Eating Disorders and Identity: From Recovery to Recovered and Beyond

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity and how important it is to both mental and physical recovery from eating disorders. When we feel trapped in the worst phases of an eating disorder, we can feel that we don’t have a clue who we are anymore; all we know is that we’re ill. I’m finding the road back tough but full of positive moments as I find myself entering a new stage on my road to a life where anorexia is just another part of my history – an important part but nowhere near the front of my mind. I now believe this life is possible, and I’m coming up with one way that might get me and others there.

Getting Stuck

Lately I’ve been disappointed with how I’m doing on my weight restoration. I’m not going to say disappointed with myself; self-blame is how I got into anorexia in the first place so it certainly won’t get me out! But I am disappointed at finding myself stuck partially into recovery for quite a long time. I’ve been thinking about why this is happening and what I can do to change it. I thought that mentally much of the work was done, but actually I’m still struggling with my post-anorexia identity.

Losing Ourselves

For years, I steadily lost my identity as Hannah – the woman with boundless energy and super-eclectic interests. My self-worth became so poor that I didn’t know what I was or what I wanted. All I knew was that I was thin and I wanted to be thinner. I told myself that I was no longer pretty, smart or lively, but I was thin and that was my “excuse” for not being the woman I wanted to be. On entering a room, the first thing I’d check was whether I was the thinnest. If I wasn’t, or my body dysmorphia made me think I wasn’t, I couldn’t relax. I think this is common in anorexia sufferers, and I guess a lot of what I’m saying here is common in many eating disorder sufferers. Once no longer in denial that there’s a problem, the eating disorder identity becomes all we think we are. And all we dare to be.

Recovery and Identity

For me, the start of recovery was a physical battle. Coping with sheer tiredness and distress as I finally gave in to just how exhausted my body had become took up all of my headspace. But even just a couple of weeks in, and with just some small physical and mental improvements as I began to nourish myself, I felt like new spaces were opening up in my mind. I actually started to listen when I watched the news, concentrate when I read a book or had a conversation, and began looking around me as I went about my day, rather than keeping my ashamed eyes on the ground. I discovered that there was still a world out there and I was desperate to fully re-join it.

As I made a bit more physical and mental progress, this world steadily opened up to me. I experimented with some new interests and worked on forging new friendships. I’ve now reached a stage where I know what I want to do with my future – and it’s definitely not to be thin! So then why am I stuck only part way on the road to this recovered future?

The Recovery Identity

What I’ve realised is that even the “recovery” identity is problematic as it still puts the eating disorder at the centre of who I am. Yes, it’s a more positive identity than “anorexic”, but it’s not really putting the eating disorder where it deserves to be – well out of the way of my daily existence. And so it’s still getting in the way of my goals for myself, and all the things I want to contribute to this world that I can see and touch and feel again.

I think a big part of the problem is that recovery is still an introspective state. It’s still focused in on myself, and so it’s still creating a barrier to fully re-joining the world. For me, it still makes anorexia far too important in my daily life.

Think about how many times you see the word “I” in this blog. And think about how many times we see the word “I” in so much social media content related to eating disorders and recovery. Yes, of course “I” is crucial to recovery and re-claiming identity. But though self-worth and self-care are essential for those of us who’ve denied it to ourselves for so long – in fact for everyone – I think introspection can go too far. It can actually become a barrier to recovery, keeping us partially cut off from everyone else.

So how can we keep the “I” but fully re-connect with the world at the same time? The answers to this question – and for sure there’s more than just my ideas – could be the key to full recovery. They could be the thing that makes the recovered identity possible.

The Recovered Identity – Making a Contribution

It was a conversation with someone who also suffered from anorexia for many years which helped me to fully form these ideas. She told me that nowadays she no longer thinks all day about what she has eaten and when she will eat next. She can simply eat and move on. Yes, right now I have to follow a rough plan in my mind to make sure I eat enough and I have to eat even when I’m not hungry, but I can still work on eating my meals and snacks and then simply moving on to the next part of my day. So how?

The key might just lie in striking a balance between Hannah in recovery, engaging with and challenging the eating disorder, and recovered Hannah who has other things to think about. This means striking a balance between the “I”, and the “we” and the “they”.

My recent fundraising campaign was focused on my identity as Hannah in recovery. I loved doing it, and definitely reached out to others by raising funds so that more people can access eating disorder support. I’m now planning a wider campaign where my recovery is still at its heart, but taking in issues that connect with more women, not only those who are suffering/have suffered from eating disorders.

I want to focus on body image, the diet industry, and the media’s representation of women and our body stories. I say women here for now, because I feel we face specific body image and self-esteem challenges. I do know that men face challenges and would like to reach out to them too. But there’s only so much one woman can do at once, especially as I need to keep taking care of my physical health as I recover.

Thinking about these wider issues has made me tap into my identity as a woman, and this is where I can move far beyond the introspective state of Hannah in recovery and start focusing on the “we” and the “they”. Over the coming months, I will also learn about and do something to help women with a different cause, unrelated to eating disorders and body image. Though essential for us all, I believe we also need to direct some thought beyond “I need”, “I feel”, “I think”, “I want” to “What does she/they need/feel/think/want?” Then instead of feeling alone with our struggles, we can connect to and help others, and will often find we are helped in return.

Maybe this is how we can simply eat and move on, as my friend can now do. Maybe this is how we can help ourselves, but also, and ultimately even more importantly how we can re-connect with the world. Maybe contributing to others is how we can make our renewed presence felt. Surely the drive to be part of other people’s stories and not just our own is the best thing about being one person and one story forming part of a global patchwork of others?

Look out for my next adventures coming soon! And please do contact me if you’d like to know more and/or you’d like to join in with my next campaigns. I could use some help!

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