Being Non-binary in Recovery

July 14, 2022

When I first came to terms with needing help for a life-threatening eating disorder, I had no idea I would ultimately uncover complex feelings around my gender and sexuality, among several other factors and root causes. All I knew at the time was I wanted to live without my eating disorder, and I didn’t know how to. Over the last ten years, recovery has been a journey of self-liberation and self-discovery. This journey has included realizing I identify as a non-binary person who isn’t a male or a female.

I didn’t know what non-binary was for a long time, or that other pronouns existed outside he/him and she/her. Throughout the past couple of years, I’ve come to know myself more sincerely, live authentically, and stay true to myself while upholding my boundaries. Living a life that feels genuine has allowed me to continue to thrive in my recovery while feeling at home in my body.

The amazing advocate, Jaden Fields, once said, “Gender is not determined by the body but rather finds a home in the body.” Everything in our life is gendered, including our deodorants and other miscellaneous products we consume without much thought. Our shame is gendered. What I have come to learn in my recovery is that gender can be one of the most powerful weapons used to hurt people and one of the most liberating parts of someone’s identity.

Gender 101

When I first began exploring my gender identity and addressing my gender dysphoria, I was introduced to new terms and concepts that forever changed the way I understood myself. It allowed me to develop a more profound sense of who I was as a queer person and mold the world around me. Here are some terms I picked up throughout my identity journey:

  • Sex: a label given at birth based on medical factors, including hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia.
  • AMAB: an acronym that stands for Assigned Male At Birth.
  • AFAB: an acronym that stands for Assigned Female At Birth.
  • Intersex: individuals born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads, and chromosome patterns) that do not fit traditional binary notions of male or female.
  • Gender binary: socially constructed roles and behaviors typically associated with males or females. One’s identity as female or male or as neither entirely female nor entirely male.
  • Gender Identity: how you identify and express your gender through clothing, behavior, and personal appearance. It’s a feeling that typically begins very early in life.
  • Cisgender: A person whose assigned sex at birth matches their internal gender identity.
  • Transgender: a person whose sex assigned at birth does not match their internal gender identity.
  • Non-binary: One term, of many, used to describe individuals who may experience a gender identity that is neither exclusively woman or man, is between genders, or beyond both.

Coming out and Nonbinary

“I’m Eric, and my pronouns are they/them.” When I began honoring my identity and that I had never seen myself or experienced the world as a boy/man, I discovered my freedom and power. I was terrified to change my pronouns. I thought, “what if people don’t believe me?” I had spent my whole life trying to be man enough and this pain led me to depression, low self-esteem, and contributed greatly to my eating disorder and substance use. Identifying as non-binary means, I get to decide what is and isn’t myself regardless of gender roles, stereotypes, and body parts. I am me. I know this because when someone gets my pronouns incorrect, it hurts. It stings in a way as nothing else does. Today I trust this feeling and my identity. My friend in recovery, who is also non-binary, said it was like receiving a diagnosis; it put everything into perspective.

Gender Identity and Recovery

In a 2020 survey conducted by the Trevor Project, students whose pronouns and gender identity were respected attempted suicide at half the rate of those who lived in non-affirming environments. In so many ways, the world is still not a safe space for trans-binary and trans-non-binary individuals. This past year alone, over 33 states tried to pass laws against transgender rights, including healthcare. The narrative of this message was one I understood at a very young age: my body and my identity were not safe. I am not safe. It feels impossible to articulate how uncomfortable this made me. Adding to that was a society that only further stigmatized people who thought and felt the way I did.

My recovery has shown me that much of what society views as “masculine” and “feminine” is coated in shame. Our society has taught us that “boys don’t cry,” and when they do, they should “stop acting like a girl.” These sayings we’ve all heard are rooted in shame and guilt for actions deemed as unacceptable.

This shame doesn’t just hurt queer people; it hurts everyone. I’ve identified a direct link between the shame I experienced around gender, lack of safety in my body and identity, and my eating disorder. As a non-binary person, I’m not pushing an agenda where gender doesn’t exist. Instead, I want to encourage people to stop limiting gender for those who don’t feel they fall into male and female categories. How amazing would it be to allow people to be who they are? You don’t need to understand anyone’s gender to understand that everyone deserves safety, respect, and autonomy.

Eric Dorsa (they/them) is an LGBTQ advocate, actor, comedian, and drag queen currently living in Chicago, Illinois. As an advocate for the LGBTQ community, Eric travels around the country sharing their experiences of Eating Disorder Recovery, coming out as a gay person, and their recovery from substance abuse with college campuses and patients in treatment. Eric has been featured on Texas Public Radio “Worth Repeating”, Mental Note Podcast “Drag Queen Wisdom”, Huffington Post Queer Voices, and has given an award winning 2014 TEDx Talk entitled “How Dressing in Drag Made Me Uncover My Authentic Self.” Eric is also a member of Eating Recovery Center‘s Recovery Ambassador Council. They hope that sharing their story will inspire others to know that they are not alone, to seek connection and treatment, and that full recovery is possible.