What was your personal story with an eating disorder?
I was a fairly heavy and very shy child growing up. I was over 200 pounds by the time I was in junior high and it wasn’t muscle. I was close to 260 by the time I graduated high school. I had a difficult relationship with my mother in which she often criticized my weight calling me fat. I was also bullied at school culminating with a physical assault in junior high in which I was “pantsed.” I was walking home with a group of kids when they began to make fun of some gold pants I was wearing that my older brother Mark had given me. He was thinner than I was so the pants were pretty damn tight on me. The kids started making fun of them. A couple of them started pulling at them, then tearing them. Others joined in and they eventually tore them completely off and threw them in the street, forcing me to walk a mile home in my underwear. In addition to this there was simply a lot of the common types of fat-shaming name-calling that you see present-day. If you take away the Internet and social media, the type of brick and mortar bullying I went through in 1971 is pretty much the same stuff you see today. This type of bullying and the verbal abuse at home caused me to start seeing myself as a deformed individual that could only be fixed by taking control of my body in any manner I could. It was the early stages of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). From then on there was constant shame and a growing, obsessive preoccupation with my weight. BDD is a psychological disorder in which the sufferer is preoccupied with a distorted sense of self-image and is often afflicted with depression, addiction, and eating disorder. It often begins in adolescence and affects as many as 1–2% of the U.S. population, both male and female.
The eating-disorder switch flipped when I was a freshman at Penn State. I remember it like it was yesterday. As everyone was moving into their dorm rooms, I made eye contact with a pretty girl. She saw me smiling at her and proceeded to announce to her friends how ugly I was at a decibel level that sounded like a sonic boom to me. I was devastated. Every shameful thought I had about my appearance and ability to “fit in” were validated once more. I cried myself to sleep. The next morning, I woke up with a plan. I would simply no longer eat until I was at a weight in which everyone would accept me and see me a member of their peer group. I started to deny myself food, surviving on 600 calories or less a day. Every day and every evening I would go down to the campus infirmary and obsessively weigh myself and scrutinize every part of my stomach in the mirror. Each time I looked I saw the same thing. A fat, ugly kid. It meant I had to starve myself even more. It became a vicious cycle. The mirror image never changed no matter how much weight I lost. I was deep into BDD, which I would battle along with attendant eating disorders for 27 years.
By the end of my freshman year, I had begun binging and purging as well. I could no longer mentally sustain the anorexic eating behavior because I kept seeing the same fat kid in the mirror. In my mind it wasn’t working. One evening I headed down to the local buffet and binged. It felt so good: the solace of food that relieved the depression and loneliness! Then came the guilt. Now I would be even more fat and ugly. I could not stand the thought of it. For the first time I purged my food. I had transitioned into bulimia. The feeling of relief and control in being able to have my cake and not eat it too was incredible. I had discovered and stayed bulimic until 2007. In addition to the eating disorders, I also battled depression, cocaine and steroid addiction as well as a near suicide attempt in 2005.
Now Recovered from BDD and His Eating Disorder
Why do you think people notice signs of eating disorders in female friends or daughters but think it is OK for men to be obsessed with weight, particularly in situations like losing weight for wrestling or modeling?
I think it has a lot to do with the way eating disorders are portrayed in the media as a female disorder and the way defined gender roles and stereotypes in society have developed. When I was a child, it was a much different world from a gender role perspective. I was a baby-boomer coming on the heels of the Greatest Generation (World War II). Women were in the home with very defined, feminine roles and men who had fought in World War II and The Korean War were supposed the be the strong, silent, Gary Cooper type. To even think of such things would be to show weakness and confuse roles. That has of course changed for women for the better and continues to change but on a certain level I think society is still predisposed to view men as being the strong, silent, stoic types who don’t admit to such things. Men also tend to think of themselves that way.
As far as wrestling and modeling, I think we have to be careful with generalizations because there are other variables at work. The fact that a wrestler or a model may engage in extreme, temporarily obsessive and often dangerous weight loss behaviors such as laxatives, or food restriction to make weight for a match or do a shoot or runway show does not necessarily mean he/she has an eating disorder. It means they are dropping weight, albeit in an unhealthy manner, for a specific vocational or sports related purpose. Could they ALSO have an eating disorder? Sure, but that is a diagnosis that should be made by a treatment professional. Is the person engaging in a temporary behavior for a specific purpose or is it a way of life. Of course those seemingly temporary eating behaviors can turn into a way of life. When I was starving myself, in my mind it started out as dieting. It never occurred to me that that thought process would stay with me for most of my life.
You aren’t an actress like Portia DeRossi or a Top 40 singer like Demi Lovato: the type of person we usually hear about having eating issues.
Do you ever think sensationalizing young women’s eating disorders in the media makes people regard them as almost a normal thing? Are you worried that the media might be less interested in reporting on your book because you aren’t an attractive young woman in Hollywood?
I don’t agree that such things are sensationalized. Making Demi Lovato’s eating disorder sound worse than it was would be “sensationalizing” it. Both men and women die from anorexia, bulimia and BDD. I got no sense that has gone on in the media. Simply reporting on it increases awareness and that’s a good thing. Demi coming out was a great thing for eating disorder awareness. Men receive the benefit of that.
I hope society will one day view eating disorders as something that happens to both men and women. Then both will feel less shame in talking about it and we will see more treatment options including better health insurance coverage for eating disorder treatment.
I’m not worried about the book at all. It is what it is. I can’t control the media but I can control the message. I will put out the most compelling, supportive message I can to raise awareness for both men and women. Just as men get the benefit of Demi Lovato, women get the benefit when men break the stereotype. I have people email me every day about themselves, their children or their friend with an eating disorder thanking me for telling my story. If not one single media outlet reports on my book but I continue to get those emails, it was all worth it.
What should we notice in young men if they have an eating disorder? What might be different than seeing it in young women?
I am not a treatment provider, so I can only speak as to what I went through. From the people I have spoken with, I am confident a lot of it is the same for both sexes.
What should people look for? An obsession with body weight or body size or shape. I was weighing myself twice a day every day and spending inordinate amounts of time staring at my stomach in the mirror. Constantly talking about being fat, being ugly, seeking reassurance. Those things are not done in a vacuum. Something happened. Isolating was very big for me.
When there is so much shame of either body image and/or eating disorder activity, the desire to isolate can be intense. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom at home and when I got older alone in my dorm room, apartment etc. I was ashamed both of how I looked and what I was doing. I could binge and purge and feel my guilt in privacy. If no one could see me, no one would know my shame.
There are also the basic behavioral things to look for. A drastic change in eating habits and/or body weight. Unusual bathroom habits that may be camouflaging purging. Evidence of purging that has not been cleaned up in the bathroom. Scraped knuckles from repeating pushing the hand down the throat. Finding laxatives or diuretics. There are a lot of different signs. Any one of them should at a minimum trigger an initial phone call to a treatment provider for some guidance BEFORE you address it with your child.
What scares men from talking about it? Is it a fear of being viewed as less masculine?
Absolutely. It’s a huge reason I did not come forward earlier. I only came out when I got on the Internet and saw I wasn’t alone. The need for support cannot be under-stated. It’s 2013, and there is still a huge stigma for men. There are other reasons as well. I have had men tell me they are afraid of losing their job, being thought less of by their wife or children, even being thought of as gay. I know both straight and gay men and women with eating disorders. The disorder does not discriminate.
Your discussing this openly is fantastic, but having good self esteem overnight is difficult when you don’t think much of yourself. How should someone feel if he or she gets called heavy or ugly? Or more commonly, always thinks that of themselves?
You’re not going to get a good self-esteem overnight. There were a lot of experiences over the course of my life that got me where I was. It was like building the brick house. It takes a while to build and can take just as long or longer to tear down then rebuild again. It took me over 30 years and I am still working on it.
How should someone feel? They should feel hurt! That’s a normal human reaction. It is what happens next that sets the tone. Will the person shrug it off and forget it? Will he or she fight back? Will it stick with the person, internalized and have a lasting effect on self-image? We are all wired differently. We all bring our own genetic makeup and psychological disposition to the game. No two people will react exactly the same to insults and bullying. Some may be wired to shrug it off. Some may be wired to fight back. Some may be wired to internalize it and let it eat them up like I was. That’s why it is so important for parents to understand how their child is wired and not automatically respond to these issues base on how they were brought up. Your child is not you.
People talk about your brother because he owns a basketball team and seems really outgoing. When you were younger, did he ever get more attention than you did based on his personality? Did you ever feel like you compared yourself to him physically?
If you’re asking about peer group attention, it was a non-issue because we ran in different circles growing up. There is a 2½ year age difference between Mark and me. He had his circle of friends. I had mine. I, of course, looked up to him as my older brother. I never physically compared myself to either of my brothers because I did not feel judged by them. I was however, afraid that telling anyone about my shame could end all that. So I never told anyone in my family. They were probably as surprised as anyone when I came out in 2008. When I did, Mark and the rest of my family were supportive. We were always there for each other when we had something to talk about. I wish I had the strength to tell him and the rest of my family when I was younger. That was something our father stressed all of our lives. Staying close and supportive as family.
What advice do you want to pass on to young people, and young men, about handling an eating disorder?
The best advice I can give is to tell you that you’re not alone in your suffering. I am out there. Many others are male and female. This is support and a road to recovery but you have to want to take that first step. There is a safe place for you to talk about your problems. Find it. There are people out there that love you and are waiting to help you. I know it’s not an easy journey, but if you can just take that first step there is an eating disorder free life out there waiting for you. Once you get that behind you, the world is yours.