuild your identity in recovery!)
Hudgens, J. (2013, July 25). Your Eating Disorder as Your Identity: Who Are You Without It?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, June 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2013/07/identity-who-am-i-without-my-eating-disorder
Author: Jessica Hudgens
Hi Jess, and everyone
Some amazing comments and it is incredible to meet so many people who are brave enough to be completely candid about this
I am an anorexic stand up currently working on a show which is touring the UK to try and get people talking about eating disorders
As such, it's bizaare, because I feel the responsibility to wave the flag of being 'anorexic Dave' whilst at the same time decrying it and trying to get people talking about positive body image
I completely understand and empathise with the idea of not wanting to be 'anorexic Jess' just Jess. However, one of the things I have found difficult is that it is easier to pigeon-hole yourself as one thing rather than be all things to all people.
Identity, by it's nature is a transient and changing concept - you are not the same person with the same veiws, likes and interests as you did now than when you were 5. That's no bad thing, in fact, that's natural and should be encouraged. However, one of the trickiest things is being 'the anorexic' is a category to slot into.
I am not saying this is a good thing, and I have been told it is incredibly diseased thinking. I don't want to trigger anyone, and certainly don't want to offend, but, purely to ask some obviously intelligent and understanding people how you have found your identity beyond this.
After all we define ourselves all the time as brothers, sisters, sons, colleagues, even Christians, Muslims, Jews etc but these are all umbrella categories, they relate to millions of others beyond ourselves. By the nature of the disease anorexia is something incredibly personal, something you own and control - how do you find identity beyond that?
It is scary to think of finding an identity beyond that, yet, terrifying to think of where that ultimate conclusion leads to if you completely define yourself by the eating disorder. The pressure, the expectation and the knowledge of other people knowing you as 'the anorexic', 'the bulemic' or whatever, is only going to entrench the disease and perpetuate it. However, as sick as it sounds, being able to be just one category is a rare thing and something that helps to identify you.
So, how do you regain identity beyond this?
Sorry to ramble, I hope this makes sense!
I have spent the last 4 months totally focused on my recovery from Anorexia. I spent 8 weeks in treatment and then have been doing follow up outpatient treatment. Before I went into treatment I was so wrapped up in being an anorexic but at the same time in total denial that I had a problem. I was totally functional, working full time as a preschool teacher and general caregiver for many children. Not only did I have the "anorexic" identity but also that of a teacher and caregiver. My life revolved around those things. When I came out of treatment I was ready to start to let go of my eating disorder but I was then told that I couldn't go back to work. My boss felt that with winter and me still on the edge of health that it would be in the best interest of myself and the children at school if I took time off to get properly better and then come back to school. While others would think this was a wonderful opportunity to relax and take some time Out, I felt completely lost. Not only was not Aimee, the anorexic, but now I wasn't Aimee the teacher anymore either. I was gutted!!! I fell into a deep and dark depression. I was isolated and lonely. I was home alone all day and left to sit with my thoughts and feelings. Through many therapy sessions I worked through the uncomfortable feelings I had and learned to be still. It was a profound learning experience for me. Where I first felt punished I now feel free. I am learning to just be and be ok with that. I have started a true journey of healing and am learning new things about myself each day. I hope other get to find their true self too!
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! It is certainly hard to be stripped of your eating disorder "identity" and some other "identity" as well. I've struggled with that quite a bit. Now, I'm just Jess. Not "Anorexic Jess" or "Smart Jess" or anything else. Just Jess, a daughter of God. That's it. I find new things everyday that excite me and pique my interest and I love getting to know those things about myself. I'm glad you're getting to know your "true" self as well!
I am struggling with bulimia and have definitely felt defined by that before. It became my identity in a strange way the minute I started thinking of it as my little secret, something I could hide from the world and keep to myself. I know that sounds odd, considering it's like hiding what you think as the center of your identity, but it is how I defined myself in my own mind. You can't hide it forever, of course, and people do start to notice the behavior. Then, for me, it became an outward identity I wasn't altogether proud of, but still *mine.* Still something I could use as the base of me. If I can ever shake that mentality, I think I'd be less resistant to treatment.
Outside of bulimia, I am also a "word nerd" and love playing pretty much any instrument that has strings. I'm hoping to build my identity around things like that some day instead of around this monster that feels like it ties my life together.
Thanks for this post, and best of luck!
I totally understand how the eating disorder can simultaneously be your "dirty little secret" and outward identity. For years, I thought that without my eating disorder, everyone would abandon me because that was the only "interesting" thing about me. My friend gave me a reality check before I left for treatment, telling me that my intelligence, my musical abilities, my writing, my passion for special needs -- those were interesting. My eating disorder was frustrating and not at all interesting because it hid who I really was.
I recommend taking time to focus on those things you do enjoy, like word games and music. Find me on Facebook and let's play a game of words with friends. Start a youtube channel to showcase your musical talent and play silly songs. Slowly but surely, you'll be able to see those things as your true self and can tell your eating disorder to shut it.
You can do it!
I wanted to share with you what I wrote about this subject (I hope I do this right!)
For years, my identity has been tied up with being either an anorexic or a recovering anorexic. Hence, it colors everything that I do.
One clinician has written that those of us with eating disorders cling to them because we have not developed our own unique personalities. I can't say I agree with that, because I had a very strong personality before I developed anorexia while in my 40s. However, I can see that this might be the case with those who developed an eating disorder during the pre-pubescent ages when the personality is not fully formed.
I also believe that anorexia is unique in that we live in a society that worships thinness, and the anorexic body is one that many — models, actresses, teenage girls, and others — strive to obtain. Therefore anorexia is the only eating disorder that is subconsciously reinforced and praised by society. The incidences of anorexia is lower in societies that have minimal influence from Western values. Of course, that is rapidly changing in this new global world, in which someone in the far reaches of say, Mongolia or the rainforest, are influenced by Western society.
Since you are a strong believer in Christ, Jessica, have you looked into the works of Lisa Bevere? One of her books is titled "You Are Not What You Weigh: End your war with food and discover your true value." You might find it helpful.
I find that even while in recovery, I often long for the identity of an anorexic. I'm currently struggling with the eating disorder voice, and it makes me angry. I am an award-winning writer with three college degrees, and the best I can find to identify myself is my weight!?!
Thanks for the book recommendation! I will definitely check it out! I agree that A) society praises and encourages eating disorder behaviours and B) eating disorders form because we're not really sure who we are or because our sense of self has been shaken in some way (which may have been the case for you?). It becomes so easy to let the eating disorder take over our identity because at least then we have something, you know?
I was thinking about this topic earlier this morning, interestingly enough. In my personal experience (and I suspect in some others' as well) I developed my eating disorder during puberty - which leads me to the theory that, once I was officially diagnosed with anorexia, I clung to that as an identity. It is no secret that the entirety of us, growing up in our teens or 20s or even past that, we strive to find who we are. We strive to find an identity for ourselves. Once I was given a sort of label, I clung to that because I didn't know what else to cling to. I was lost and felt hopeless as a person.
While I'm trying to let go out my identity as an anorectic, I'm still struggling to find an identity beyond sickness in general. However, progress is progress, I'd like to believe.
Progress is indeed progress, and I am really proud of all the progress you have made over the last year. You're right in the fact that our teens and early twenties are a time that we are desperately trying to find our place in the world, discover who we really are. So when you stumble upon an eating disorder and find that you're pretty good at it, it's easy to take that on as your identity and certainly difficult to let it go. That identity issue is only exacerbated when you are in and out of treatment and so other people begin to identify you as the sick one.
The best thing about college is that you can totally reinvent yourself. Nobody knows you and you are free to just be Mckenna, who is a beautiful singer, loves broadway, and has a lot of writing talent. Get involved with other people who enjoy those things and just allow yourself to be without the eating disorder in those times. You'll find that you are a lot more than just "the sick one." And people will like you and want to get to know you for you - not because you have an eating disorder.
Keep fighting the good fight, my friend.
Jess, welcome back. You´ve been missed - though Patricia is a GREAT partner and I´ve enjoyed her posts.
I, too, have been aware that my "thinness" - the fact that I don´t eat a lot - has become my identity. I continue to battle with the truth that I don´t really WANT to gain weight. (Though I have gained about 10 pounds over the last year and am no longer at a critical stage) Somehow, in my mind, gaining weight means I´m no longer me. People will notice, they will make comments about my weight gain, and I will hear it as their pointing out a loss. I KNOW this isn´t true - but those thoughts still exist.
I, too, am a Christian. I often teach Bible studies and I know the Christ who is my identity. I enjoy writing, encouraging others, I, too, enjoy words and studying their exact meanings, I love my children and grandchildren (yes I´m a 60 year old battling habits and thought patterns I´ve had since my teen years) I WANT to move on - but then, I don´t want to: if that makes any sense.
Anyway - I don´t have answers. I just want to know what you´ve learned to help you be able to reléase that false identity of being anorexic.
Thanks loads - sorry so long.
Thanks for your honesty on the subject. It is so hard to see weight gain as "progress," because it does feel like you're slipping a little more into the "who am I??!" vortex with every pound. I can assure you that you will still be you when you recover -- and perhaps even more "you" than you've ever been in your life.
One helpful thing has been telling the people in my life not to comment about my weight. By hearing comments all the time about your weight, they're just reinforcing your identity as tied to your weight. Remind them (so they can remind you!) that you are more than your eating disorder. I actually asked people what they saw in me - the real me, without the eating disorder. I also had to do a body portrait in treatment that focused on the "true" me. Sure, it was my body traced on the paper, but that had nothing to do with it -- I was drawing the intelligence and interest in my head, the things I hold closest to my heart, the things that I love to do with my legs (like walk and hike). It really forced me to look at who I really am.
I am glad that you know your identity in Christ. That is certainly helped me along my path to recovery. If I could recommend one book for you, it would be "Life of the Beloved" by Henri Nouwen. I think you might really draw things from it that might be helpful.
Keep fighting the good fight and let me know what you find out about who Susan REALLY is. :)
I'm excited too. I'm happy you are back, that you are well, and that we will be working together.