Surprise! Here I am again, I've thought to come back to this space frequently. With a number of other half completed slightly more “updatey” posts started, I saw this one through to a more complete state today.
I recently had a conversation about the sense of void experienced by some and took time to reflect on what that was like for me.
In the throes of my eating disorder, all that I thought I was, was lost. I found in therapy and various treatments that I was encouraged to make goals, to aim for something in the future, in what seemed to me to be an effort to make my life worth continuing and to find something that made me feel like I was someone.
I remember considering this in the early days of my adult experience – thinking about what I might be if I wasn't a nurse (or anorexic or bulimic). I regularly came up blank, empty. Nursing had been my life and when I lost that due to the complications of the ED, ED became my definition of me. The void only became more vast. What little bits I thought defined me, aside from sickness, felt ripped away. I felt deeply inadequate as a person and lacked any understanding of myself beyond what I used as definition from the outside.
What I didn't know then was that the void was exactly what I needed to face in order to find who I was.
If you had asked me who I was back then I might have replied: I am a nurse. I am blonde. I am fit. I am a smoker. I am anorexic. I am bulimic.
What I didn't understand then was that the “what” I was doing did not equate to “who” I was. I can't imagine that this is an uncommon human experience and, for me, has become another reason to be thankful for my experience as it was brought to my attention sooner than later and I had the chance to work hard on it!
The "whats" of the ED definition took away the few other external "whats" of definition that I had created. My career was put on hold; I lost my fitness as my energy grew lower and lower; hospitalizations even took away my defining feature of an unashamed smoker as I was confined to beds, rooms, or units.
Is it any surprise that identity was reduced to illness? Along those lines, is it any wonder that I held on so hard to what I felt made me, me? That I was so fearful to let go?
As time went on, I realized that I could scrapbook fairly well and do simple art and that became part of “who” I was. I set small goals to look forward to, looked towards continuing my nursing education, did a very small bit of volunteering in attempts to grasp at anything to define me and make myself feel worthwhile.
When I entered treatment the last time, I went as an empty shell. Any interests I'd had along the way had been transient. I arrived in Portugal seeing myself only as an eating disorder. As I have written before, I arrived there also terrified that when they took away the behaviours that kept me “safe”, they would see the deep ball of darkness that was what I perceived my true self to be, The darkness that I kept hidden and in line by my illness. My mind told me that I was worthless and deeply flawed, inherently bad.
Reflecting now on the “ball of darkness” that I perceived as badness, I wonder if it was the deep void of empty self that I was experiencing. That when I looked inside, I sensed nothing except empty, light-less space.
How I want to hug and comfort that me and tell her that the space and emptiness is not evil, she is not bad. She feels empty but only because she has not had a chance to develop from the inside out.
It is no wonder that loneliness persisted despite the company of friends and family that stuck by my side through it all. I had no way to bring myself to interactions or activities because I didn't exist to me beyond the loose definition of sickness. I had constructed, carefully, my walls of cards. Interesting that I perceived these walls to be so strong and impermeable...
Now I have rambled on with my own reflections. The point is that who one is, is not what one does. As fragile as definition of self by illness is, is motivation to change solely due to external factors and definition by action. Of course, goals and dreams are important but until one goes deep inside to discover why, how, and the real who, the constructs upon which one tries to build remain extremely fragile.
So, like the quote along the lines of of what one would be worth if they lost all their money, I ask: who would one be if what one does was taken away?
Since recovering, I have made the decision to return to nursing. To reflect beyond that and on what I thought defined me as a younger adult and how I see it now, I have this:
I've caught myself saying at times, “ I am a nurse.” I realize that expression isn't the best because what it real is that I am in nursing, I practice as a nurse. But what's more important is who I am as it pertains to that. I am caring. I am kind. I am compassionate. I am attentive and interested.
My job can be lost and those defining qualities will persist.
I enjoy exercise but what I am is interested in physical wellness, taking care of my body, and having fun. I could lose my physical ability and still remain focused on wellness, enjoyment, and practicing self-care.
Don't get me wrong, I would be deeply saddened to lose some of the ways through which I show who I am. It would be hard to lose my job, I would miss my work and I would miss my current activities if I lost my ability to move. However, what recovery and reflection gave me is a chance to know my true self. Every external defining factor was removed in the early days and I was left for months and months with just the internal me to explore. I continued, at times, to create external definition as I distracted from the ED hell that persisted in my head, telling me I was worthless, that I was truly nothing. I ended up feeling fickle as interest in activities waxed and waned.
Eventually, by facing the void and bringing light to my own darkness, I realized what I was made of. It took time, it was scary and exceptionally lonely. It is a journey I felt I went largely alone, exploring my own emptiness and walking through the internal void. Physically people were there and provided as much emotional comfort as I could ever ask for. Having them close, helped me feel safer with the loneliness as I went deeper and deeper into what seemed like nothingness, to my very depth.
Once there, once I felt that I was completely nothing, as I waited with no way out (we cannot ever escape ourselves) I was able to slowly sense, and eventually know, the core of me. The scared, soft centre that had shrunk away in an effort to preserve itself as to live with heightened sensitivity in this world is extremely difficult.
What I did, and how I defined myself, protected me and simplified things. Insecurity prevailed for much of my life and sure, even since recovering, sometimes I still wobble as I expect many humans do. As I continue to know the depth and breadth of me and continually care for her - her flaws, mistakes, and weirdness included – the transience of what I do as it pertains to who I am becomes evident because I know the qualities that fuel the activity. I have found many of my defining aspects and continually discover reason beyond simple activity and "doing". Similarly, this offers a significant element of self-compassion as I forgive my mistakes, remember my make-up which is far from perfect but is not bad, dark, evil, or stupid. Compassion is what allows me to forgive my own fumblings (I think I made that word up) and work to foster the qualities that I want to build on.
The way I see it, a Self constructed of whats, wheres, and doings is a fragile arrangement akin to a house of cards: each balanced carefully on the other, tumbling with even a sigh of change. The whys, hows, and being, is the Who that supports growth and evolution. Dismiss, for a moment, the external definitions and discover the Who that is you. Let the exploration of definition by being, be a source of safety, of invigoration, and of light!
Sometimes, one must remove what defines them and discover who they are.