My 27-year journey struggling with anorexia and bulimia started when I was 18 years old and a freshman at Penn State University. At 45, recovery finally began. I know now that I was lucky to survive, but sadly that's not true for many. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder — a fact that doesn't surprise me after nearly taking my own life at age 44. I could no longer take looking in the mirror and seeing the image of a “fat, stupid child” born of fat shaming at home and weight teasing and bullying in school. So much has changed since then.
In the long and arduous process of being ill, recovering, and finding an online community of similar supporters, I've learned so much about what is needed to truly advance eating disorder awareness. I share these insights here in hopes that they will inspire other survivors to open up about their experiences and help start a wave of positive change.
Needing to Feel “Normal”
When I first began to starve myself in 1979, eating disorder awareness didn't really exist (though it wouldn't have mattered). When I first became bulimic in 1980, “bulimia” as a clinical term had only been around for three years. I had no idea these behaviors were psychological disorders. They were simply acts I engaged in, much like breathing. I did, however, know the shame that came every time I kneeled or leaned over a toilet and when I was finished — accompanied by the thought that, while I needed to do it to feel “normal” and accepted, it was not what everyone else was doing.
The shame was overwhelming, yet the emotional release I obtained was all-consuming and needed, it felt, to be repeated in order for me to survive.
It was certainly not what boys and men did. At least, I didn't think so. I had been taught that men strive to be leaders. Men love sports. Men go on dates with pretty girls. Men certainly don’t stick their fingers down their throats. The shame was overwhelming, yet the emotional release I obtained was all-consuming and needed, it felt, to be repeated in order for me to survive.
A Spark of Awareness
National awareness of eating disorders was first prompted when singer Karen Carpenter passed away from complications related to anorexia in 1983. It was a step forward, but at the cost of a life. And there was no step forward for me personally. From my male standpoint, Carpenter's passing was a double-edged sword. More people knew about eating disorders, but they thought of them strictly as a “female disorder." The stereotype was established, and the stigma was entrenched — guys don’t suffer from eating disorders. Guys had to be guys. Guys had to hide it.
Why did I wait so long? It was simple: the shame, the stigma, the stereotypes.
So I hid it from my classmates, my parents, and my brothers. I hid it until 2008, when I finally went public on my blog before I had even told my family or my psychologist. Why did I wait so long? It was simple: the shame, the stigma, the stereotypes — and the overwhelming feeling that maintaining my disorder was the only way to gain acceptance, and thus the only way to survive.
We've come a long way in terms of awareness from 1983 to 2014. Today, men and women are speaking out and sharing their stories through blogs and social media. We have treatment centers, some (limited) insurance coverage, and media interest. This is just the start of awareness — some small steps in the grand scheme of the suffering. We still have a long way to go.
Changing the Public Image of “Eating Disorders”
Depending on which statistics you look at, up to 25 percent of those suffering from eating disorders are male. Still, media coverage and portrayals of eating disorders today are still entrenched in the stereotype of these being "women's illnesses."
When the media and those around you balk at accepting the idea that eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder do not discriminate based on gender, it becomes easy to think you are the only one who’s struggling. I certainly thought I was the only one. The need to know whether I was alone in my shame ultimately drove me to seek recovery. If I could drop that wall of loneliness and embarrassment for just one second, I thought, maybe I could move forward.
This is true eating disorder awareness: stories shared by people who have been there and want to help.
The Internet helped tremendously. That's where I learned there were others with a voice — the voices of the suffering, speaking out to let others know they’re not alone. This is true eating disorder awareness: stories shared by people who have been there and want to help.
Still, it’s not easy. For many different reasons, some people are not ready to recover, let alone share their personal stories. It took me 27 years of suffering, feeling nearly suicidal, and two trips to a psychiatric facility born of the desperate thought that I would never feel good about myself — that I would always see that “fat,” bullied 11-year-old boy in the mirror. I was not ready until I realized that I was teetering at the abyss and was in danger of losing everything.
This is okay. We all heal in our own time. If you yourself are struggling, I advise you to seek out those other voices, wherever they are — in treatment, in support groups, or from the people who love you. There are incredible resources out there that did not exist for me when I first began my journey. Use them (for a comprehensive list of resources, go here). When ready, add your voice. And remember: There is no shame. There is only more awareness and more recovery.
With each voice, the media will pay more attention. We will see more gender-balanced coverage. We will see more and better insurance coverage. Maybe one day, we will expand awareness to include an understanding of why so many people of all ages and genders feel the need to destroy their minds and bodies as a result of distorted views of themselves. We can do it. One voice at a time. Let’s start now.
Brian Cuban is a lawyer, activist, and the host of Brian Cuban’s Legal Briefs, a syndicated morning show on EyeOpenerTV. He is a survivor of anorexia and bulimia as well as a recovering drug/steroid addict and alcoholic. He details his struggles with body dysmorphic disorder (a disorder characterized by preoccupation with a distorted sense of self-image) in his first book, Shattered Image.