I just read a great essay, I’m Afraid of Identifying as Asexual, by Olivia from the blog We Got So Far To Go. In it she discusses her asexuality and her eating disorder. This is rather relevant to my own situation, so I wanted to write a response of sorts.
I started out wanting to talk about my own concerns about the relationship between my asexuality and my eating disorder – I identified as asexual before I fell ill with the ED, but whereas I used to have a more or less typical libido, that has disappeared completely as a symptom of the illness. This has led me to wonder about whether or not it feels right or appropriate for me to identify as nonlibidoist, going off onto many tangents about fluid sexualities, validity of experiences etc. etc.
However, there was a part of Olivia’s post that caught my attention and made me want to discuss something much more general:
“Partially it’s that I’m convinced I’ll never know who I am, partially it’s that if something is going to replace the eating disorder in any way it needs to be quite strong, and partially it’s a fear: what if I try to find something that’s really me and it turns out it’s just the eating disorder in disguise? What if every part of me is just my eating disorder in disguise? What if I can’t even trust something as basic as my sexual impulses? This is deeply tied to the mental illness. I’ve been told so many times that I can’t trust things like my hunger cues, or my desires, or the voices in my head.” (Emphasis mine)
The fear of being unable to trust my own experiences is one I recognize – it’s not so much a fear as an unpleasant reality. And it makes me worry about describing myself as nonlibidoist, because what if allowing a symptom of my eating disorder to be part of my identity means surrendering to that terrible illness that could starve me to death?
When I started treatment, I was extremely wary of my therapists’ strategy of referring to my (eating) disordered thoughts and behaviours as being or coming from something separate from Me, the person. That did (does) not make sense to me. Those thoughts are arising in my mind, and I am the one acting on them – how could they be external? My therapists also use words that imply that the eating disorder has a will of its own – “it wants” bad things for me, “it dislikes” it when I eat properly and so on – and that made even less sense to me, because it’s in no way a sentient being. Of course, those ways of putting it are in a metaphorical sense, but I guess I, in my very literal-minded, autistic ways, do not like using metaphors to discuss something as real and serious as my mental health.
I eventually came to accept the rhetoric when I discovered that separating one’s unhealthy thoughts and behaviour from oneself does mean a lot for one’s self esteem and ability to recover, but the pragmatic philosopher part of me still question the division. Something bothers me about it, and the above quote illustrates exactly what that is.
My eating disorder affects and interacts with many other aspects of my life and my identity. So does my asexuality, my gender identity, my interests, my mental/physical health in general, my relationships … If my eating disorder isn’t “Me”, what are the conditions for something to be “Me”? Unchanging? Having been there all along? There are hardly many traits I share with 5-year-old me. Only healthy, harmless things? People aren’t perfect.
It’s an age old question: What’s an identity?
The way I see it, our identities, or Personhoods, are the unique combination of all those various things, small and big. This means that yes, it can change over time; I think many of us belonging to minorities or persecuted groups are afraid of admitting that, because society is constantly demanding that we prove the validity of our identities. Olivia puts it quite well:
“But I’ve internalized that you figure it out and then that’s it, anything else is wrong or improper or a LIE. You might be repressing part of yourself if you ever end up changing. You’re probably misleading your loved ones. You’ve probably destroyed at least one relationship asking for something, setting boundaries when you really didn’t need to, trying to be something that you’re not: there was no reason to ask for space to try something new if you aren’t going to identify that way FOREVER, and doing so was really quite selfish.”
But if we accept that our identities can change, maybe it will also be easier to figure out what our identities consist of (at the moment). And for me at least, that includes accepting my eating disorder as “Me”. It’s not a healthy or beneficial part of myself, it’s a part of me that I want to and need to change, but it’s me nonetheless. This also means I’m responsible for it – it’s up to me to recover. As for whether other parts of my identity might be my eating disorder “in disguise”: They probably are. They’re probably not even in disguise, but just there, part of both me AND my eating disorder. Maybe they will disappear when my ED does; maybe they won’t; regardless, right now they’re here and part of who I am.
We should never be afraid of identifying as something. We need to trust what we’re feeling – or rather, that we’re feeling it. I know I can’t always trust my hunger drive to tell me when I need food. But I can eat when I know, logically, that I need to, and accept that right now I’m feeling non-hunger. The case of my sex drive and sexual attraction is similar* – right now I don’t feel the need for sexual activity, and I don’t feel sexual attraction, but it’s possible that I will in the future. It’s also possible that I won’t.
Our identities change, just like our needs, behaviours and experiences do. It’s just a matter of letting ourselves go with the flow.
*Luckily, unlike food, sex isn’t required for survival (despite what Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might try to tell you). So you don’t have to force yourself to have sex if you don’t feel like it, and it might be easier to accept your lack of desire in that area than your lack of desire to eat. (Everyone please eat healthy amounts of food, though.)