On Becoming a “Professional”
January 1, 1970
One of the choices that invariably accompanies recovery is the choice of occupation. “What do you want to be?” we ask the reflection in the mirror.
There are several possible variations of this question:
“What do you want to be tomorrow that you are not today?”
“What do you want to become that will impress your family and friends?”
“What do you want to become that will pay the bills?”
“What do you want to become in order to feel safe?”
“What do you want to become that will reflect the true you?”
The problem is that all these questions assume you must become some thing in order to be someone. This common assumption confuses two essential aspects of identity: who you are and what you do.
You are already someone. You have been since you were born. You will be until you die. The core challenge of recovery is to recognize, give voice to, and develop compassion for that essential person who is comprised of certain specific personality traits, talents, strengths, and curiosities.
What you do does not define who you are. But it can either support, undermine, or conceal you. An eating disorder or an addiction is not an identity; it is something one does that overwhelms one’s identity. This is why I have such an aversion to describing anyone as an anorexic or a bulimic. The very language turns human beings into things, defined solely by their most disturbed behavior.
Unfortunately, our culture so routinely defines people by their behavior that we don’t even question this pattern. We don’t recognize the distinction between being a writer and writing, between being an architect or doctor and practicing architecture or medicine. That’s one of the reasons students so often panic as they face graduation; they feel as if their career choice must turn them into some thing that will define them – happily – for life.
It’s too tall an order. I am a novelist, a wife, a mother, an activist, a lecturer, a teacher, a student, an essayist, a daughter, a breather, a sister, a traveler, an aunt, a swimmer, a thinker, a walker, a memoirist, a reader, a photographer. The list changes every day. Does any one of these roles define me? No. But my personal goal is to see that they all accurately reflect various parts of me. (My screensaver reads: “WRITE AS YOU ARE.”) Furthermore, I can try to be mindful of the ways these different roles reflect and support each other. I need to engage in relationships, for example, in order to write well about relationships. I need to read in order to teach well. I need to swim and walk in order to think and breathe well. I cannot isolate any one “behavior” any more than I can let one role dominate all the others.
This is why I worry when patients or recent graduates at treatment centers ask if I think they should become therapists, or dietitians, or fitness specialists. I worry because all these professions mandate a preoccupation with food, body, exercise, and/or illness that, if adopted as an identity, can sustain the half-life of an eating disorder, albeit under the guise of “health.” I worry because I do not want to encourage individuals to become Professional Anorexics or Professional Bulimics.
Does this sound disingenuous for someone who has written two books about eating disorders? Perhaps, but I can assure you it’s been a source of great struggle for me. The hardest part has been the pressure from others who insist on “branding” me by my latest work. These include members of the publishing profession and my own family. They include both those who urge me to devote my life to fighting eating disorders and those who are ashamed of me for exposing this part of my life. Both misunderstand me and my motives.
I have no intention of becoming a Professional Anorexic. Neither have I any intention of suppressing insights and interests that have to do with my history of anorexia. The latest science about eating disorders fascinates me because it proves these illnesses are just as badly misunderstood as I once misunderstood myself. So I raise my voice as I can to correct some of these misunderstandings. But this is not all I do, and it certainly does not define who I am.
Some people default into professions that come easy or that their families or friends select for them. Others actively choose careers because they promise status or money. Still others discover activities and interests they love, and the professions evolve from there. I’ve tried all three routes at different times, and the only one I’d vote for today is the last. Let who you are determine your professional choices in life, not the other way around. And if you don’t yet know who you are, then make that your first priority as you keep yourself open to change. Remember, the only career that ultimately counts for any of us is the profession of life.