A chronic eating disorder with a prolonged course well into adulthood invariably becomes intertwined with one's identity. A girl who learns how to master food and experiences the praise and envy of those around her will find solace in the eating disorder. The typically adolescent, intermittent and painful growth of self-awareness and self-worth will pale in comparison. Before long, the eating disorder will become her sole identity. Once the brief window of triumph subsides, and the eating disorder lingers and festers, praise turns into hushed whispers and horrified stares and finally into nothing. People stop noticing. All that remains is the misery of chronic illness: a bottomless pit of guilt and regret fed by profound hopelessness. And all for the empty promise and glory of being thin.
Returning to life again means, first and foremost, reclaiming identity from the illness. The gradual process of teasing the eating disorder apart from the long buried sense of oneself is arduous and painstaking. It can be both liberating to disarm the punishing thoughts and horrifying to recognize the destruction left in the eating disorder's wake. Every patient in recovery who comes to understand how completely an eating disorder can hijack the mind and turn an entire person into a shell of oneself spends weeks if not months in shock at the discovery. The realization leads to two important thoughts. First, the psychological torment, which feels self-inflicted, really is the core of illness even more than the eating behaviors. Second, recognizing an identity separate from the eating disorder is a profound step towards wellness.
Not long after, perhaps the most curious and painful step in treatment comes to the fore. The more one's identity sharpens into focus, the more clear it becomes that saying goodbye to the eating disorder is no easy feat. While recovery has been a desperate wish for years, the actual parting doesn't feel like the anticipated relief and joy. Surprisingly, it feels more like the end of a tortured relationship with a dear friend.
In the abstract, equating the eating disorder with personality traits or even a person seems absurd. Surely, it's an illness or a choice or the twisted joke of a society turned on its head. But truly understanding the meaning of an eating disorder means getting this point through and through. The rules, behaviors, punishment and reliability of an eating disorder ironically provides as much comfort as it does pain. In a confusing, pressured and unforgiving world, an eating disorder makes things as plain as day. The calm of knowing what you should or shouldn't eat, of knowing what is right and what is wrong is irreplaceable. Anyone living in the modern world knows that believing in right and wrong or good and evil is a luxury of childhood. Adults grapple with endless uncertainty and strive, day in and day out, to muddle through and hope for the best. The dreary, endless gray of life is a bitter pill to swallow for an adult accustomed to the satisfyingly black-and-white world of an eating disorder.
The two points from the last posts--that children are expected to make up for parents' disappointments and the subsequent lack of freedom of childhood--both trap children in a very adult conundrum. Combining the open and curious mind of a child with this kind of inflexibility is a setup. Children may be physically adaptable and even eager for new experiences but do not have the psychological sophistication to sort through complex, covert family expectations. In other words, they just won't get it. Stuck in the morass of mixed messages, kids will think their parents' wishes are their own. They will just get lost and yearn for a simple system with easy answers, like those provided by an eating disorder. Without any coping skills, the world will look like a scary place, one much safer with satisfying rules about eating and food.
So, take this adult in recovery searching for her old identity. If the eating disorder saved her from all of this fear and confusion in the past, what can she expect after saying goodbye? Part of the experience is something everyone can identify with. In this moment, a person with a fully developed, adult mind is thrown into the disorientation and intensity of one aspect of adolescence: finding oneself. Certain formative memories make an indelible mark on self-image. The pangs of regret, embarrassment and ultimately nostalgia create lines we won't cross in the world. It is a universal experience to wish to relive youth with the knowledge of an adult. In many ways, that is the experience of someone with an eating disorder who reclaims her identity. But the old adage doesn't ring true in the slightest. Every step of the way is painful.
The next post will extend this last idea to a different philosophy of parenting. Saying goodbye to the eating disorder leads to a deep exploration of identity separate from adolescent strife and family pressures. The growth of self-image in the cocoon of recovery occurs in a setting with flexibility and freedom, both clearly lacking for today's children. So I'll begin with a question: what might kids raised in this new world be like?