Adam Edgerton explains that when we don’t love ourselves, we are desperate for love and validation from someone else. We will do anything to have it and everything to keep it.
I’m finally ready to talk. I’ve decided that there is value in sharing my experience publicly despite my desire to continue hiding in plain sight.
The truth of the matter is that I have been a male bulimic, to one degree or another, since I was 13 years old. It is a secret that has taken me 15 years to bring to light, and a problem that has taken me 15 years to fully understand.
Like many gay men, I experienced deep rejection at a young age. I understood even as a kindergartener that the way I felt about the other boys in my class was somehow wrong. And like many gay men, I compensated in ways both beneficial (throwing myself into school) and detrimental (throwing up after a junk-food binge).
The nature of an eating disorder is necessarily and painfully solitary. I have eaten quick, shameful meals alone in my kitchen as fast as I possibly could. I have slipped away to bathrooms after overpriced dinners, looked down at real and faux-marble floors.
I have binged on fast food in the car where no one could see me. The floors of my old cars were littered with mayonnaise-smeared wrappers. But as long as I remained reasonably thin, as long I rode my metabolism to its limit, I figured that no one would know.
It was only when I began to feel serious side effects — lethargy, dizziness and stabbing stomachaches — that I finally sought treatment. And to be completely honest, I stopped purging only six months ago, when I started going to the gym for the first time in my life.
A comment about my weight, or even about someone else’s weight, would send me into a tailspin of negativity. The slightest criticism became an excuse for an episode. I went through the binging and purging motions automatically; I shut off my brain so that I could continue my behavior. I tried to restrict certain foods from my house, and I bought as few groceries as possible. But my compulsion would always find a way.
It’s estimated that 15 percent of gay men will struggle with an eating disorder — much higher than the general population. My window into gayness now, living as a white professional in a liberal Northeastern city, is incredibly privileged. And yet there is something so central to the gay experience, our lived lives, that can tie the billionaire CEO of Apple and a gay homeless youth together.
It’s rejection. Rejection is the traumatic glue that holds our community together. Rejection comes upon gay men before we know the word, even those who grow up in the most liberal, affluent areas of this country. We place impossible standards on ourselves, which allow us to continue a cycle of rejection. We make jokes like, “There’s BMI, and there’s gay BMI,” in a transparent attempt to hide the way we really feel about ourselves. And we spend much of our lives outrunning these rejections, trying to convince ourselves that we are worthy of love.
I’m not talking about the romantic rejection that makes for geek-gets-girl comedy. When gay men are rejected, often before we even know what it means to be gay, it implants a seed of worthlessness in us. And over time, if we aren’t careful with ourselves, that first judgment — that sense that you are “less than” — will become a part of our truth.
When I started college a decade ago, those of us who came from small towns were like 6th graders at the first school dance. We had to learn how to kiss. How to live together. How to trust each other after being thrown away so many times before. And above all else, we had to look good.
But I had a problem long before college. No matter my successes, it was impossible to completely escape that worst part of myself, that nagging sense that I would never be good enough. It would never matter how many hours I spent in the gym, or how many titles I held, or how many awards I won. I would always, at the end of the day, be just another faggot, looking in the mirror, wishing I was someone else. If I could make people laugh, if I could get people to like me, I could minimize the amount of time I spent alone.
At the end of his TV show Drag Race, RuPaul always asks, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
He’s wrong. It’s the opposite. When we don’t love ourselves, we are desperate for love and validation from someone else. We will do anything to have it and everything to keep it. We will give someone else twice the love we feel for ourselves.
My biggest regret in life is not addressing my eating disorder sooner. For years, I kept it a secret from those closest to me. Buying a gym membership was the first, slow step on my road back to health. At first, I attacked the gym with the same zeal as I did when I binged: every day with obsessive amounts of cardio. But thanks to a therapist and a trainer, I have learned moderation and the simple pleasure of looking in the mirror and not wanting to run away.
There is no greater rejection than self-rejection. It is haunting, persistent, and colors the world in shades of pastels that are not reality. Everything and everyone seems brighter than you when you are afraid of yourself. When you don’t love yourself, you can throw your self-worth into your job, or an all-consuming project, or an unhealthy relationship. Or you can descend into the spiraling, slow death of always seeking approval from someone else, no matter the cost. You can be the guy who doesn’t spend a second away from Grindr, or the executive who never leaves his desk.
But you still won’t be able to look at yourself in the mirror. So I’m glad to be on the road back to myself. I hope that by breaking my silence, others will too.
A version of this post originally appeared at Huffington Post