Recently, I have been thinking a lot about a phrase I used countless times when talking about my struggle with an eating disorder and during recovery. In journal entries and in conversations with nurses and therapists, friends and family, I used the phrase ‘my eating disorder’ constantly. “I felt really anxious during that meal”, I would report back to the mental health workers. “My eating disorder was shouting at me not to eat it, it was making me feel so guilty and disgusting… I just can’t seem to fight against my eating disorder…” And it would work the other way too: “your eating disorder is going to make you feel like that…”
It’s a pretty standard phrase, and it’s not wrong. It was the illness that I was fighting, after all. I’ve noticed that the same possessive pronoun (my) is used with other mental illnesses too: “my depression makes me want to curl up and hide”; “my anxiety was too strong, I just couldn’t go in to that room”; “my OCD ruins my life”. It makes sense: it feels like your illness, the thing that you are having to battle every day. But could such a small word as ‘my’ actually be quite dangerous, and harmful to recovery?
Language is powerful
Perhaps I am being pedantic. It is only a word after all, just two letters. But language is powerful. Besides the fact that you are far more than your illness, by using the word ‘my’, you are accepting the belief that the mental illness is a fundamental, inseparable part of who you are. It’s true that when in the grips of a mental illness, it does feel like it defines all of your existence, that it is your personal burden. But when you use the word ‘my’, you give that illness power over you. Bear with me (again!).
When I first started my journey of recovery from anorexia, I was told a really useful way to start to fight against the illness was to imagine it as someone else, a different voice in my head. At first, this seemed stupid. The illness was part of me, I couldn’t separate it from myself. And what would that achieve? Surely, I had to accept that this was my illness in order to try to get better? But as I became more committed to recovery, this concept of separating myself from the eating disorder became increasingly useful.
A book called Life Without ED proved to me that by seeing the disorder as another person I could then begin to separate myself and my priorities and values and wants from those of the disorder. I could argue against it. I could identify the disordered thoughts like ‘you can’t eat that, you’re too fat’, or ‘you’re just a crap person, you’ll never be good enough’, from more realistic, healthier ways of thinking. ‘Don’t listen to those feelings and thoughts, Thomas, that’s the eating disorder. You don’t have to feel like that, you are not a bad person for eating this…’ One of the most useful concepts was to see the illness as like an abusive partner that I had to let go of to try to get my life back.
This internal dialogue between me and ‘my’ eating disorder (as I referred to it at the time) became a central element in the recovery process. I have mentioned before that recovery is a process of letting go: you have to begin to let go of the illness, to build a new, healthier life where you don’t allow the illness to dictate how you live. I have also talked about not accommodating the illness: here again, the concept of separating yourself from the disorder inside of your head is really helpful. You need to distinguish what the illness wants, and what you need/want/deserve.
At this point, I’d just like to say that while I, and many of the people I met, found this concept really useful, not everyone did. For some people, thinking of the disorder as separate was confusing or unhelpful. You have to find the best way for you to address the mental illness.
Let Go – it doesn’t have to be yours
So, what’s the problem, then? Surely, using the phrase ‘my [insert mental illness]’ helps in that process of separation. It does. But could that little word be doing more harm than good?
By using the possessive pronoun, ‘my’, you continue to accept the illness as a fundamental part of who you are, even if you are using it to try to distance yourself from it. ‘My’ implies ownership and therefore some kind of deep, personal connection. Recovery is about accepting that you don’t own the illness and that the illnes certainly cannot own you. As long as it does, it will continue to ruin your life (whether you realise that or not). To get back control, you have to change that pronoun you are using.
Now, this far into recovery, I refuse to describe it as ‘my’ eating disorder, because I no longer see it as an essential part of me or my life. Yes, it is still there in the back of my head, but by saying ‘the eating disorder’, it feels even more alien, even more distant, even less attractive and friendly (I’ve talked before about how eating disorders trick you into thinking that they are protecting you in a previous post). Think about it. It would seem odd if someone with a physical disease used the same word: ‘my cancer… my flu… my tonsellitis…’ (ok, maybe it wouldn’t be as weird to use it for the last one, but it’s not necessary, and definitely not used as often or as harmfully).
By relinquishing any ownership or possession, by letting go, you can see the illness for what it really is: a life-destroying parasite. And you can begin to move away from it, to let it go, to argue against what it tells you, and to live how you want to live.
I think this can be applied to some other mental illnesses. I’ve had to cope with depression, and like an eating disorder, it feels like it is yours and yours alone. But by defining it as mine, it’s hard for me to separate myself from it and to try to fight against it. How can you pull yourself out of a depressed period when you see it as an innevitable part of who you are and therefore uncontrollable? If you see it as ‘depression’ (not mine or yours), then you can start to fight against it, to argue against the thoughts and feelings that make you want to run away and hide and cry, or worse. You can let it go. It doesn’t have to be yours. The same can be applied to anxiety.
Please don’t think I am trying to make recovery sound easy, it’s not. I am over a year into recovering and it can still be painful. But this little change could have a big effect.
A Slice of Pie
A really useful exercise we once did while I was in hospital was to make a pie chart of our lives and everything that is important to us. I made one at the beginning of recovery and one at the end.
Both pie charts are pretty similar in content: family, studying/work, travelling, friends, happiness all feature in what are important to me, as well as the eating disorder (I cannot deny that it is a large part of my life). But in the first pie chart, the eating disorder consumed a huge portion of the pie, way more than half, while the other elements were squeezed into the tiny corner that my eating disorder left. At that point, me and the eating disorder were almost indistinguishable. It defined me. It was MY eating disorder: it was my life.
Recovery is not just about fighting the illness. It is about building a new life in which you don’t need/want/fall back on the illness. It is no longer important to you, it no longer has control or power over you. In order to achieve this, you can’t just destroy, you have to create. You have to create a recovery-oriented life which you fill with the things are that more important to you, that are really meaningful and which can keep the illness away.
In the second pie chart, the eating disorder did still feature, but it took up a much smaller slither of pie, and those things which are important to me, had grown to fill up more and more space in my life. And now, I can enjoy that pie, both metaphorically, and literally: I can have my pie and eat it.
If you or someone you know may be suffering with an eating disorder, here are some links to find out more information about the illness and treatment. Please don’t think you’re not ‘ill enough’: if you need help, ask for it…