Rebuilding an identity is part of eating disorder recovery
Eating disorder recovery involves more than establishing a healthy relationship with food. I found I also needed to break old habits and learn new skills to cope with the ups and downs of adult life. Facing such challenges takes courage, commitment and patience. Most significantly, it takes a strong commitment to rediscover oneself.
Like others who develop an eating disorder, I had formed my identity and self-worth around the illness itself. For example, when struggling with an eating disorder throughout my late adolescence my life became defined by treatment sessions, doctor appointments, meal planning and more. When experiencing recurring cycles of treatment and relapse it was easy to feel feel my life would never change or that the eating disorder would always have some sort of power over my life.
When feeling stuck in eating disorder behaviours and the eating disorder mindset, I was unable to remember what life without an eating disorder was like. Experiencing such loss of self is especially true for those who have had an eating disorder for years or from an early age. This is because all decisions, reactions, activities, perceptions and values are viewed through the eating disorder’s lens.
In my experience, not until I committed fully to recovery, did my eating disorder identity begin to fade, allowing my true identity to come through. This healing process was difficult. I had to accept that daily diligence was essential. Gradually, I began to take small steps forward in learning who I was without my eating disorder.
When feeling lost the treatment team provides guidance
While in the moment it might not seem like much, following the treatment team’s recommendations, such as keeping to a meal plan outlined by a dietitian, attending therapy appointments, and regular journaling, does make a difference. Trusting the treatment team’s guidance allowed me to rediscover my identity away from the eating disorder. This often meant I had to do the very thing that was most scary, like eating a meal or snack. Because my identity had become completely aligned with my eating disorder, I had to be brave enough to trust my treatment team, who understood how to support my recovery journey.
When in the throes of my eating disorder, I had difficulty imagining anything outside the behaviours in which I had become entrenched. Eating disorders often serve as a coping mechanism to survive or manage overwhelming circumstances, and not having this to fall back can feel scary. Even though I had grown accustomed to “functioning” with an eating disorder and had accepted for a time that these behaviours and rituals would be my norm for life, I eventually discovered that a path to freedom.
Focus on short-and-long-term goals
Writing down short-and-long-term goals can help to envision a different life, and healthy purpose. For example:
Goal: commit to fostering friendships.
Goal: sleep eight hours a night.
Goal: incorporate 10 minutes of quiet time each day.
Recovering from an eating disorder is not only about restoring physical health through controlling symptoms and establishing a healthy relationship with food. It requires breaking free and learning healthy and effective coping skills to deal with life. The process of facing fears and emotions (anger, frustration, exhaustion, sadness, anxiousness) that have been masked by the eating disorder requires a tremendous amount of courage, commitment and patience. I found the most difficult, yet far most important part of recovery, was to rediscover my own identity, my true self.
Loved ones can remind what life was like before the onset of illness
My identity had become so wrapped up in my eating disorder, that I was terrified and could not imagine who I would be without it. In rebuilding my identity, I found it helpful to brainstorm with loved ones and trusted treatment professionals. Involving family and friends was helpful as they could help to recall my life before the eating disorder developed.
I leant on my family to rediscover passions and redefine ideas about my identity. I re-engaged with hobbies such as gardening, cooking and horse riding; and rekindled my inner child by taking up activities that my younger self enjoyed. I found such pursuits to be grounding and revitalizing in unearthing my identity. As a child, I had understood my authentic wants and needs through a personal lens instead of a lens modified by societal ideals and norms, and this is why revisiting childhood became effective in re-discovering who I am and who I used to be at my core. I also built on that by engaging in new hobbies and exploring things that I found intriguing.
Discovery through self-help
I found self-help guidance through answering these questions:
Who am I?
What are my values?
What do I find important in life?
What are my own true passions?
What are my goals?
Exploring who I am was frightening at first. It did not happen overnight. The process had to be lived. I had to go out there and challenge myself. Discover my talents. Overcome fears and find out who and what I like and dislike. This process continues. There is much to explore! Think about music, books, clothes, culture, art, food, nature and anything that is part of real life. A real life without eating disorder.
With my own identity I am living instead of merely existing
Through recovery, I have cultivated a deeper understanding of me. At first, I felt recovery meant I was losing a part of my identity, but, in reality, recovery has allowed many riveting components of my true self to re-emerge. I have uncovered my personal values of kindness, appreciation, compassion, creativity, generosity, and self-respect.
Recovery enables me to explore who I am and to rewire my brain into a healthier mindset. Now, instead of merely existing with an eating disorder, I am learning to live without an eating disorder.