“The eating disorder has a mind of its own.
I don’t know where its thoughts start and mine end.
My mind is a mess of thoughts and emotions not entirely my own.”
– excerpt from Paper Thin
I work with a teenager who has diabetes. When I talk about him I describe him as sweet, funny, and hard-working. I don’t say that he is sweet, funny, hard-working, and diabetic. He happens to have a medical condition where his body can’t properly produce its own insulin. Maybe having to deal with this challenge has sharpened his personality traits – he manages to do a good job at school and work while also being careful about what he eats to balance his blood sugar – but it does not define who he is as a person.
I think that for most medical conditions this concept is pretty easy to understand. When we start talking about mental illness, however, the distinction is not as often made. I think one of the most common examples of this is addictions. I very rarely hear people described as having an addiction. They are simple labeled an addict.
When I was sick I often heard that I was anxious. I was anorexic. As if these things were an innate part of my personality. But I was not and am not defined by my diagnoses, and neither are you. One of the first steps I had to take in order to begin my recovery journey was to make the distinction between myself and the eating disorder. I had to be able to recognize when it was urging me to do something that deep down I knew was unhealthy, and then slowly start to say no even though it made me uncomfortable. It’s a lot easier now than it was back then. The eating disorder is like an abusive ex-boyfriend that texts every so often to give unsolicited advice or suggest that we get back together. I just roll my eyes, ignore it, and go about my day. But when I was at my worst it was very hard for me to differentiate between the two of us. It took time and practice.
So if you have a friend or family member who is dealing with mental illness I want to challenge you to be more intentional about the vocabulary you use. Try to talk and think about their disorder as an illness separate from them as a person. And if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness yourself, start to take a closer look at your thoughts throughout the day. See if you can pick apart which thoughts are truly yours and which are your illness. You may be surprised at what you discover.