I first became anorexic, then bulimic, in 1979, my freshman year at Penn State. As is true for many men awash in in the shame and stigma of the disorder, I told no one. This made for holiday meals wrapped around not only turkey and gravy but also the art of camouflaging the binging and purging that would always follow. Hiding my shame from family and friends.
The guilt of a male, deep in the throes of something stereotyped as a “woman’s problem. A dirty secret even after the 1983 tragic death of songstress, Karen Carpenter brought eating disorders into the national spotlight but also solidified the female stereotype. It made the family gatherings almost more than I could bear. It was easier to make up an excuse to not come home from school, and bear my secret in solitude.
How could I feign a normal relationship with self-image and food during a time when it is deemed acceptable to not eat “normally” When I did go home, I became an expert in camouflaging my bulimic behavior. Hiding the noises and cleaning up the evidence of purging. Seemingly routine trips to the bathroom after gorging myself into guilt ridden state that seemed normal to me. “Need to wash up” -Faucets blasting. “Time for a shower” -Water churning loudly at full force. Multiple flushes of the toilet to hide the wretching noise. The holiday rituals of the eating disorder sufferers both male and female. The guilt of a nineteen year old bulimic. Later, the guilt of a forty-year old bulimic. The stress of holidays wrapped around a battle with food, self-image and deceit.
Over thirty years, later, those stereotypes and the stigma associated with male suffering from eating disorders continue to be embedded in the attitudes of society, including the media. Men are strong. . Men are leaders. Men enjoy traditional meal and Holiday football games on television. Men certainly don’t stick their fingers down their throats afterwards. The reality is that 15-25 percent of those diagnosed with eating disorders are male. Recent studies have indicated that that percentage could be even higher. For me, like most other sufferers however, it was not about percentages. It was about loneliness and shame. In my mind I was the only one. I could not reveal my shame. I could only pretend.
Fortunately, in 2007, I was able to begin recovery and gain control of the thoughts that told me the only normal relationship with food was through eating disorder behaviors. Through lots of therapy and self-discovery of how my childhood led to those feelings, I became able to channel them to positive thoughts about myself and the reality of how I deal with food and self-image. Positive thought for me are the realization that even if I eat a little too much or way too much turkey its, only one day out of a long life filled with other days of a relatively healthy eating routine (I still have tough days) and moderate exercise. It’s the realization that its ok to plan for the thoughts that have plagued my past and realize they are not me. They are the past even if they sometimes sneak into the present. It’s the realization that I am loved and I am not judged regardless of how tight my pants feel at the holiday dinner table. Is the realization that eating is not shame. I am not ashamed. There is support during the holidays. There is support every other day. If you are ashamed and worried about the stress and, guilt of this time of year. Seek out those who love you. Seek out those who have been where you are. We are out there. We are ready to help.