What Do You Do For a Living? Finding Purpose Beyond Your Eating Disorder
So, what do you do? It’s a question we ask and answer every single day. Most of us have a response already prepared to answer this question when asked, something that describes what we do, what we’re working towards, what our interests and values are, and to some degree, whether it’s conscious or not, what we’re really asking and answering is what we have to show for ourselves in our lives so far. What sort of standard and expected “successes” have we achieved?
How do you make money? How much money do you make? What is your socioeconomic status? How does that status compare to me? Do we have similar or dissimilar interests?
This question can unfortunately leave people feeling badly about what they have to offer as an answer as many people aren’t entirely happy with what they do and/or may feel some sense of pressure to live up to our society’s expectations around what makes a “successful” life. For someone who has an eating disorder (or any other kind of struggle that has come to take up a great deal of time in their life), this question can be hard to face.
Every time someone asks me this question it brings up a great deal of shame and guilt that I carry around about the fact that I have this illness: an illness that most people don’t really understand. It’s not so much that I feel ashamed about the fact that I have an eating disorder, but more about the consequences that having had an eating disorder for so many years has imposed on me. There are many things, (relationships, jobs, etc.) that I simply don't have much experience in because my illness has forced me into this narrow, rigid existence for the last 12 years. When I’m alone with myself in my little bubble, it’s easy to forget about these consequences and to perceive my life as being just fine, but as soon as I venture out into the “real world”, I immediately get down on myself for not measuring up to what I think my life should look like. The sense of shame and guilt that comes up is something my eating disorder then feeds off.
Here’s an example of what typically happens when someone asks me The Question.
So what do you do?
Me: Ah, what do I say? I don’t want to talk about my eating disorder, but that IS my life!
This is usually followed by a few “umms” and “wells” as I can fit in without coming across as completely awkward and then when I realize that the other person is still waiting for me to answer the question, I usually proceed to tell a white lie or give some vague answer and then try and change the subject as quickly as possible.
At that point the disordered voice kicks in and I berate myself for having what feels like nothing to show for myself at 25 years old.
This kind of self-talk often leads me back down the rabbit hole of judging and comparing myself to others which leads to further self-loathing which in turn leads me to engage in my eating disorder even more in an attempt to feel better; this might work for a little while, but ultimately engaging in behaviours only serves to keep me stuck in the black hole that is my eating disorder. That’s the paradox of having an eating disorder, I want to get better so badly just as long as I don’t have to stop doing all the disordered behaviours that are keeping me from living a more fulfilling life in the first place.
As much I hate this question when other people ask it, I sometimes find it helpful to ask it myself, “what do I do?” Is this really how I want to be spending the rest of my life? Never leaving my house so that I can stick to my rigid food and exercise routine each day? Weighing every single thing I put in my mouth to ensure that I don't eat one calorie too many? Wasting precious minutes, hours, days, etc. that could be spent pursuing my passions just to keep the sense of security and safety that the eating disorder provides?
In the past whenever I’ve been confronted with The Question, whether by someone else or by myself, I have tended to be very hard on myself. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just snap out of it and get my life together? It seems simple and it is to some degree, but it’s certainly not easy. Now when I am faced with that question, I try not to fall into the trap of negative self-talk and instead just let it go, and do the next best thing for myself and my recovery. The fact is, most eating disorders don’t develop overnight and therefore, will not go away overnight. It’s an ongoing balancing act between being patient with the recovery process and pushing just enough to take the next steps towards a life that is not controlled by an eating disorder. A life where I can be truly satisfied and proud of what I do.
- D. Katsanikakis