You’re not alone if you’ve struggled with an eating disorder.
A recent study in England showed a 66% increase in the number of men hospitalized with eating disorders. I am not surprised.
Growing up I was always on the plump side. I had an older brother who tended to distract my mom, so my main aim was to be good and eat food. And lots of it. I always had an insatiable appetite. Somewhere along the way the hunger wires in my brain got crossed and emotional hunger got confuses with physical appetite. I can remember emerging from swim practice on a Saturday and happily engulfing a half dozen donuts just to get warmed up.
But by the time I reached puberty my size and robust stature had become a problem. I felt ashamed of my body. There’s no other way to say it. I tend to think looking back now some thirty years later that I was probably a pretty good looking kid—over six feet tall, blond, blue eyes, well muscled, good athlete—but in my mind’s eye I couldn’t see any of that. I saw a kid with a gut and no game with the teenage girls. A kid who got beat up and laughed at. A kid who felt profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin.
So I started running, literally. And I became very particular about what I ate, avoiding anything but iceberg lettuce for dinner. What began as a few miles quickly became ten and sometimes even twenty mile runs. A body that was naturally well over 200 pounds shrank down to 170 and then 165.During my free periods in high school I’d often go out for an extra run and then stop by the nurse’s office to weigh myself.
When I see pictures of myself during that period now, I shudder at the image of a young man with the hollowed out cheeks and ribs showing. And I wonder what mental calculus made me think that starvation would somehow feed the emotional hunger that had started my problems with food.
I was so unhappy in high school I left after my junior year, graduating a year early and heading off to college. In addiction terminology, that’s what they call a “geographical cure,” meaning that in an active addict’s mind if you move physical location you will leave the addiction, and the all the problems caused by the addiction, behind. Of course, that never works. The addict has just moved from one city to another with no change in behavior whatsoever. The problems travel with the addict. It’s just a matter of time.
When I got to college I tried to keep up my self-starvation and running. But I found myself more engaged socially and academically, which did change things. I ran less and began a period of binge eating. I had gone through short periods of binging and attempting to purge in high school but the net impact was still weight loss then. In college, the binging was regular enough that I began to gain weight in dramatic fashion. I went from 165 to well over 220 pounds in a matter of a few months. And I began to binge drink with some regularity, though food was still my primary problem.
The destructive impact of my food issues showed up in my physical health. By the winter of my freshman year I was in the infirmary with mono. Mono turned into a nasty case of pneumonia that was resistant to multiple attempts to treat it with various antibiotics. Finally a woman doctor with a British accent came into my infirmary room and told me to flip over on my stomach with pillows under my chest and my head hanging down towards the floor.
“Cough as hard as you can,” she told me sternly. I got one good hack out before she delivered the first of a series of blows between my shoulder blades. “Keep coughing!” she told me in no uncertain terms.
The stuff that I spit up was really too disgusting to describe here. But within a week I was actually feeling better. Within a couple weeks I was back in class. My only lingering problem was that I had fluid in my ears that prevented me from hearing anything in lecture. I ultimately had to go to an Ears, Nose, Throat specialist to have him pierce my eardrums, suck out the gunk, and put tubes in.
None of this changed my eating patterns. I was still over 220 pounds, and sneaking food in mass quantities in order to binge. I broke into campus kitchens, and even a fraternity one time, to feed my food habit during off hours. I might as well have been snorting heroin.
During my upper class years of college my body image issues were somewhat under control as I was a very serious athlete, focusing almost all my time on working out and competing at the highest level I could. I realized, I think, at some unconscious level that I could not succeed as an athlete and abuse my body at the same time. The disease was still there, but it took a momentary break.
After college, however, it came back with vengeance. I shared an apartment on the top floor of a broken down triple-decker on Western Avenue in Cambridge. I slept on a futon on the floor and strung up an old rowing oar for my hanging clothes since I didn’t have a closet. We lived catty-corner from the Western Front, a Reggae bar where the band had once been shot dead after a drug deal went awry.
I certainly drank plenty at places like the Plough & Stars on Massachusetts Avenue, but my primary vice during my early 20s was still food. I woke up more than once after having consumed a vast quantity of ice cream with a stomach distended, feeling like it was going to burst, thinking for sure in my dream state that I was quite literally going to die. My brain somehow knew that I was committing slow motion suicide.
Again, the destructive impact of binge eating showed up in my health. I got a flu the winter of 1989 and then fell ill in a mysterious and scary way. I would sleep for 14 hours a night and wake up just as exhausted as when I went to sleep. I had horrible headaches and weird tingling sensations in my palms and on my feet. I quite literally could not get out of bed for weeks and then months. I couldn’t read. At my worst I could not watch television because focusing on the screen took too much out of me.
I am not sure if I had what would latter become a disease called chronic fatigue syndrome or had just beaten the living shit out of my body with binge eating and fasting, but it took my almost two years to get back to anything like normal strength. I took a leave from my job. Luckily I had already been planning to go to business school the fall of 1989, which allowed me to go to class for an hour or two and then go home and collapse.
At business school something clicked in my addictive brain. I stopped binge eating and started binge drinking in earnest. It turns out at least in the short run drinking excessively does less damage to your body than food. It’s also a lot more socially acceptable. I ultimately lied about my drinking too but I could get away with a lot more drinking before crossing the line than I ever could with food.
How I eventually got sober is a much longer story, and one I have told plenty of times before. But the point here is to say that my journey started with a problem with food and body image. And that problem is often identified with girls and women. I am here to tell you it’s a men’s issue too.
Girls may be subject to the severe body image issues arising out of a ruthless popular culture where stick thin is suppose to be attractive (I once found myself backstage at a South Beach fashion show as the models changed clothes and let me tell you what I saw was not attractive, it was heart-breaking). But the unhealthy obsession with food, perfection, and body expressed through bouts of starvation, loss of control, and the crushing secret of self-loathing that comes with it is not just a women’s issue. It impacted me and men just like me.
The reason I am writing this today is because a very dear friend, someone I love with all my heart, has just checked into a residential program because he is endangering himself as a result of bulimia. I am writing to make sure he knows he is not alone and that life does not have to dominated with thoughts of consuming food you don’t even like to bury emotional hunger. Life is indeed capable of filling you up in amazing ways that have nothing to do with destroying your body through gorging.
I am many imperfect things, but I have been clean and sober from booze now for 15 years and ever since my bought with chronic fatigue two decades ago I haven’t had to fight off my addiction to food. I have what I think is a relatively normal relationship with eating, sometimes a little better and sometimes a little worse. But my emotional life is independent of my eating life rather than being intertwined in a losing battle like it was for so very long.
To anyone out there suffering from Anorexia or Bulimia I say you are not alone. There is no shame in what you are experiencing. It’s just a matter of finding the right tools to treat the problem.
And to my special friend in treatment please know I am pulling for you. I have been where you are now and, truly, it gets better.
Much, much better.