Finding An Identity Outside of My Disorder

Without this battle, who am I really? Without anorexia, what is my true identity and purpose in life? For as long as I can remember, I have been Simran, the warrior constantly fighting against an internal voice seductively speaking of restriction and thinness and starvation. After facing an experience that has been at the forefront of my attention for years—whose importance has trumped that of every other aspect of my life—my self-identity has slowly and unconsciously become entangled with that of my struggle. Even when I was doing well in recovery, I still immersed myself in so many activities related to eating disorders such as advocacy work. I’m not saying this was a bad thing or a blunder on my part, for advocating for a cause I personally struggled with was and still is a deeply humbling, inspiring, and empowering experience. However, I will admit that a large part of my investment in the eating disorder community stemmed from the fact that I could not see myself as anyone other than the girl who had or who used to have an eating disorder. Without it, I was nothing. I had no purpose, no substance, no spark. I was merely that final piece of wax remaining in a burnt out candle.

Battling this chronic illness, I surely lost sight of who I was, and my self-perception became irrevocably warped. When all of a person’s thoughts and emotions are filtered through the lens of a disordered entity, it becomes increasingly difficult to recall what those same thoughts and emotions look like in a raw, unfiltered sense. As time passes, then, the line that separates the “disordered self” from the “true self” begins to blur, just as the crispness of memories (both good and bad), the faith of dreams unattained, and the deepness of wounds can gradually fade with age. It blurs and blurs until one day you find yourself wondering if there ever even existed a line in the first place. This mistaken mindset is what made recovery infinitely more terrifying for me….I thought that if I let go of my disorder, I would also be letting go of myself. What I failed to realize was that I never was my disorder, but instead trapped inside the bubble created by anorexia. In actuality, recovery would pop the bubble and I could finally be free, unfiltered, unrestrained.

One distorted thought I have encountered numerous times that has made me reluctant to fully rid my life of my disorder is that my “disordered self” makes me special, unique, and multidimensional. My struggle, I thought, was a way I could differentiate myself from the crowd—it could be both an internal and external mark of color that emboldened me in a world suffused with dull, unsaturated individuals. However, the truth as I have now come to interpret it is that the deeper we fall into the grasp of our disorders, the more those qualities that actually make us special and unique and genuinely ourselves become hidden behind dark shadows. Since an eating disorder figuratively abducts our true self-identities and substitutes them with an illness, we essentially become carbon copies of everyone else struggling with an eating disorder. Instead of being a so-called mark of color in an uncolored world, an eating disorder is a black-and-white storm ravaging a colorful and vibrant environment. And while we as individuals are irreplaceable, diverse, and worthy of love, nurture, and nourishment, our eating disorders certainly are not.

Luckily, there are ways that you can recapture your true self from your eating disorder—or rather, from your manipulative abductor.

  1. Discover your passions.

    Something that has been an empowering and fulfilling experience for me throughout my own recovery process has been exploring and cultivating my passions, hobbies, skills, and priorities that are completely unrelated to food and attempting to morph my body. By venturing outside the realm of my disorder, I am no longer just Simran, the girl who struggled with anorexia, but Simran, the writer who aims to create meaningful art with words, the photographer infatuated with documentary shots, the pianist who loves playing contemporary pieces, and the world-traveller passionate about achieving health equity on a global scale. When we are sick, trying to please our disorders by obeying their every command becomes a full-time job, so we are forced to sacrifice interests that used to bring us joy. Now is the time to challenge yourself by not only reuniting with those activities that once brought happiness to your life, but also by exploring new activities. You may not enjoy every new thing that you try out, but if you don’t even try in the first place, you may never know. And of course, beauty can always be found in unexpected places.

  2. Explore and reflect upon your values.

    In addition, another reflective activity you can engage in is redefining your values. Pause for a moment, and close your eyes. Pretend you are an objective onlooker at, say, an art museum. You are looking at a painting entitled “The Bigger Picture of Life.” In pursuit of fostering a more profound meaning to life, ask yourself, “What are the things that stick out to me most when viewing my life at-large?” I can guarantee that it’s not the times you spent torturing yourself past exhaustion on the treadmill or the times you successfully got away with skipping another meal that will radiate beauty from the canvas. Instead, it’s the moments in life where your actions aligned with your values (whether you value happiness, friendship, family, love, empathy, etc.) that will speak to you, that will be the reason the image of your life is so extraordinary and breathtaking. One therapeutic exercise that has helped bring me clarity is this….

    Imagine you are in your 90s and reflecting back upon your life. Answer the following questions:

    I wish I would have spent less time….

    I wish I would have spent more time….

    If I could go back in time and do something differently, I would….

    I cannot imagine myself nostalgically reminiscing about how I was skinnier than most, about how I starved myself for years and years, not just of food but of happiness and meaningful relationships. I don’t want to look back upon my life and be full of regret, wishing I hadn’t wasted all those years chasing perfection, an illusion I could never attain. Instead, since two of my main values are happiness and love, I want to feel those senses of contentment and wholeness wash over me as I realize I actively spent my days partaking in activities that made me genuinely happy with people whom I loved dearly. By identifying your true values, you will be one step closer to enjoying the life of fullness that you deserve.

  3. Give it time.

    I know how frustratingly difficult it can be to be patient with the process, but forming a sense of who you are without your disorder will take time. Give yourself the healing space you need to adjust to the recovery process, and try not to put so much pressure on yourself to change right away, as this will only lead to inauthenticity and self-criticism. Instead, day by day, slowly but surely, push yourself past your comfort zone in small, digestible measures. Whether this means blocking out 15 minutes every day to explore an interest unrelated to your disorder or repeatedly telling yourself that you are not your disorder, even seemingly simple acts can help you move forward as you attempt to bring purpose, meaning, and self-awareness back into the narrative. In the end, though, it will indisputably be worth the anguish. For only then will you realize that your worth was never inextricably linked to your weight, the food you consume, or how much you exercise. Instead, your true value stems from your inner fortitude, from the strength of your relationships, from chasing happiness instead of perfection, and from pursuing the values that will transform your “Bigger Picture of Life” canvas from one that is bare into one painted with layers of purpose, meaning, joy, and authenticity.