Anorexic vs. having anorexia

A few days ago, Therese Borchard (I blogged about another one of her posts here) wrote an excellent column in the Huffington Post called "I'm not bipolar; I HAVE bipolar." And the title is pretty self-explanatory: that we are not our illnesses, because the illness is just one aspect of our lives.

Writes Borchard:

For those of us with chronic illnesses that we can't imagine away, I believe Dr. Remen simply encourages us to make decisions as individuals, not necessarily as bipolars, or diabetics, or cancer victims. We will always have to be mindful of our diagnoses, of course, in our relationships and work ventures. Because we need to surround ourselves with supportive people who will undergird our recovery, and we must maneuver our careers in ways that will aid our health.

And perhaps it's that one bit--being mindful of our diagnoses--that struck me the most. There are times when I am sick of thinking about food, sick of making sure I always have an energy bar with me, sick of preparing balanced meals. I want to forget. But I need to stay mindful of the fact that I do have an eating disorder and I am still very new to recovery and that recovery can easily be derailed by convenient amnesia.

Yet the fact that I have an energy bar in my purse and a chip on my shoulder at mealtime doesn't mean that this is all there is to me. True, I think about my eating disorder and related topics (food, calories, weight, etc) way too freaking much. And I have to keep my eating disorder history in mind when I go to make decisions (guaranteed lunch breaks at work, not buying a treadmill, not letting sleep patterns get chaotic) but that doesn't mean that I am my eating disorder. I'm Carrie who does in fact have an eating disorder, but I'm also a writer, a daughter, a friend, and a kitty mom.

The hard part is finding the balance between not labeling myself as "anorexic" and also not disregarding the limitations my diagnosis has given me. Long days without eating? Extremely physically demanding job? Working at Weight Watchers? Not an option--or at least not an option that will end well. Usually, I flip from one extreme to the other, in a classic case of black and white thinking. Either I'm terrified of everything because it might trigger ED symptoms, or I just take this eff-it-all attitude and think I can handle everything. Like most things in life, the answer lies somewhere in between: acknowledging your diagnosis but not letting it rule your life.

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jadedchalice said...

Thank you so much this is exactly what i needed today

Cathy (UK) said...

You are so right to differentiate between the adjective ('anorexic') and the noun ('anorexia nervosa').

Like you Carrie, I do view my AN as a chronic illness - in that I will always need to be vigilant of its potential to return. I must always remember to ensure that I eat adequately and maintain my weight (my psychiatrist suggested I liken myself to someone with type I diabetes who must keep his/her blood glucose concentration near constant...). I must also recognise the warning signs of relapse and seek help when necessary - because there come a 'point of no return' in AN in which the illness takes over the mind. In addition, I need to avoid potent triggers: the main one for me being stress. Stress causes me to over-exercise and I have a long history of exercise-dependence.

However, AN is NOT my identity. I have always been uncomfortable with adjectives such as 'the anorexic'. Our culture has changed radically since I developed AN in the 1970s, at a time when AN was not really in the public domain. Nowadays the illness is 'thrown around' in the media as though it is a 'fad' and a 'lifestyle choice' (... we have 'pro-ana' to 'thank' for the latter inference...). Indeed, a simple search on Google reveals 1000s of web hits for web sites that claim to teach people how to become anorexic, or people searching for such instructions of 'how to do it'. It is almost as if for some individuals, to have AN is a valued identity.

In my humble/arrogant(?) opinion, to try to develop AN is like trying to develop schizophrenia of bipolar illness. I never chose it and I have worked very, very hard to achieve a stable state.

Cathy (UK) said...

*I meant 'or' not 'of' [bipolar...] above.

Jessi said...

love what you have written here carrie and what Cathy has written too.

I too will ALWAYS have to manage my illness, whether it is AN or EDNOS, depending on my weight at the time.

I am so glad my identity is not the ED, that i suffer from an ED is enough to have to worry about without becoming the ED itself!

Great post!


Kushika said...

And yes, although the distintion between "having anorexia" and "being anorexic" is important to make, for they are not synonyms, not a single person ever asked me "do you have anorexia". It was always "she is anorexic" or "are you anorexic?". Thus, it seems as if others see the illness as an identity, which is perhaps one contributing factor which causes so many to see their ED as their identity?

However, I think if I were to be diabetic, or have another such illness, I would use the adjective to describe myself without any problem, because by identifying myself as such, in a way I am accepting an illness I cannot change (unlike the ED, which is, to some degree, within my sphere of control or at least my responsibility), and it would not be detrimental to me.

On the other hand, labelling myself as an "anorexic", which I did in the past, had a negative effect on myself.

Cathy, I think you are right in pointing out that the AN always leaves some kind if residue and that we much be careful or warning signs, because, just like a fractured arm which may heal itself but still be weaker than its non-fractured counterpart, so are our minds.

Angela E. Gambrel Lackey said...

I'm trying to do this - say I am trying to recover from anorexia nervosa, not I am an anorexic.

But it is so hard! And I really don't know why.

Ana G. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Nov;157(11):1755-60.
"I am what I (don't) Eat": establishing an identity independent of an eating disorder.
Bulik CM, Kendler KS.

Carrie Arnold said...

@Anonymous- I do have that article somewhere, but I haven't read it recently. Thanks for reminding me as I would love to dig it up.

Amy said...

Person-first language!

I'm taught to speak the same way about children and adults I work with that have disabilities.

Anonymous said...

My reaction, simply to reading the title, was that difference between being immersed in your anorexia vs. separating it as a part of your self.

The latter is where I believe I really started to recover, it's where I am now and probably will remain for most, if not all, of my life. It means not letting it run your life, simply it being a part.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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