Letting Go Of My Eating Disorder Identity
Katie Alice Macdonald
“What am I without my eating disorder?”, I asked myself on the momentous day I was discharged from hospital, as I walked down the spiral staircase, equal amounts of adrenaline and anxiety surging through my veins. As with anything that is a dominant part of your life, my eating disorder shaped my identity for several years. Despite the collateral damage it caused, it was a part of me, and one I struggled to let go of.
My eating disorder caused me to be signed off uni, rendered me unable to work, and single-handedly plummeted me into sheer isolation; the numbers on the scale decreasing, alongside my zest for life. Relationships require integrity and intimacy, and the very nature of eating disorders brutally eroded these elements, leaving me with only one friend: anorexia.
To those with no experience of EDs, one may wonder why people struggle to let go of an identity that caused them to become a shadow of their former selves. I, too, find myself in disbelief - that I can mourn the loss of something that caused so much pain. Not dissimilar to someone with a crippling alcohol addiction, I find myself craving the very thing that almost killed me, not because I believe it will improve my quality of life in any way, but predominantly because it numbs you to the chaos of the outside world.
There is some irony in the fact that my disorder made me feel ‘safe’ and ‘protected’. Not only did being so entrenched in my illness prevent me from having to deal with the various trials and tribulations of adulthood (ie. job security, finance, intimate relationships), it prevented me from having to face my emotions head on - acting as a neat, little anaesthetic from the turbulence of everyday life. For many years I felt untouchable, and as ashamed as I am to write this now - I felt like I had an excuse. If I shunned responsibility, or wasn’t achieving the many benchmarks of growing up at the same rate as my peers (moving out, going to university), I was excused, on the grounds of being unwell. As manipulative as it sounds, perhaps there was also an element of power: people had to tread on eggshells around me, and I would never be pushed too far, lest someone’s words be the final straw to propel me into yet another relapse.
For many months in 2018, I dipped my toe in the perilous waters of recovery, doing the bare minimum to please my friends, family and medical team, whilst still engaging in ED behaviours enough to satiate my anorexia’s burning desire for control. I blindly convinced myself that I could fully recover whilst still eating the same ‘safe’ foods, dressing myself in baggy tent-like clothes and meticulously measuring everything (I still remember the bemused expression on my flatmates face as I weighed out a portion of ketchup!).
After various therapeutic interventions, and speaking to others who were also in quasi-stagnant-recovery, it dawned upon me that I was scared of losing my ‘anorexic identity’. I didn’t like being any of the things my ED demanded I be, yet I was afraid to not be them!
Anorexia made me feel special. It manipulated me into believing that having it in my life made me stronger, more disciplined, better than anyone else. Anyone who challenged my ritualistic behaviours regarding exercise was dismissed in my mind as being ‘jealous of my self-control and determination’.
“I can exercise for hours a day on very little fuel, I bet they can’t do that” resounded in my head as I created an abrasive outer shell for those who threatened to meddle in my relationship with my ED. A highly dysfunctional relationship, yet the dysfunction progressed from warped infatuation to living in captivity, detesting the slavery my existence had become.
As the months passed, I realised that the only way to eliminate my eating disorder for good was to discover the traits and quirks of my personality that anorexia had stolen from me: my passion for music, the way I squeal when I see a cute dog, my questionable sense of humour. Letting go of anorexia wouldn’t leave an empty void to fill, if I just allowed the positive qualities I possessed before to slowly seep back in. I was certain they still existed, and they sometimes presented themselves, giving me a little glimpse of normality, before being overshadowed by the disorder yet again.
Separating myself from my disorder was a crucial turning point in my recovery. As romanticised and simplistic as it sounds, for every difficult decision I have had to make in recovery, I have asked myself: “does this decision get me closer to my end goal” For me, my end goal was going back to university full time and the decisions were often as small as picking a sandwich for lunch (a decision that felt completely overwhelming at the time!). No matter what the decision, asking myself this question would help me decipher whether my decision was serving me/ Katie, or my disorder.
Secondly, I cannot highlight how helpful I have found it to think of myself and my illness as two separate entities. This way, I still take responsibility for my actions, but know when my ED is causing me to behave in a certain way. Creating a separate identity for my anorexia has also helped me feel more detached from it. I have learned that when ED feels challenged, that is when I become defensive. The ED won’t like you cutting it out of your life, and it will hate those around you for stealing focus from it, as it lures you back into its tangled web of lies once more.
However, I promise you that someday not so far from now, you will realise the joy in being referred to as ‘do you know Katie?… loves to sing… obsessed with cats!?’, as opposed to ‘yeah… the anorexic one’. Your disorder will try to convince you that it is ingrained in your identity, and that being ‘the one with the eating disorder’ can be a strange badge of honour, but when it comes to engraving your tombstone, would you rather “loving mother and friend” or “a great anorexic!”?
Katie is a London-based Music graduate, specialising in opera. She loves practicing yoga, writing a blog and embroidering. She also co-leads a running club, which focuses on building a positive relationship with exercise to maintain good mental health. You can find her on Instagram @katie_alice1.
I am a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend, an animal lover, a feminist, a damn loyal friend and a laughably bad dancer. I am not a diagnosis, and neither are you.