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What it’s like to having an eating disorder
Everything was cool as long as I was getting thinner.
This article contains frank descriptions of disordered eating.
I still remember the first porn I ever watched.
I strategically waited until 1:00 in the morning, a time when my parents were least likely to wake up, statistically. After studying their sleep patterns, I surmised that my stepfather was a coma sleeper and the only way to awaken him would be to summon a world-ending meteor; my mother’s snoring habits meant that she fell asleep at half past 12, but she could be back around 1:30, if she were sleepwalking.
Unwilling to wank in the presence of a wandering somnambulant, I needed to be quick. According to the trailer for the video, I had two minutes and 37 seconds—because the site wouldn’t allow playback. You got one shot. Being 13 and filled to the brim with semen, I was more than up to that challenge.
Previews for Internet porn changed my life, showing me what it was like to be thrifty while nurturing your chronic masturbation habits, but it also gave me a free tour into what being a gay man might be like. The aforementioned film introduced me to an Italian guy named Vinny, who was bald and perfectly smooth, like a nudist Vin Diesel. He was a solo artist, which meant he only worked alone, like the hardened policeman at the beginning of every buddy cop movie.
I always hoped he would find a Danny Glover to help him solve the mystery of his missing hair, but I, too, wanted insight into his life. What was his real name? Who was he when he wasn’t on camera? Did he have a boyfriend? Did they live together? What TV shows were on his TiVo? Was he, too, skeptical about Tobey Maguire’s casting in Spider-Man?
More than anything, I wanted to be like him, so sure of my sexual desirability that I was perfectly willing to jiggle my junk on camera for $5.99 a minute, not including tax. Vinny’s body glistened when it moved, and you could use his penis to club baby seals. The preview page kept advertising his hairlessness, and I never knew that was expected of me. My body was covered in hair, my back sprouting pubic angel wings.
In Vinny’s world, being Italian meant you were a stallion, the National Velvet of the bedroom, but for me, it meant unwanted peach fuzz and constant sweating, a torrential flood of pit shame. Everything about Vinny reminded me of something I wasn’t, and when you’re a teenager, you can always find more reasons to feel not good enough.
The summer I found Vinny online was the same one I didn’t eat for three months. At some point during that time, I logically know that food passed through my lips and into my digestive tract, but I don’t remember it happening. By starving, I was killing myself to be anything but the person I was.
After the 8th grade, I had to transfer schools because I spent almost every day thinking about how to die—the ways I would do it, what my parents would say and how much it would make everyone finally love me. My funeral would be a grand procession like Princess Diana’s, attended by millions. I had heard of mass ceremonies in Iran and the Middle East, where entire cities buried the dead through their collective grieving, and it was a comfort to picture my town draped in black.
Anything was better than the reality, going to school every day to be constantly reminded that everyone hated you. There’s no yearbook contest for “The Biggest Loser in School” or “The Most Likely to Sit by Himself at Lunch,” but I would have won in a walk.
In my grade, there was a kid who did Trigonometry for fun and walked around with his Sally Jessy Raphael glasses perched delicately at the end of his nose, like a plastic bird. He developed mutton chops the year between elementary and middle school and spoke with a plaintive lisp, and even he was still too cool for me. He walked around with an air of mystery, because everyone knew he would grow up to be an astronaut or a NASA engineer, at least.
When he was quiet, everyone figured he must be thinking something brilliant. When I was quiet, it was because I was on the verge of saying something embarrassing. I was the Jerry Gergich of our eighth grade class—but without the consolation of an oil-tanker penis and a smoking hot wife.
I was the kind of kid who wore puffy vests, turtlenecks, and parachute pants to school, convinced they were coming back, and read detective novels at lunch, the kind of books where everyone had a fedora that concealed exactly half of their face, obscuring eye contact and dark secrets. In a noir thriller, you learn that everyone that is corruptible and rotten. You didn’t need to tell me.
When I was growing up, they used to run after-school PSAs informing kids that it was OK to be yourself. The commercial even came with a catchy theme song: “BYOBF (Be Your Own Best Friend)”, a cheery affirmation that your friendship with yourself is the most important relationship in your life. Self-love is a nice message, but clearly the writers of that tune have never met a 13-year-old boy.
Instead I chose periodic hunger. My trick to starving myself was to eat three days’ worth of food in one sitting and then punish myself for the next three days, a backward cycle of release and pain, release and pain, release and pain. But when the trick didn’t produce the desired results and when I wasn’t killing myself quickly enough, I went straight for the pain.
In the novel Fight Club, the unnamed narrator describes what it’s like to live without sleep, your day unpunctuated by rest, no ability to unplug from reality or escape inside your mind. It’s a lot like starving yourself, where it’s not just your stomach but your day that’s emptied. It takes everything, and you live a half-life, walking around as your own corpse. If I didn’t kill myself, I might as well be dead alive. But at the time, I didn’t stop to think about it. I didn’t ask why I was tired all the time or why I felt like a hollowed-out log you might find in the woods. Everything was cool as long as I was getting thinner.
When I was chubby with the baby fat that hung around well after my last diaper was changed, I was a disappointment to the men around me. Even though I was short and stout, like a teapot in a nursery rhyme, my father wanted me to be a quarterback. He constantly reminded me that Doug Flutie was only 5’5’’ and he went to the Pro Bowl; Flutie is actually 5’10’’, but in the case of diminutive play-callers, objects appear smaller on TV.
My stepfather just wanted to have anything in common with me. He was a mechanic who was obsessed with Kenny Chesney and hated the movie Fargo. I once skipped school to stay home and watch Casablanca four times in a row. I treated Annie Hall like a sacred text.
Being thin offered a bridge of relative fitness between myself and maleness, and the skinnier I got, the more porn my stepfather bought me. It was Playboy and, thus, the wrong kind, but it was the closest I’d ever get to a membership card in his club, so I begrudgingly took my stepfather’s second-hand dirty rags. It wasn’t that I didn’t like girls, per se; it’s just that I never met one I liked as much as Tom Cruise, whose eyebrows I studied as if they were painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I knew this was a problem, and I thought the hunger might correct that, too.
For some reason, I was always under the impression that if you starved yourself enough you magically became beautiful, like the swan that was inside that ugly bird all along. I thought that little stomach muscles were hiding underneath my layers of fat, and I just needed to keep digging. They were in there. When I went to college, my first grocery store purchase was diet pills, before I even bought food. I always told myself that food would come later—because I had the rest of my life to eat. Now was the time to be pretty.
If I was cramming for a test or I had a paper to finish, I used the promise of food as an incentive to keep going and keep working harder. After I finished those two pages, I could make myself a sandwich—or at least half a sandwich. Let’s not get too hasty now.
Food was only something I indulged in when other people were around, because I quickly learned that people notice if you never eat. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t eat with my friends at Ruby Tuesdays because my parents didn’t have the money, and not eating was a sign that we were poor. Not eating was a reminder of all the times that my friends paid my way at the movies, silently groaning about the financial burden of our friendship.
Around friends, I ate so much that I developed a reputation for being a human food processor, and those who knew me joked that I must have a hollow leg or a second stomach. The hunger I saved for myself, when I was alone or up at night, unable to sleep.
Once after a health class where our professor showed us a slideshow of women who died of eating disorders, I confessed to a classmate after the lecture that I thought there was “something wrong” with the way I ate. She told me that she had been anorexic when she was 12, but I was emotionally unable to engage with that word. “Anorexia” made it a disease, a public thing that you had to share with doctors and your family; that involved getting a lot of people involved in something that was only for myself, so I forgot about it. An eating disorder became such a mundane part of my daily life that I learned to structure my world around it.
Starving myself got me through breakups and helped me get over the first boy that didn’t love me back, an atheist hipster at my first real-world internship who listened to cool music and wore lime green pants to work that made him look like a giant crotch. I wanted to impress him with my love of Patti Smith and early R.E.M., but I was convinced he could never like me.
My hair started falling out in clumps due to a combination of malnutrition, constant smoking, and male pattern baldness, and with how pale I was getting, I looked like Billy Corgan. I wore black jackets and hoped I looked cool on the train behind my giant tech-geek headphones. In reality I was in constant pain, part-heartache and part-hunger. Starvation helped me remind myself I would never be good enough for him—or anyone.
A conversation I had last spring helped me put a name to it. I was having coffee with my writing partner, who had just penned an essay about his own struggle with bulimia, and he wanted my feedback on it. He needed an outsider’s perspective. I hesitated to read it because I knew that presumption wasn’t true, but I couldn’t say exactly why. The word was sitting on a shelf, too high for me to reach. Getting there would require knocking down those shelves inside myself and building something new in its place, but I didn’t know what that looked like.
Instead when I gazed at myself in the mirror, I could instantly count 12 things wrong with my face:
1) My ears stick out too much.
2) My eyes are too far apart.
3) My eyebrows grow together like Frida Kahlo’s and after years of tweezing to correct the situation, one is forever slightly longer than the other.
4) I don’t have a chin without facial hair to give me the illusion of bone structure.
5) I have an asymmetrical beard that requires constant, irritating attention.
6) I have a giant nose that’s best described as “bulbous.”
7) I’m balding.
8) I’m constantly stricken with dandruff, even after I started shaving my head.
9) I’m buck-toothed and filed down my own teeth after chipping a tooth because I never bothered to get dental coverage.
10) I naturally make the weirdest faces, making me completely useless in group photos.
11) I hate my skin tone, which is a milky olive.
12) I still hurt when I stare at myself for too long.
Sometimes when it all gets to be too much, I close my eyes and repeat a mantra I made up. I tell myself: “You’re the coolest girl in school,” a momentary salve intended to express the feeling that everyone wants to be me. I know it’s silly and a lie, but in the moment, it does the trick. The first time I confessed to a therapist that I starve myself when I’m feeling lonely, she turned her cocked her head to the side and asked me, “Well, why don’t you just eat?” I know it’s not that easy, but if I repeat the phrase to myself enough times, it feels that easy, as if wellness is flipping the switch inside me.
Five months ago, I deactivated my social media as a way to turn on the dark for a while, one I thought would help me see better. In addition to social anxiety and depression, researchers argue that chronic Facebook use is highly linked to negative self-esteem and higher rates of eating disorders, especially among college-age women. These studies offer a simplistic view of Facebook use, but it doesn’t take a doctorate to see that the Internet acts as a tool for our obsessions and worst tendencies, whether it’s hate-clicking your way through someone’s engagement photo album or spending hours being jealous of people you barely know. On your Facebook feed, you can stay a teenager forever.
Since this time last year, I’ve gained 20 pounds, through a mixture of exercise and force feeding; like a second puberty, I’ve had to adjust to rapid changes in body, throwing out old clothes while figuring out how to dress for a torso that feels like someone else’s. The fairy tales lied about the ugly duckling myth: transformation isn’t magic. I don’t glisten, and the old feathers remain even as new ones sprout. They don’t look a thing like wings.
It’s a slow process, where your old pictures begin to feel like a portrait of another life. Of every trepidation I had about logging back onto Facebook, my biggest one was looking at old photos of myself, in which my head seems to be suspended like an empty Cadbury egg over what little there was of my body. When I was young, I hated looking at myself so much that I burned every photograph I could wrest from my mother’s albums, attempting to wipe myself from the records altogether. To this day, it’s difficult to find pictures of myself that I haven’t untagged, as if I’m still trying to pretend I don’t exist.
Eventually, though, you have to turn the light back on. When you do, you start to see for the first time what slowly killing yourself took out of you. I don’t recognize the person I was then, with eyes you could count like tree rings, or the one I’m trying to become. In between life and death, I’m forced to believe that both are versions of the truth.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.