Each year, I like to write a special post in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. (I almost forgot this year, but Sabine reminded me just in time.) Last year, this was my “Embracing Our Appetites” post; I didn’t expect much as I was writing it, but it turned out to be one of my favorite CR posts of all time. That post suggested that embracing hunger and appetite without shame is an important part of the recovery process. Today, I’d like to switch gears and talk about another important part of the recovery process, which is the rebuilding of a sense of distinctiveness after an eating disorder.
In the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with several clients (all of whom have suffered from disordered eating in the past) about one particular challenge: the challenge to overcome a fear of losing one’s distinctiveness in the recovery process.
Readers who have had disordered eating probably know where I’m going with this already. But if you’ve never suffered from disordered eating, the essence of the dilemma is this: people who have had long bouts with disordered eating tend to attach tremendous feelings of specialness, uniqueness, and even pride to being underweight and/or capable of inflicting self-harm. Maintaining disordered eating habits becomes a way of experiencing that thing we all want to experience: the sensation of being unique. Most people—disordered eaters and average eaters alike—crave this. We aim to stand out in our workplaces; we travel to exciting and out-of-they way places, where others have not dared to tread; we take up unexpected and eccentric hobbies; we embark on abnormally difficult fitness training plans or challenges. In hundreds of different ways—professional, interpersonal, physical—we work to be exceptional.
Disordered eaters are no less susceptible to this impulse. But for many of them, the pursuit of thinness or self destruction has been so singular and relentless for so long that it has consumed any other efforts at distinction. For many disordered eaters, thinness in particular becomes the only mark of distinction that feels meaningful. Women and men with eating disorders are often exceptionally talented in many ways—they include artists, intellectuals, remarkable students, athletes, and professionals—but for many of them, obsession with weight and eating has started to eclipse all other pursuits and activities. This is one of the saddest parts of an eating disorder, I think: its capacity to out shadow any and every other source of satisfaction.
It’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of my clients who are recovering or recently recovered express a tremendous fear of losing what they believe to be the thing that makes them unique: their disordered behaviors and/or low body weights. For years, these men and women have felt—even if they knew it was warped—that being disordered was special. It’s also typical for them to have looked down upon people with normal body weights, or to have secretly felt that normal eating was a mark of weakness, or “giving in.” If they gain weight or get well—if they allow their bodies to become normal once again—aren’t they then doomed to be just like everybody else? What part of their distinctiveness will remain?
Undoing this fear takes a lot of time and patience and hard work, and it should also involve therapy and treatment as needed. But for those of you reading today who still struggle with the fear that recovery will rob you of the things that make you special, I’m here to offer a little reassurance. I write from the other side of disordered eating, and I remember your fears with searing immediacy: I remember being horrified at the thought that I would ever wander through life in a body that was normal, rather than arrestingly bony. I remember thinking that I would hate nothing more than for people not to notice my thinness before they noticed other things about me; I remember a feeling of resentment that I would no longer have guaranteed status as the thinnest girl in every room. I had attached so much pride to my thin frame and secretive habits that all of my other capacities and achievements seemed less important. I couldn’t imagine how, if I ate normally and looked healthy, I’d ever feel special again.
What I didn’t see then was that under eating and obsessing about food and body had been the driving force in my life for so long that I had simply lost touch with my other passions, capacities, and talents. They hadn’t gone anywhere; they were simply waiting for me to take an interest in them again. As I pushed through weight gain and learned to eat healthily, I started to understand that there were many things about me that were remarkable, yet had nothing to do with my body. Those marks of distinction—for example, the fact that I’m organized, or the fact that I’m a self-starter, or the fact that I’m a good listener—were far more appreciated by friends, peers, and colleagues than anything related to the way I looked.
In fact, for all of our social obsession with thinness, and for all of the media pressure to be thin, I learned an important lesson over the course of my recovery: thinness really isn’t as powerful a social currency as once I thought it was. Being thin had been tremendously important to me, but it had never been that important to anybody else. In fact, the pursuit of thinness through disordered eating had worked against me socially, and it certainly would have worked against me professionally if I’d been a bit older. It didn’t persuade the world that I was unique; I was the only one who was persuaded of that. The years I squandered on being hungry had failed to make me happy, which was bad enough; on top of all that, they hadn’t done a thing to earn the admiration of others.
If you’re struggling with fear of losing your grip on distinction or uniqueness, let me assure you: you’re not alone. And let me also assure you that there are much richer and more fulfilling sources of self-worth out there than are dreamt of in your disordered thinking. It may take a while for you to reconnect with your own talents and passions and hobbies as you recover, and that’s OK. In the end, you will find them again. They’ve been submerged for a little while—living in the shadow of your hunger—but they’re no weaker for having hibernated for a little while. Let them loose. If you studied piano as a kid and you’ve lost touch with it, take a few lessons; if you used to paint and your creative energy has been sapped, put on a few good songs and break out a fresh canvas; if you once were an athlete and now you’re too weak, rebuild your physical strength and get active again.
And if you, like so many other recovered men and women, have sacrificed friendships or romantic love, make small, brave gestures to reconnect with the friends you’ve lost touch with, the lovers you pushed away, or the family members who have tried to help you. The power of human relationships to provide the sort of fulfillment and joy that anorexia and bulimia can’t provide is profound and striking; begin pouring all of the anxious energy you once poured into thrice-daily weigh-ins or calorie counting into being a committed friend, an open partner, and a loving family member. With any luck, reconnecting with activities, passions, loved ones will remind you that whatever outlandish importance you’ve attached to your weight and habits has been just that: outlandish. You have far more to give the world than a tired body and a tired mind.
For the record, this particular struggle was the one that persisted longest for me, and I live with it in small ways to this day. Once every now and then, I find myself tempted to cling to that old badge of pride: the fact that, once upon a time, I lived on less than a meal a day; I went to bed with a growling stomach; I exercised with with a light head, and I had the body to prove it. It’s as if I want to grab the world by the shoulders and shout: “just in case you’ve forgotten, I’m capable of all that.”
And that’s OK. Recovery doesn’t mean never again experiencing a disordered thought: it means developing a capacity to recognize the impulses and tendencies that drove you into an eating disorder, and learning to manage them in a productive way. It also means learning to see their falseness. In the rare moments when I find myself thinking about my mistaken feelings of distinctiveness, I simply remind myself of how insignificant being so thin and so hungry ultimately was. (And I should point out that I’m still slender: what I miss, as some others who have encountered this struggle do, is the feeling of being abnormally slender. It’s an important distinction.) And in these moments, I cherish the ways in which I’ve proven myself capable of actual distinction in life. I’ve had two interesting careers; I’ve encountered fascinating people; I’ve given love to friends and family; I’ve experienced intimacy and passion. In the end, being thin is just about the least interesting thing I’ve ever done.
And I’m no different from anybody else. For all of you worrying about whether or not recovery will mean giving up the part of you that’s most special, I hope this gives you a little hope. I can’t claim that you won’t, for a while, miss the feeling of having proven capable of things that other people aren’t—namely, the hunger game. You might. But over time, you’ll see the emptiness in that accomplishment, and you’ll start to feel pangs of excitement for the real accomplishments that lie ahead of you. They’re out there. Get well, and then go and enjoy them.