A Boy and His Anorexia
Trigger Warning: This is a true-life portrayal of my bout with Anorexia Nervosa. I describe my anorexic state in graphic detail, as well as my suicidal ideation.
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time to recognize and honor the stories of those who’ve struggled and are still struggling with eating disorders, give them space to feel less alone, validate their uniquely and feely place in the world.
I am one of those who struggle.
The NEDA Awareness Week theme for this year is Come As You Are—a needed reminder that we, no matter what stage of our recovery, deserve acceptance, validation, and love. We are we, and that’s all we can be. We are feely humans, and our stories are ours. Regardless of what the societal norms and stigma tell us—the lies that our bodies should look like anything but our own, that eating disorders only affect women, that an eating disorder is simply a lifestyle choice remedied by addressing a “bad” behavior, that we “just need to go eat a sandwich” (someone I knew said this to my face), that it is anything but our own individual experience—our stories are valid and beautiful, we deserve to have a voice, our voice, our body, our power.
And that’s why I’m here. I am in recovery from Anorexia Nervosa. I’m a 37-year-old man. And I choose to come as I am.
I was 19 years old when I first started to control my increasingly out of control world by limiting the food I put in my body.
But it also wasn’t really about the food. The food, those precise cubits of caloric intent, were just the mechanism I used to starve myself for many years before the doctor told me that my heart would stop unless I found a way to eat again. The starving, in a sense, was my boomstick against an unbridled and untreated anxiety and depression fostered early in childhood—and then later shocked into overdrive during a particular period of my life in which I attempted to mediate my parents’ marriage.
I never thought I’d develop an eating disorder, let alone almost die from one. Men don’t have eating disorders! (Or so people tell me.) But I did. Anorexia Nervosa it’s called. And I’m here to describe my anorexia journey in part, from the perspective of a feely boy who once felt so out of control he found deep, life-altering solace in the control he had over the food he put into his body—small, exact, precious morsels of caloric retribution.
An eating disorder can arise out of many experiences and for many reasons, but for me the impetus was control—or a lack of control. You know how we describe relationships sometimes as “rocky”? If I were to apply that to the relationship my parents had, it’s the Rocky Fucking Mountains—so high in places you can’t even breathe.
My father was a tyrant, abusive, emotionally manipulative, driven by an ego that only made space for his version of the world. Anything that disrupted that framework was met with a boiling, bubbling rage that rendered me as small as humanly possible. (If you’re curious, I wrote about my relationship with my father, along with its association with my eating disorder, in The Day I Stopped Eating.)
My mother believed that god wanted her to be married to my father. For 30-plus years, they were married—through my father’s persistent infidelity, his physical and emotional abuses, his honed ability to make mom feel stupid and worthless.
(I don’t want this to be a story about my parents’ relationship. That is theirs to tell. But I need to say this for context: I don’t have a relationship with my father anymore. The pain he caused me was too much for me to bear. I do have a relationship with my mother. As much as I hurt then, and felt unprotected by her growing up, I also know that she was in pain, scared, stuck. And I know that she loves me, as I do love her.)
Despite my feelings about my father—despite the time he threw a kitten off our balcony in a rage-turmoil or the time he pushed me down the stairs or the time took a 2-by-4 to my backside or the myriad times he would literally scream “WWJD!”, but spelled out, in my face—I found myself as a mediator to him and mom in my late teens and early twenties. Looking back, it boggles my mind that I tried to mend their relationship, but I did. But also looking back, I know that I hadn’t yet looked inward; I had zero understanding of what was happening inside me emotionally. I felt out of control of those emotions, and so—like the good Enneagram Type 2 that I am!—I put my energies on someone else.
And in this case, it was two people: mom and dad. I became the mediator. The emotional conduit. The whipping boy. In one moment, mom would lean her head against my shoulder and bawl in response to the latest violent manipulation or girlfriend dad fucked. In another moment, separately, dad would scream about how mom just didn’t “get it” or how she was beneath him.
I’d listen. I’d take it all in. And I made it my own to fix. I told myself, if I could just fix this one thing, all would be right again. If I could mend their relationship, oh what value I’d bring! Oh what joy! I’d be seen! I’d be heard! I’d be loved for who I am! The loving, healing, fixing part of my personality would be validated!
I wanted to believe that—with every fiber of my being. I wanted to believe that I could make a difference. I wanted to believe that I could use my feely superpowers to make things better.
But the truth is that it wasn’t ever about my parents’ relationship. It was about my own inability to face my feelings.
I don’t blame my parents for my struggles. It’s not on them. If I had looked inward, I would’ve known that I was dying. My Heart-Guard, the fortress of melancholy against the dark arts of my father, was ever fierce and strong. It was created in survival, in protection, in absolute need. Heart-Guard saved my feely, sensitive self as a child, but it also nearly killed me. It became a closed-off defense against love and vulnerability and closeness of any kind. It was an impenetrable cage, keeping me from my own heart, my own inward journey of self-discovery, my own true feely self.
Today, I write this from a place of vulnerability. But, back then, I had no concept of vulnerability. I was untethered. Deeply depressed and anxious, but I hadn’t the language to understand. I was out of control, yet starved for control.
My control came in the form of choosing not to eat. A literal starving.
“I’m never eating again. That’ll show ‘em.”
In my sophomore year of college, I took a semester off to, as I told myself, “care for mom.” My parents were on one of many splits, and I thought it would be a swell idea to isolate into non-existence.
And that’s exactly what I did. I spent those next six months honing the craft of Anorexia Nervosa. I was going for a PhD in not eating, fast-tracked for good behavior and straight-As in rapidly losing weight. I’d venture out on the lone country roads of the Huasna to run 10, 15, 20 miles—as long as it took to feel less emotionally, to feel more physically, to drown out the chaotic inward, to level up the numbing outward.
I ran until the pain of my physical body overshadowed the pain I was feeling inside.
I took my mom’s fitness classes—aerobics, step, kickboxing, bootcamp. Just keep moving, I told myself. Just. Keep. Moving. I moved to the beat of mom’s 90s pop music, kicked and thrusted my feet and fists into the air, melodically and rhythmically dancing closer to death. During those fitness classes, I watched myself in the mirror. Outwardly, I looked strong, agile, fit. I looked like I belonged. I looked capable.
I had always been active—a runner, a soccer player, a surfer, a skateboarder—so it was all par for the course. I relished in the control I had over my body, how far I could run, how physically strong I could be.
Until I wasn’t. Until I started to wane, to deteriorate, to melt away. Soon the running, the long hikes, the fitness classes became an exercise in destruction, and intrinsic components of my anorexia, a mechanism of control over my soon-to-be pallid, paltry frame.
When the people around me started to worry that all wasn’t okay, I decided to take my next college semester abroad to Swansea, Wales—thousands of miles away from anyone who knew me. I thought that getting away from the source of my pain would be the antidote to my struggle.
But the source of my pain was inside me all along.
A couple of months into my study abroad at the University of Wales at Swansea, I reached out to a therapist on campus. I was alone, of my own doing, and I didn’t know how to voice what I was feeling. I couldn’t even admit to myself that I was struggling with anorexia. I didn’t even know what the hell it was. I think I just wanted someone to tell me it was going to be okay. That I was going to make it through the pain. That I was going to find myself again.
But that’s not what I was met with. The therapist seemed lost, unsure of how to address the pain I attempted to relay to her. And honestly, I don’t blame her. She probably hadn’t experienced a man with anorexia before, but I wasn’t forthright about that. I was clearly in need of support, but she couldn’t support me if she didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t let her in. And yet, I still left that therapist’s office feeling even more confused, unseen, unheard, and with a new desire to end my life.
One thing that’s not often discussed when it comes to anorexia is the unceasing physical pain we experience. At that time, I had dropped down to my lowest weight of 118 pounds (my healthy weight is around 175). There wasn’t a bone in my body that didn’t ache. My feet felt like I had hundreds of mini bone spurs, like I was walking on eggshells, only the eggshells were my actual bones, knife-piercing jabs every time I placed my foot upon the earth. I was so grossly malnourished, my hair started to fall out. I’d find bouquets of brunette littered across my pillow every morning. I was constantly freezing. With zero fat on my body, or whatever was left high-tailed to my heart for a last-ditch effort of saving this starving boy’s life, I was in perpetual shiver mode.
I was a reverberating cacophony of pain, from my feet to my head.
Foolishly, I tried to join the Swansea Running Club. After all, running had been one of my life’s pure joys before I made it an accomplice in Operation Starve the Boy. I lasted one running practice, and I don’t even think I could call it that, because I fell way behind the pack by miles, got lost, and walked back to my flat crying.
Later that week, I sat in the bathtub and contemplated killing myself. I thought of how the waters of the tub dulled my sharp angles, and how majestic the porcelain white tub might look with a dollop of red. Despite its warm comfort from the chilly, overcast weather of Swansea, I wanted the pain to cease. I no longer wanted to suffer in silence.
And yet, despite that realization, I forged on in silence for a little while longer. Silently, weeks later, I found myself in a Welsh doctor’s office, hooked up to heart monitor, explaining to the doctor that I was always out of breath (I started smoking and rolling my own cigarettes at that time too, silly me), that my heart felt weak and under the weight of a million baby elephants. This next part was a turning point in my mental health journey. (Yes, the Welsh tub and its warm embrace was, too, but that was also an out, a contingency plan, a final goodbye.)
When the doctor told me my heart would stop unless I found a way to start eating again, I had my medically-mandated go-ahead to start the healing process. It was like I needed a permission slip, and the doctor provided it.
At this point, I am going to fast-forward to present. But, needless to say, the next nearly two decades were not all hunky dory times. I slipped, I struggled, I tried therapists that didn’t pan out, I ended my relationship with my father, I found a new therapist that I still have and cherish to this day, I met the love of my life, my depression found new life, I explored myriad facets of the wonder of anxiety, and I discovered the lesson that saved my life—and is the reason I created You, Me, Empathy:
To find healing—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually—we need to look inward.
Here’s what I’ve learned (and will always be learning) through my anorexia, and my feely place at large:
We need to accept our feelings as valid.
We need to feel our feelings, no matter how uncomfortable.
We need to be vulnerable, as vulnerability is a power of connection, of healing, of growth.
We need to know that mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
We need to embrace our emotions as relevant guideposts to our journey.
We need to ask ourselves why we’re feeling the things we’re feeling.
We need to know that we are not alone in our suffering.
We need to know there are others, many millions of others, out there struggling too.
We need to find a way to create space for ourselves and for others to explore inwardly—without judgment, in love and empathy and compassion.
We need to let go of the control and worry and anxiety over the things that are not in our control, and recognize that few things in life we really do control.
We need to lead with our hearts, so as to inspire others to lead with theirs.
We need to embrace empathy in all that we do.
We need to accept that we are, each of us, feely humans—there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Hey, you, feely human. Thanks for reading. Thanks for being here. I see you, I hear you, I’m with you. If you ever want to talk, I’m here to talk. I created You, Me, Empathy to be that space—to explore mental health in a way that is loving and kind and generous with our gargantuan hearts.
And if you relate to this story at all, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!