In the course of my eating disorder (ED) recovery, a very wise person helped me reframe my view of what the process looked like by turning the common vocabulary used in the healing process on its head. He said that recovery is not about “recovering” to who you were before the disorder or going back to a place in the distant past. Instead, it was about “discovering” someone new. It was a process of building, not re-building, creation, not restoration. This was incredibly empowering for me to hear, especially since I entered treatment at 16 for an illness that had been ongoing since the age of 12, with perfectionistic tendencies and anxiety preceding even that young age.
“Recovering” to a past self-seemed not only undesirable, but impossible. Reframing recovery as discovery helped me cast a vision for a new life that I was in charge of building, and opened wide the doors of possibility of whom I could become.
In the process of discovery, I learned about the person I really was, outside of the rules and regulations of the ED. I realized I was ascribing to certain values that my healthy self didn’t really believe in, and holding beliefs about my personality, likes and dislikes, and abilities that were fundamentally untrue.
The ED had created a poisonous, alternate identity, whose only purpose and function was in keeping the disorder unchecked and in total control. Here are just a few examples:
- I thought I was an introvert.
In my ED, I was convinced that I was introverted, that being in social situations stressed me out, and that I didn’t need people. Rather, I only needed “alone time” in order to be happy and at peace. As I discovered, the opposite was true. I realized when I spent too much time alone, isolated, that destructive thoughts reigned supreme and only lead to worsening anxiety and depression. As I slowly started to connect with more people, go out more and even eat publicly, I realized I truly enjoyed the company. I found that yes, I also needed alone time, but that I cherished and valued human connection, conversation and belonging far more than the ED had made me believe.
- I thought I was not a creative person.
Despite being involved in the arts from a young age, the disorder had succeeded in making me believe the lie that I was incapable of creating ideas, art, or beauty from scratch. Rather, my real strength lay in execution – of choreography, of discipline, of following rules and orders, always being on time (early, was preferable), placing order and practicality above all else. The perfectionism played into this as well, since being creative and trying new things involved risk; namely, the risk of failure and rejection. The ED voice convinced me I would fail if I explored all of the creative urges inside of me, so it was better to just stick to the predictable and safe. But, that robbed me of all joy. I discovered on my healing journey to embrace the fact that I was indeed fueled and fulfilled by creative self-expression, and the risk it took to pursue that was worth it for long-term health and a sense of personal achievement.
- I thought only thin people were beautiful.
This is deeply embarrassing now to admit, but my eating disorder made me believe that thinness was the definition of beauty, period, end of story. And that sole guideline was what drove me daily in my efforts to succeed at my disorder. But, in the discovery process, I was challenged by my treatment team and others, to see beauty as outside the realm of aesthetics. I could not deny there were truly beautiful women in my life – friends, family members, leaders in my community – who weren’t thin. Their skin wasn’t flawless, their teeth weren’t straight, they didn’t wear the most elegant clothing, and they lived in larger bodies. These were women whose hearts were beautiful, they were hilarious, or kind, or good friends, or great encouragers, or servants to their communities, volunteers, or just downright inspiring people.
There were so many women in my life who I deeply loved, who I was judging solely because of their appearance. I realized how wrong that was. Their value and worth was so much more, and I knew that because I had experienced their goodness, kindness, and friendship. And when I had, it didn’t matter how much they weighed or what they looked like. This made me realize that I too wanted to be a woman evaluated on her dignity and character rather than her weight.
There were many more discoveries like these along my healing journey. I want to encourage you that the process of recovery is really a process of learning who you really are, and exposing the lies of the ED to the light.
Initially, it can be scary to leap of the cliff of relative “safety” that the disorder provides, but your true self, your real life is waiting on the other side of that gap. With support, a good treatment team, and determination, you can take that leap and discover a kind of freedom you never dreamed possible. So what are you waiting for? Jump. Your life is waiting.