A Man—With an Eating Disorder
When I tell people I have an eating disorder, I get surprise, sympathy, empathy and laughing-shock: "Men can have eating disorders?”
I am a man. I have an eating disorder. I am a man with an eating disorder.
It feels ordinary to type these words, to say them aloud, or to have them float through my mind during the day. After enough time, any epiphany becomes the status quo.
I don’t lead with this fact when meeting new people. You will not find it in my online dating profile. People in recovery for a wide variety of addictions have an equally wide variety of policies about self-disclosure. Personally, I don’t feel any need to tell people I know casually but the disclosure is inevitable with those I grow to know well. If it should change how they perceive me for the negative—well, I can’t control that, and it’s better to know whether it will sooner than later.
I never felt thin enough. Then I discovered something better—alcoholism.
I have heard all manner of reactions. Surprise is common. Sympathy is frequent. Empathy is rare but means a lot to me. There’s a particular response you might call laughing-shock. It’s a lighthearted, “Really!?” Sometimes these people think I’m kidding. “Men can have eating disorders?” is a question I’ve fielded many times. While hardly universal, this view is common.
I can’t blame them. Once upon a time in my life, men didn’t have eating disorders. I had a concrete worldview. It was often a cynical one permitting all variety of sickness, bad things, and general suffering. But no men with eating disorders.
I began to overeat roughly—when I began. Entering kindergarten at age five, I was already significantly overweight. Other kids bullied me for it, using all manner of insults and physical aggression; an experience that seemed common—for the overweight and otherwise targetable—in that time and place, Massachusetts in the late 80’s. There was no public outcry about bullying in that era. I refused to think of myself as bullied because I often fought back, verbally and with my fists. If I were picked on, I would be weak. If I were simply someone who found himself in fights, I was tough. The choice was easy. It was a self-perpetuating cycle, of sorts, with my weight and resultant strength giving me an advantage in physical confrontations.
I became heavier. Much heavier. By the time I was 14, I measured five foot four by 319 pounds. I can quote this figure because I recall the sinking feeling I had seeing it stare up at me from the scale, and the immediate resolution I made to no longer weigh myself. I know I got bigger though. I could tell by the way my clothes—roomy jeans and flannels selected for grunge conformity—became tighter on my skin. I was miserable. I thought often of suicide.
My feelings about my weight oscillated between extreme self pity and virulent self hatred for my lack of self control. I never considered the possibility I had an eating disorder, because eating disorders looked nothing like this. That, I knew.
In 1989, HBO premiered the series Lifestories: Families in Crisis. It was docudrama fare centered on social issues told through half-hours about this or that contemporary crisis. This was my introduction to eating disorders. In the episode, “The Secret Life of Mary Margaret: Portrait of a Bulimic,” a then-unfamous Calista Flockhart cannot recognize that she is dangerously rail-thin. She starves herself. She binges and purges. She repeats this until her life is very much in crisis. As a nine year old I felt badly for Mary Margaret, but I didn’t see anything of myself in her. I was much more interested in watching a then-unfamous Ben Affleck struggle with high school steroid use in the episode, “A Body to Die For: The Aaron Henry Story.” Aaron Henry was just so stressed out by his family and girlfriend, and couldn’t control his violent outbursts. This seemed much more like who I was.
As far as eating disorders went, I took this view and ran with it. Anorexia and Bulimia were disorders that afflicted teenage girls and made them do outrageous things to get skinnier and skinnier, even though they were skinny already. I was aided in believing this by constant reinforcement from TV, movies, books, and the occasional awareness effort by those charged with improving my awareness—principally educational and media professionals. This was a plague upon teenage girls, models, actresses—I was just a fat kid.
Then I began to lose weight. Looking back, it seems innocent. At first I wasn’t even trying hard. I just avoided the pizza, cookies, and burgers I had always loved. Then I began to exercise a lot. Combined with my teenage metabolism, these efforts paid off remarkably quick. By 16, I had lost half my body weight.
There’s much truth in the idea that vanity and shallow things can’t change your life—but vanity and shallow things changed my life. Kids who used to tease me became my friends. Girls were interested in me. I could wear cool clothes and participate in sports. My life really did become dramatically different. I was praised for my weight loss and frequently asked how I did it.
I didn’t know what to say to such questioners, because I didn’t know what they were talking about. When I looked into the mirror what I found there was a disgusting, fat body. It seems crazy to say now—probably because it was crazy—but I saw exactly what I had always seen: a monster. I knew I had lost weight, and a lot of it, but it made no difference. People might disagree but that was mere politeness, or they were speaking relative to how obese I used to be. My perception had to be right.
I was 17 when I started throwing up. Being more social had led me to regularly hit the mall with friends, where we would enjoy heavy foods in decidedly 90’s American proportions—the volumes of onion rings and pasta bowls at places like Chili’s and The Olive Garden were the harbingers of the unrealistic mortgages, Hummer dealerships, and blockbuster overseas wars that would come in the next decade—it was the dawn of an age of excess. I couldn’t let myself eat like that, so I developed the ability to un-eat. For the uninitiated, bulimia is everything you envision it to be, with nothing you envision yourself feeling. I wasn’t disgusted with myself by the act. The act brought a feeling of relief and accomplishment. The disgust is what compels throwing up in the first place, and what one is rid of in the bathroom.
Of course, as men did not have eating disorders, my behavior was peculiar. I realized this. My theory at the time was that I engaged in a behavior similar to that of girls with bulimia, and for the same reason. But the comparison ended there. I had one thing, they had another. I was just too fat.
The bulimia didn’t change anything. I was still disgusted. I became depressed and hopeless. I had ordinary teenage concerns—broken hearts, fears of the future—but I was convinced that they all stemmed from my weight. If I was thinner, she wouldn’t have dumped me. If I was thinner, I’d have the confidence to pursue what I wanted in life. At the end of high school, I began to starve myself, experimenting with how little I could eat in a day, then with how many days I could go without eating. My weight dropped dramatically. People now asked if I was sick. This felt much more satisfying than the compliments of earlier years. People wouldn’t say you’re sick to flatter you, right?
Like everything else, it didn’t work. I never felt thin enough. Then I discovered something better—alcoholism. Being drunk shut off the voice about my fat body better than anything. I proved no better at controlling my drinking than I was at controlling my eating, and this provided its own consequences. I quit drinking many times, and my first step in sobriety was always to go on a crash diet. Of course, I’d always end up drinking again when the obsession with my weight became too much. I did this dance for five years. I never got it right. It was clear to me that I had become more and more like those suffering from eating disorders, but still, this was purely anecdotal. I did not—could not—have an eating disorder.
Then drinking landed me in rehab, where the truth emerged. I hadn’t admitted the facts of my secret ED (rehab shorthand for the condition) life before that treatment, even when I had sought help for depression. Admitting now what I had been doing—even with a fair amount of reserve—I was immediately diagnosed with an eating disorder and put in a special group. I found myself with six women, but also one man. Somehow, more unbelievable than the idea of having an eating disorder was that another man had one too. But he did, and we became friends. For 45 days I was exhaustively educated about ED, and myself. Still, I didn’t fully accept it. I allowed wide room for the possibility that I wasn’t like the others. When I left, I went back to what I was doing.
History repeated itself—I was back in treatment for alcoholism within a year. It was clear then that I couldn’t pick and choose what I wanted to give up. I committed to getting better. I’ve had setbacks and struggles but I’ve never once thought in the six years since, “Maybe I don’t have an eating disorder.”
I hate to say it, but I did find it hard to recover as a man. Harder? I don’t know. Probably not. ED recovery is hard for anyone. But I often found myself the only guy in 12-step meetings for ED. I felt separate, and occasional hostility from women who were unaccustomed to a male presence in this environment—though they were the exception. Most were welcoming, but I was more than once been accused of attending such meetings to meet women. In fairness, I have dated a woman I met in this context, though I didn’t foresee this happening beforehand, and learned a hard lesson from it.
In trying to wrap my head around why it took so long to accept my eating disorder I came to the following conclusion: a person’s identity is really important. People like to define who they are in terms of categories. It’s safe. Red Sox or Yankee fan. Republican or Democrat. Scientist or farmer. These labels are constants and though they are broad ones, ultimately incapable of telling us anything meaningful about ourselves, they are much more reliable than the alternative—accepting that your place in the world and all your assumptions about it are susceptible to change.
For me, enormous among these identifiers was masculinity. I’m a tough guy, remember? Not a guy who gets picked on, but a guy who fights. A world where I could have an eating disorder challenged what I thought of as my man-identity. But such a world existed, and I lived in it.
I’m still figuring out my new identity. These days I’m just as masculine as I am, and where precisely that falls on any scale isn’t very important. At times I tried to make Man-with-ED my new identity for its own sake, with mixed results. I worked with other men who had the same problem to share what I had learned, but usually found the greatest commonalities between us were things other than shared mental illness. I wrote a memoir of my life with ED, but discovered that much of my life story wasn’t about my sickness—nor was it appealing to publishers. Through these experiences, I gradually saw my eating disorder for the part of me it is—a part. I am a man. I have an eating disorder. I also have a dog. I’m a college graduate. I like hiking. I’m—you get the point, people are very complex. All and none of these things are who I am. Although again, some are better than others when filling out a dating profile.
Brian Macaulay is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about the celebrity distortion of rehab reality.