Small Steps Forward
I have heard the question asked over and over again by virtually all the people I’ve met who, like myself, are recovering from an eating disorder. I’ve heard it asked many different ways by many different people at many different times. Who am I without my eating disorder?
When I was in the throes of anorexia, felt that I had no defining characteristics save for my self-destructive impulses. My perceptions were so distorted that I believed in a false sense of power and control that I couldn’t get out of any other aspect of my life, until my life had no other aspects. I thought I knew who I was.
High school should be a time of self-expression and experimentation. People go through phases and try on different identities until they find something that feels right to them. For me, anorexia was that identity. Anorexia, I thought, was my constant, my best friend, my world. I twisted and misunderstood the definition of “starving” into something more poetic. Despite how undeniably miserable I was, I felt special.
This sense of uniqueness was diluted when I was admitted to residential treatment in the winter of 2011. Suddenly surrounded by people my age with similar issues, I was no longer the only one with an eating disorder. As the other patients and I all took our first, hesitant steps towards recovery, the questions arose yet again. “What if losing weight is the only thing I’m good at? Who am I without my eating disorder?” Some of the patients found other identities to claim: musician, athlete, daughter, volunteer. Others had more difficulty. I fell into the latter category and remained in a grey area between relapse and recovery. I made progress in some areas and backslid in others. Although, I cultivated other interests like writing and photography, in my mind I was first an anorexic, and then everything else.
I entered treatment again in December of 2013, this time an intensive outpatient program, where I met a group of recovery-focused girls grappling with all the challenges of growing up in addition to the challenges of recovery. When I looked around the room, I saw intelligence, talent, creativity, honesty, humor, beauty, and so many other amazing things in these complicated people. I wondered how these girls could hate themselves so much when they obviously had so much to offer. Together, we journeyed towards recovery. I got to know these girls very well. I learned their strengths and insecurities, and eventually I was able to open up to them. Again, we asked each other, “Who will I be without my eating disorder?” This time, I finally got an answer. An eleven-year-old girl told the roomful of people feeling lost, “You can feel in control of your food, or you can feel in control of your recovery.”
This got me thinking. What was I gaining from my eating disorder? My grades were dropping. Friendships were getting harder to maintain. My family was worried about me. My writing was stagnant. My life was crumbling around me. I realized it wasn’t worth it.
I was doing the most challenging recovery work I’d ever done in IOP. I feared I would lose myself as I gradually replaced eating disorder behaviors with healthy ones. Instead, something unexpected happened. As I prioritized other aspects of my life before losing weight, I felt closer to myself than I ever had before. I made new friends, embarked on new writing projects, and rediscovered my artistic abilities. All of these things made me feel happier, more fulfilled, and contented than my eating disorder ever had.
Anorexia tried to put me in a box and tell me that my purpose in life was to take up as little space as possible. Recovery helped me discover who I really am: a writer, a good friend, a good daughter and sister, and more importantly, a person strong enough to overcome an eating disorder I once thought would kill me. I am capable of so much more and I want to make sure I am around to reach that potential.
Katherine Orfinger is a recent high school graduate who enjoys concerts and swing sets. She is in the process of writing her first novel.