themighty logo

How Anorexia Nervosa Became My Whole Identity

Eating disorders, and in my experience anorexia nervosa, is something I haven’t stopped writing about since I was 14. Except for this year. Purposefully, I haven’t written anything about it this year as I needed to learn who I was without it.

It may sound incredibly silly or even self-centered when I admit I was once obsessed with the identity anorexia gave me. It wasn’t a “hey! Look, I’m anorexic!” type of thing — nowhere near that. It was more of a: “I have no idea who I am. Anorexia gives me an identity of sorts so I’ll go with it.”

I think, a lot of the time, that eating disorders stem from a part of our lives where we truly lose who we are, or at least begin to. Buried under issues of all sorts, we grasp onto anything that we can focus on but those issues. Some choose yoga or wellness retreats; my pathway in life directed me toward anorexia.

It is a slow descent at first. You start doing a little more exercise here and there, or you cut out your favorite sweets. Soon enough, you are known as the person who hardly eats. Somewhere between that transition is an identity loss. You go from who you are and how people you view to this person who is essentially a shell of yourself.

When I was treated for anorexia, it was assumed by many that I’d get better overnight. I, like so many others, was unlucky in having recovery last a duration of one day, so then begins the process of treatment.

You learn everything there is about your illness. You are supposedly taught how to handle it. However, no one really mentions that the instruction guide of getting better can easily be a starting pack on advancing your illness.

At that point, you’re lost and you’re searching for answers on how to find a way out. Unfortunately, sometimes you choose the wrong ones. I went down that path, the path of getting even more ill post-diagnosis, or as I describe it becoming more of a “textbook anorexic.” I watched documentaries, read books, read stories and learned habits from other eating disorder patients. I even followed Instagram accounts that were often eating disorder manuals masked with the word “recovery.”

Soon enough, I knew everything about being sick with anorexia. Recovery, not so much. I remember believing that the only thing I was good at was starving myself.

I was convinced that being as low weight as possible was just me advancing one of my strengths. It’s a competitive illness and, almost always, the worst competitor to face is yourself. It is the voice that tells you to keep going even when there’s a strong possibility that if you try, you just won’t make it to the finishing line.

When you feel like you suck at everything else in the world, it’s only natural to turn to something that makes you feel as if you can do something “right.” The big problem in that idea is that ultimately being good at this one thing can kill you. Then when it does, you have to ask yourself: is anyone really going to remember me for being the “best anorexic?”

I remember asking myself that so many times and almost always, the answer was no. Sure, I felt the little bursts of achievement for a few seconds when anything went “right” for the eating disorder, but most of the time I was essentially losing in a lot of other aspects of life. Friendships, growing up, school, family life became harder and I became miserable. Why would I ever want anyone to remember me for that?

It’s a dire conversation to have with yourself and in no way does it mean you aren’t a person if you have an eating disorder. It means that when you are entrenched in it, the only way you can satisfy it is to be dead. That’s the realization of anorexia. It never will be satisfied.

So, what can you do? The best option is to take a chance and fight back. Your first or hundredth fight might not end in the finishing goal but it’s a step closer to home. You fight back with help from others and most importantly yourself.

When you are ready, identify yourself again. It is so important. To a degree, I see this process in so many people I know who have successfully pursued recovery.

In most cases, people have returned to passions and hobbies they had before the onset of their illness, or in some cases activities that they were unable to do because of their illness. For every person and story it is different.

It is not just the hobbies and passions, it’s the return of a personality as well. With an eating disorder, it is so easy to assume an identity of it. So when overcoming it, it is vital to look at who we are despite it. For me, I recognized the traits of myself that I once prided myself on. They never went when I was sick, they just became less important to me.

For me, I am Ruby and I have an eating disorder. However, I am a compassionate, educated individual. I love writing way too much. I love dedicating poems to any interaction I’ve had in my life. I love driving my car, “Fifi,” whilst belting out Taylor Swift songs. That’s some of who I am, some of who I will be remembered to be.

I haven’t lost the identity of my eating disorder fully but it’s not all of who I am. As soon as I realized that, recovery became a whole lot clearer.

Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash