For so long, bulimia was my identity. I had an eating disorder, but I was bulimic.
Sometimes I took that name – bulimic – with pride. Other times, it was with shame. But I always took it. After all, it was a name I was given upon my diagnosis, just like I was given a name at birth: Cynthia.
If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, did your disease became your name, too? What do you think about that? Please leave your response in the comment section below!
I, for one, am conflicted about being called bulimic. But, for this sake of this post, I’m going to pick a side. I’m choosing “don’t call me bulimic. My name is Cynthia.” Let me tell you why.
A person who is affected by leprosy used to be called a leper. That’s what some people still call them. But it’s not right. It’s incredibly hurtful. It’s deeply stigmatizing. It makes others afraid of them and makes it acceptable (and much easier) to cast them aside. Calling someone with leprosy a leper totally dehumanizes them because it essentially turns the person into their disease.
Why do we do that to people who are suffering from a mental illness? Why is it so normal? So tolerated? So acceptable? When someone has cancer, they don’t get called cancerous. When someone has meningitis, we don’t call them meningitic. You get my point. I understand that the suffix “ic” means “someone belonging to or connected with: someone affected by” among other things, but even if the terminology is accurate…it still turns us into our disease.
Why do that? Do we need a new name? Surely if calling someone a leper can do all those horrible things, so too can calling someone bulimic. Anorexic. Alcoholic. Schizophrenic.
If we’ve ever going to properly end the stigma that’s associated with mental illness, don’t we have to be able to see the person…the mother, father, sister, brother, best friend…first? Don’t we have to remember that somebody who has a mental illness is still SOMEBODY? Shouldn’t it be person before disease? I don’t think it’ll work if it’s the other way around.
We aren’t our disease.
Or are we?
The identity that came with being called bulimic was so strong, so defining. I embraced it, and it was extraordinarily hard to let that identity go. I could easily find support groups of pro-eating disorder people. We were our eating disorders – it was so painfully clear. When I was trying to recover, I was scared about losing my label, my identity, my new name. If I wasn’t going to be bulimic, WHO WAS I?!?! I would scream over and over in my head.
Nobody who is affected by mental illness should feel so completely defined by the label (new name) that’s slapped on them after their diagnosis.
We’re not our disease.
I believe that we shouldn’t have to say, “I’m bulimic. My name is Cynthia.”
Readers – I’m so sorry! I was supposed to write a blog post two weeks ago but I didn’t. The days and weeks got away from me, and I lost track of time. Mark wrote a post, The Muck of Time, a while ago that opened with, “Time has never been my friend.”
Well, mine neither! There’s never enough of it, is there?
About Cynthia Alana
Cynthia has battled bulimia (and won), faced depression, and lived with anxiety throughout it all. After realizing she wanted to be a force of good in the world, she tried recovery for 6 months. It’s been years. Travel is her passion, and so is her job: writing for charities. You can follow Cynthia’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds Blog, and additionally, you can connect with Cynthia on LinkedIn.