Alice Gibbs on ‘Anorexia and Identity’

For the last eight years I have struggled with anorexia. Nowadays, I class myself as someone firmly in recovery, and so a lot of my problems should seemingly be a great deal better. Recovery is about letting go of your eating disorder, and this is the part that – although often overlooked – is extremely difficult.

Image: 'Waves' By Angee Chan. (Conker does not own the rights to this image)
Image: ‘Waves’ By Angee Chan. (Conker does not own the rights to this image)

For eight years, my eating disorder has been my comfort blanket. At school, it was pretty well- known that I was ‘the girl who struggled with eating’. The relationships and friendships I have formed in these years, although based on many wonderful things, had always underpinned me as ‘The Anorexic Girl’.

This was who I was. The person who doesn’t eat. The person who is skinny and sick. When it’s the undercurrent of all relationships to you, it is easy to see yourself in their eyes. This is your identity – the sick person.

Developing an eating disorder shortly after puberty means that you miss out on a great deal of building your personality. My teenage years were taken over by appointments, hospitals, medication and meal plans. There was no time to build an identity away from that.

I am now twenty-one. I am at university. I have a wonderful boyfriend and I live away from my parents. Most importantly, I continue to work hard on my recovery every day. But finding an identity away from anorexia is difficult. What do I enjoy? What kind of person am I?

I have a really distinct memory of my first few days at University and someone asking me what my favourite food was. This isn’t a question anyone who knew me would ask. This isn’t a question anyone had asked me in years. I can’t remember what I said – I’m still not sure if I have a favourite food. But in this moment, I wasn’t ‘The Anorexic Girl’ – nobody was avoiding a topic around me and I felt just like everyone else.

Finding myself is about grabbing dinner with people I have only just met, or going out for drinks without worries about liquid calories. It is not about the food or drink I have consumed – it is about the experience I have allowed myself to have.

I am no longer made of sharp edges. Anorexia made me untouchable. It owned me and nobody else was allowed a look in. Now I am softer. Now I can be touched. My emotions are allowed out and I can allow people to get close again.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally miss that small frame and the light headed moments that I ended up hooked to like a drug. But I was alone, and in pain. And it was killing me.

Anorexia forbade me from meeting new people, from grabbing a quick drink with friends, or from wearing my favourite skirt. It forbade me from being myself.

You cannot have hobbies when you need to keep your mind on counting calories. You cannot read books when you should be checking your body in the mirror. You cannot meet friends when there is nothing you can wear and look what you deem to be ‘thin enough’. You are allowed anorexia. That is all. Anorexia is like a jealous boyfriend who will not let you out of their sight, or to speak to other people, or to wear that outfit. And as much as you want to be your own person, eventually you give up. You are downtrodden and you belong entirely to them.

But anorexia was safe, too. It would never ask you to leave your comfort zone, or try anything new. Its rules were easy to understand and kept things neat. It acted like a field between me and the rest of the world, and as long as it was there – nothing else could hurt me.

When you feel like this, it is easy to forget that you are not in control. Anorexia is tricky and makes you feel like you have chosen it, like it is protecting you. The reality of course, is that this evil disorder is the one thing that is preventing you from reaching your dreams. It is the reason you are in danger as it unapologetically puts you in the hospital.

My recovery has been a roller-coaster of backwards and forwards. Since first choosing to get better six years ago, I have seen some pretty horrible relapses and dealt with health issues that twenty one year old girls should not even have to think about. But it has made me stronger. When recovery is difficult, it is about remembering why it is necessary, and what put me here. Giving up would be easy; to resort back to the familiar identity of ‘The Anorexic Girl’ is something I still think about frequently – but I do not want to be that forever. As much as I have identified with my eating disorder and placed myself in its clutches – I want my own identity. That is why recovery is so important. Because without recovery, I cannot exist.

I am not my eating disorder. I am Alice, and I am passionate about so many things. Recovery allows me to explore my passions and my personality. Without it, I could not be writing this. Anorexia was my comfort blanket for a long time, and letting go is scary and intimidating. Recovery is a long and frustrating process that I am nowhere near ‘completing’, but I’ve never made a better decision than choosing to pursue it.

Image: Album print created as part of Placebo’s 20th anniversary by Stuart Semple. Also Used by the band to raise funds for CALM – campaign against living miserably. (Conker does not own the rights to this image).
Image: Album print created as part of Placebo’s 20th anniversary by Stuart Semple (www.stuartsemple.com ) . Also Used by the band to raise funds for CALM – campaign against living miserably. (Conker does not own the rights to this image).

Words by guest writer Alice Gibbs.

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