Unmasking the Self that Lies Beneath the Eating Disorder
As you set out upon the endurance testing road of recovery, you may begin to notice that not all is what is seems.
Or, more interestingly, you are not what you have seemed.
Of course these vague questions could mean anything, but I’m specifically referring to what it feels like to be living with an identity that has been moulded out of mental illness rather than the real you underneath.
Beyond the eating disorder, there may be a person who is at odds with the one you live with day to day - the one that feels at the mercy of every command an eating disorder that has manipulated you at the expense of your own wellbeing and authentic identity.
Perhaps, with your eating disorder taking charge, you not only developed restrictions and conditions around food and exercise, but you also became someone who enveloped themselves into identities or ways of living that allowed you to gain some sense of success, approval and meaning in the world.
This may have meant striving to become:
The best at school
The perfect ‘good girl’
The healthy nutrition guru
The ethical vegetarian or planet saver
The successful employee
The person who is well-controlled and organised
The individual who has a multitude of talents
You may have also aspired to become someone who has accumulated extensive knowledge of the world and academic topics at the expense of connecting with friends or their inner childhood longing to play and have fun…
For a large part of your life, these goals, identities and ways of living may have felt very real and necessary, but as you begin to recover, you may also feel that something isn’t quite right.
More simply put, you may find that the dreams and ambitions that you were chasing, were somewhat artificially created - as though you have been living with exceptionally realistic bionic arms and legs rather than the ones you were born with.
Even though your exterior and interior identity may have looked and felt exceptionally realistic at the time, during recovery you may begin to notice them for what they really are - part of the nightmare that is an eating disorder or the threads of anxiety and depression that were strongly threaded in the fabric of your every waking hour.
This isn’t to say that every part of your identity isn’t real. You may indeed naturally be a very academically motivated person with a structured schedule and a dedicated heart for saving the planet. However, we must ask ourselves truthfully, is there another part of ourselves trapped helplessly beneath those layers?
For myself, when I dug a bit deeper and deeper, I discovered a very startling truth…
For years and years, I had spent dedicating myself to the pursuit of becoming an extensively qualified academic. In the spare time I had left away from studying my eyeballs out, I would pack my life with volunteering, excessively walking to keep 'fit', researching healthy foods, and deciding to become a life long vegan (for what I saw at the time was purely for ethical reasons).
However, when I truly dedicated myself to the cause of my own recovery, I noticed that the goals and identities I had surrounded myself with, were merely a big distraction and disguise. In a sense, they masked the deep sense of worthlessness I felt inside.
If you’ve ever had an eating disorder or any other mental illness, you may also be familiar with a looming sense of lack - as though if you don’t amount to anything society deems as successful, you will be at the mercy of your own inner demons that await to eat away at you without mercy.
When I began to take recovery to the next level, and eventually become a ‘healthy’ weight again that was safe for my own unique body, I realised that I wasn’t truly fulfilled by the hobbies and academic interests I was used to pursing. Despite venturing out of university with A stars and going on to a well payed job, I felt very unfulfilled. I just knew I wasn’t me anymore... not the real one anyway.
Even though it had been over a decade since I had fell ill, I was reminded that, deep down, something longed for me to be more creative, explore, have fun, and connect with the inner child that I had beaten up and neglected for far to long.
These experiences were nothing less than TERRIFYING. What would it mean to abandon the hopes and dreams I’d worked so hard to achieve, and let go of the identities that had defined me for so so long? I couldn’t rub everything out and start with a blank canvas again!?
The mere thought that I wasn’t the things I had worked so hard for felt as though I really was an out of control worthless person. A fraud who couldn't survive with an eating disorder that couldn't survive in the world without the 'super human' abilities I thought it provided me with. Perhaps I couldn't function or be motivated without it?
In reality, the truth was simply that I needed to go on my own journey to re-discovery. I didn’t necessarily need to erase everything I’d achieved, but to learn the art of relinquishing attachment to those things and learning to live outside the eating disorder world.
We may have accumulated many years of education, awards, talent and ways of thinking about the world. But, we can also hold a much softer grip on these things. If you have created a world out of healthy living or a particular career, this doesn’t have to be your forever. What we have created up until this point, is merely part of the journey. We can always choose to let go, and find something else that aligns with a new way of thinking.
Sometimes in recovery we are awakened to ways of living and thinking that we didn’t know existed. These may include body positivity, choosing a career that isn’t dictated by our current qualifications, taking up a new creative interest or hobby, and even travelling further than you ever have before in your own country or the world.
If you too are at a stage of recovery where you don’t know who you are, or you are simply questioning the identities and responsibilities you have taken on whilst being in the grips of your eating disorder, know that you are not alone and that it is not too late to change your direction in life. It may feel like life will spiral out of control in the process, but often the opposite will more likely happen as you regain the ability to reconnect with yourself in a more compassionate way.
If your previous career interests now feel unsatisfying, then it is completely ok to change direction or take up a new form of study and work life altogether. You may not have the accolades or pay check you always dreamed of, but at the end of the day, what is it that truly makes you happy? Is it following the rituals, controls and expectations governed by the life of mental illness? Or, more beneficially, is it guided by your authentic moral compass to become someone who is passionate about the way you live life and are kind to yourself and others?
In the depths of an eating disorder, it can be so hard to see past the sky scraper high number of rituals and expectations that suffocate each day. Thats why in recovery, when having more room to take a breath, we can recuperate the energy to break down the structures that have kept us blind to ourselves for so long.
Yes, the journey of breaking free from previous expectations and goals and identities may feel terrifying. It’s the fear of walking the unknown path, where the echo of an eating disorder voice may have more reason to lure us back into the safety of restriction and control. However, I would argue that it is ESSENTIAL to walk the path of truth. Even if you can’t see it yet, there is always room to see past the illusion of the world we have been creating.
We can always ask ourselves:
Is this me?
Is this the person I want to be?
Is this what brings me true happiness?
If the answer is no, then we must find the courage to walk away, or find ways to connect with the truth of who we are.
There is no obligation to know this yet, but it may simply start with the step of finding a new interest or hobby that doesn’t coincide with being seen as a ‘good’, successful, or well controlled and knowledgeable person. It may involve finding local art class, attending a book club, or researching an intriguing topic that isn’t related to healthy eating or exercise.
There are so so many possibilities, and the world is a big BIG place. Its too huge to warrant staying firmly attached to belief systems and ways of living that may be preventing you from living fully and fulfilled.
Know that you are more than a grade on a piece of paper, your job title, your weight, your diet, your number of professional accolades. Underneath those layers of societally governed ideals, there is a whole other part of your personality waiting to be unmasked!
It may not be the controlled, well organised person you expected, but accepting this is a vital part in breaking away from a disorder that thrives on keeping you playing small in the world. With a bit of courage to see past the facade, we can embrace a whole new world that gives us meaning and joy - without necessarily requiring the qualifications and stamps of approval from others we used to rely on.
On a final note, know that you have worth just by being you. Even if from today, you never worked again or fulfilled a certain criteria, just by existing you are working to create the world as it is now and will be in the future.
My advice from here is to gradually unmask yourself in order to become the person who wants to create a kinder world - for yourself firstly, and for others when you’ve learned to be the person who lives from the truth of your own heart. I have faith that with time and courage, we can all find that.