October 1981. A beautiful, cool, crisp, Saturday afternoon. The Penn State Nittany Lions were playing a home game against the Boston College Eagles. There would be close to eighty-five thousand people in Beaver Stadium. Penn State was having a great football year. It seemed like everyone in the dorm went. I couldn’t imagine going. I hated that feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when I felt like an outsider in a big crowd. In my mind, no one would want me to join them. Why even ask. I yearned to be a part of that cheering camaraderie of Nittany Lion fans all geared out in blue and white. Being alone was easier; alone, you know no rejection. I ran alone instead. I ran.
It was an easy choice that day. Perfect weather to do the impossible. My plan was to run from University Park to Altoona, Pennsylvania. Was I nuts? Altoona was forty-three miles away! That’s eighty-six miles round-trip. I was not an ultra endurance runner. I was, however, mentally ill. Deep into an eating disorder. Both traditional and exercise bulimia. There was a rational part of my mind quietly telling me it was impossible. I also knew that whatever happened, by the time I got back, the football game would be over.
I got about seventeen miles out and could run no farther. I was surrounded in all directions by the rolling farmland of central Pennsylvania: A beautiful landscape for solitude. The silly reality of my endeavor hit me. I wasn’t going to make it. Not even close. I didn’t care. It wasn’t about achievement. It was about finding sanity in doing the insane. By the time I ran-walked-ran the seventeen miles back, the game would be over. It was dark when I got back to University Park. I walked through town. Students were still celebrating Penn State’s 38-7 win. I went to Domino’s and bought a pizza. I ate it in my dorm room with my old familiar friend, bulimia. Then down the hallway to the toilet. That was my life. There was no conversation about men and eating disorders in 1981. A year later I would add alcohol abuse to the mix. There was not much more of a conversation about drinking on college campuses.
May 1983. I got on a Greyhound Bus and left the campus of Penn State for the last time. A broken child, or should I say young adult. I was still a child in how I saw the world. I thirteen year old child who had been consistently fat shamed by his mother, bullied and physically assaulted at school over his weight. Brutally shy and self isolating because in his mind, he was not worthy of love, friendships and self-respect. Consumed with anger and blame. Not knowing that, all consuming and defining. Eating disorders and addiction are not about blame. They are diseases of the brain. All consuming loneliness with my only friends being bulimia that had developed late into my freshman year and alcohol abuse. I felt so alone with my disorders. No one else could be going through it or understand. A time when a male with an eating disorders was virtually; unheard of and certainly not discussed either privately or publicly. A time when, with very little awareness on campus, it was easy to blend in as a student abusing alcohol. As the saying went, “you were not an alcoholic until you graduated” Both self-destructive yet the only tools in my limited arsenal to change that “fat pig” in the mirror. The only avenue of acceptance even if that feeling was only for a few second or minutes of the bulimic act or of the self medication of Alcohol. A mindset that would also take me into cocaine and steroid abuse and ultimately lead to a brush with suicide before I would enter recovery. If I had seen that future in front of me as a twenty one year old senior getting on that bus on a Sunny day in May, what decisions would I have made? If had known then what I know now about the power of recovery and the ability to overcome even the darkest moments, I would night not have taken almost twenty-five years to begin that journey. If I did not feel so alone in my shame.
October 25th 2014. My first return to Penn State, also known as “Happy Valley” in 31 years. So much had changed about Penn State. So much had changed about me. Eating Disorders Programs. Eating Disorders and Addiction Peer Recovery. Doctors, counselors and students who work hard to let the new “Brian’s” know they are not alone and recovery is possible. I hardly knew the campus I was so happy to exist in 1983. I knew myself much better. I had been a long journey. The eating disorders. The drug addiction. Steroid addiction. Close to suicide, then recovery beginning in 2007. Learning to love myself. Learning to love that thirteen-year-old little boy. Learning to love that nineteen-year-old sophomore who felt totally alone on a campus of almost fifty thousand students. Recovery was not always easy. Twelve-step. Lots of therapy. Learning to love myself. I spoke to students at the HUB and then at Penn State-Hershey Medical Center about that journey. I spoke about my recovery. I spoke to myself. I spoke to that nineteen-year-old student who felt so alone and ashamed. I had come full circle. It finally, was truly, Happy Valley. Recovery is possible.
*A special thanks to Dr. Rachel Levine of the Penn State-Hershey Eating Disorder Program and Dr. Micaela Hayes of Penn State University Health Services for giving the opportunity to share my story.
Brian Cuban is a an author whose best-selling book “Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder” chronicles his first-hand experiences living with, and recovering from clinical depression, twenty-seven years of eating disorders and Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD),drug and alcohol addiction. Brian speaks regularly about his recovery and empowering students and adults to turn their worst moments into their greatest achievement