Silencing the voice of an eating disorder: Listening to my true self

From the age of 11, the demands of “ED,” the eating disorder “voice” dominated my diary pages. Until I asked for help, my true self was trapped, a prisoner of the illness.*

– June Alexander

I am thrilled that today therapists are recognizing the importance of listening to their patients, to help unravel the power of ED’s voice. To help you understand, our guest diarist, Emily, provides this insight:

By Emily Murray

When entrenched in the depths of anorexia, I found it easy to believe I had become a different person and the former me was lost forever. I no longer defined myself by my character, intellect, or purpose. I lived for calorie counting, exercising, and food (or lack there of). Disordered eating patterns can change a person’s thoughts in such a way that he or she may go against everything they once believed or stood for. When deprived of consistent, regular nutrition our body begins to do whatever it can to care for itself. We become irritable, moody, depressed, anxious, and apathetic.

Behaving like I’m somebody else

Sometimes we do things that we wouldn’t ever normally do. For example, lying to our loved ones, turning down outings with friends, stealing food or money, and blaming others for our unhealthy actions. A lot of guilt and shame accompanies such behavior. I thought I could never go back to “normal,” until one day I realized that my eating disorder wasn’t my identity.

My true self was still there…just buried under ED

A significant turning point in my recovery was the moment when I realized my true, healthy self was still somewhere deep in my heart. When we are consumed by our eating disorder, it’s easy to believe the lie that we are who our eating disorder says we are.

Challenging the voice of ED

I began to explore the voice of ED in therapy. We started with the foundational truth that ED always wanted to destroy my body, relationships with other people, and my chance at truly living. ED always used words that were condescending, judgmental, shaming, deceptive, and discouraging. With ED, I could never win, and I still can’t. My healthy self, on the other hand, could win, and does win.

How journaling helps my healthy self to succeed

My healthy self encourages me to make choices that improve my overall health and well-being – mentally, physically socially, and spiritually. My healthy self wants me to succeed and doesn’t want to waste time weighing out food portions and counting calories. My healthy self is uplifting, judgement-free, honest, firm, encouraging, and life-giving. Some people find it helpful to enter into dialogue with ED in order to better understand the different sound of his voice versus the voice of our healthy selves. I found it helpful to journal through it and challenge ED’s ideas with my healthy-self.

Here is an example from my diary entries:

“Today ED wouldn’t stop harassing me about my diet and exercise routine.”

ED: I can’t believe you just had some chips and a cookie with your sandwich…what has happened to you? Do you know how many extra calories that just added to your meal?

Healthy-Self: I didn’t think the turkey sandwich would be enough to fill me up…I didn’t have any other options so I chose to eat what they had. I am proud of myself for practicing good recovery.

ED: Fine, do what you want, but you will get really big if you don’t snap out of it and hit the gym. If you’re going to eat like that you’re going to have to up your workout routine.

Healthy-Self: I know that I need to gain weight to be healthy, even though I am not comfortable with it. I trust my recovery team and family. There is a place for cookies and chips in a balanced diet. I am trying to develop a balanced relationship with exercise, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to add in more exercise right now. I have a hard time eating enough throughout the day as it is.

ED: I make you skinnier, prettier, more disciplined, and more lovable. Without me you will lose control of your body. Without me you are nothing.

Healthy-Self: Stop filling my mind with lies! My worth isn’t connected to my size or weight. With you, I am nothing.

Guess what?  I can have the final word – and so can you

At first, the more progress I made in recovery, the more I heard ED whispering in the back of my mind. He warned I needed to snap out of it and that I was getting too comfortable with this whole “recovery” thing. ED made me feel uneasy about the meals that I ate each day. If I had a snack, he questioned it. If I was not starving before a meal, he told me I did something wrong. He wanted me to go back on a diet. He wanted me to count calories. He wanted me to eat less carbs. He viewed me in disgust when I ate dessert. He wanted to dictate my diet, and for too long he did just that.

ED didn’t just follow me around during meal times. He also criticized my body. He decided what outfits I could wear. He always had something negative to say about me, my weight, my diet, my recovery.

ED is convincing, manipulating, deceiving, cunning, loud, discouraging, and consistent.

Despite all these things, I have discovered that ED doesn’t have the final word.

Each time I managed to ignore or disobey ED’s commands, in my effort to reconnect with my true self, his voice became weaker, and I began to separate myself from him more and more. I began to love my life too much to give it all up and return to ED. I started to say ‘no’ to ED more and more, and ‘yes’ to life, love, laughter, and relationships. When I rediscovered who I once was, I could see that a relationship with ED wasn’t worth the loss. My true self was never like ED; the illness had tricked me into believing the lie that a life lived by its rules would bring me joy, comfort, peace, success, and meaningful relationships. I now know that ED’s world brings up the exact opposite.

You are not your eating disorder

Today, I remain on my healing journey. I still hear ED’s voice, but it’s smaller, less convincing, and much easier to disobey. It no longer has influence and power over my day-to-day life. I’ve learned how to fight back and live by what I know to be true, rather than ED’s rules.

Many of you, like me, have had glimpses of life without ED. You have experienced some of the things that I mention here, but not every day. You still have to fight off lies. ED still has some influence on your actions and decisions. Some days are better than others. It can be a little disheartening to experience what feels like so much victory in one day, and so much defeat in the next.

You are more than your eating disorder

Settle it in your heart: you are not your eating disorder. You are not condemned for the things that you have done under the strong influence of ED. You are more than a number on a scale. You are more than a diet or exercise routine. What has happened to you isn’t your fault. Your eating disorder isn’t who you are, even when you feel so deeply intertwined with it. You are not obligated to obey his rules. You are allowed to say no, to refuse his everyday demands. Your healthy, true-self will become more and more evident in your life when you practice good recovery. So take the next bite.

Practice self-care

Listen to your recovery team. Show up to appointments. Make time to rest. Show yourself grace. Do the next right thing. Practice self-care. Be mindful. Eat what makes your body feel good AND what your taste buds want. Go out to eat with friends. Cook dinner at home with your family. These things will help you make your way back to the life you once thought was long gone. Your healthy-self was never gone, just lost within the chaos and confusion that comes with having a seriously self-harming relationship with the illness called ED.

About Emily 

Emily has a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Ecology and will begin a dietetic internship in Nashville, TN this fall. Emily enjoys writing, hiking, learning, reading and circuit training. She lives in TN with her husband Josh, who has been by her side since day one in recovery. Emily’s ultimate goal is to become a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) so she can help others find the same peace that she is finding in a life without “ED.”

To read more pieces written by Emily visit her blog at beautifullybroken.live!

*See memoir, A Girl Called Tim

June Alexander

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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