By: Karl Hümmels,
For a few different reasons, men are often not comfortable sharing their anxieties surrounding disordered eating, body image issues, etc. and are far less likely to recognize, and, if they do, seek help or even discuss their issues in this area.
Because of this, I’d like to share my own story. I’ve struggled with weight management, several types of eating disorders, and various other complications with my health that makes my experiences fairly common in at least some regards to many other men.
Everyone knows that one person who can eat endlessly, and in whatever quantity, of whatever food they’d like and never gain an ounce. Well, until I was 13, that was me; I was significantly underweight until the summer between 6th and 7th grade, during which I gained a then-welcome, though unexpected, 35 lbs. My physical that August, a week or two before school would begin, included a little more poking and proding at my now 165 lb frame before being told I’d bumped up against the line for being overweight, and while I didn’t need to act on it immediately, I would need to be careful.
I understood this wasn’t that serious, but I began fixating on what I now knew was my weight problem. My obsession got worse as, when school started, there were off-hand comments from everyone who hadn’t seen me since we left for break, some tummy pats, and other pretty innocuous incidents.
Because I wasn’t accustomed to watching my diet or having to maintain my weight, I didn’t make many changes, despite my concern. Maybe I’d grow into it, I rationalized, so I continued eating a lunch I brought from home as well as purchasing a school lunch, drinking several regular Cokes after school. I was, however, fairly active as well, so my weight gain over the next year was slow, but steady, and into the next year the same pattern followed with another 10 lbs.
The summer before high school was where my weight became problematic, and began to turn into something much more than a couple of tight t-shirts, or a few pairs of pants that couldn’t button. I began dating my first real girlfriend, a girl who, herself, suffered from (I later found out) bulimia for a couple years by that point, and was very thin and I wasn’t.
This was notable a couple of reasons, but in particular was that she’d noted my rising weight, and by the time I’d hit 190 lbs, I’d heard from more than one of her friends that I should consider getting in shape since she had been exploring getting back together with an old crush, one who hadn’t spent the summer eating two Burger King doublestacks for lunch every day.
That my weight was such an issue that it was the reason someone wouldn’t want to date me was a very big blow to me, and had I known how I’d suffer as a result of this down the road, I’d have probably broke it off, and never gave it a second thought.
But, because I was young, my response was to immediately, and as fast as I could, shift the weight and by the end of the summer, I’d lost nearly 20 lbs. The relationship, however, did not last, and I would soon enter a 9 year relationship that would prove to be the biggest detriment to my body image and health.
I had a partner for 9 years who, perhaps because of her own insecurity despite being conventionally attractive and thin, obsessed about my weight and appearance, and those of her sister and best friend.
We would, for example, be at Starbucks with her best friend, and the friend would get up to get more cream, and her response would be to me, in a barely-whisper, “Can you believe she’s getting more cream? I cannot believe she would do that considering how much weight she’s gaining!” and then point out a burgeoning muffin-top, or a straining jeans button.
Our own relationship was decisively similar, but even more antagonistic.
It was during this relationship that I finally broke 200 lbs, and when she finally pestered me enough to get on a scale in her presence, I weighed in at 212 lbs, and unacceptable amount to me, but almost an insult to her, who considered it a matter of respect since, as she often reminded me, any other guy would stay in shape for a girlfriend like her.
This set off a few years where, while living together, she’d constantly force me into the gym (almost daily), and would strictly police what I could eat to the point where I’d go to sleep having only eaten 1200 calories that day.
This, however, is not where it ends: On the flip side of this straight forward approach to thinning me out, was her insistence that we dine out frequently. We would go to the same handful of restaurants every week, and each usually had a daily special. For example, we’d go to one with a special on chicken wings, and when I would try to order a salad, she’d berate me and insist we order, and eat all of what we are served. If I wanted to stop, she’d chastise me further until I ate more. On the way home, however, she’d proceed to berate me again for eating like a pig.
All of this led to making excuses to stay out of the house longer, I’d even begun to skip classes at a local college in order to eat in secret.
By time I finally left the relationship, I was still roughly 200 lbs, but thoroughly disgusted with myself as a result.
I moved to another city, and immediately gained more weight, topping at 215 lbs before I decided to take control.
However, this amounted to micromanaging calories and not nutrients, and at first I did not have much success. I started having a lot of success, however, when I restricted my diet down to a sleeve of Saltines, three sandwiches with just a single slice of turkey, and two bowls of soup for the entire day. I would, then, exercise for 4 hours every day.
By the summer I turned 22, I had lost 55 lbs in a matter of months, and was 165 lbs, only 10 lbs from my goal, but by that point, I had begun binge eating, and more and more often.
Because I was thin again, I began to overeat again, and then I stopped exercising, and slowly began regaining weight.
It took 2 years, but I eventually gained it all back, and I was no longer in the position to spend 4 hours a day burning off everything I could conceivably put in my mouth, and I could not live on 1200 calories a day anymore, so I took a shortcut.
I continued to overeat, and in rationalizing that, began to binge with regularity, and to try to slow the gain, I began to purge using methods besides overexercise. I would abuse laxatives for the next 3 years, and in the last year of that period, I would try any number of diet supplements, appetite suppressants.
All of this compounded into more weight gain, more obsession, less and less satisfaction from the overeating, and it all finally came to a head one morning when I woke up, and like I did every day, weighed myself and found I now tipped the scales at 250 lbs.
I couldn’t believe that number, but what had I really done to prevent it? Nothing. I’d expected pills to keep me from getting fat, and I expected my body to work twice as hard to maintain my mediocre level of health.
I thought back to a physical I’d had only a week or two before where the doctor told me my cholesterol and blood pressure were much higher than the previous year, and that they were critically high. I was referred to another doctor who told me my body fat percentage was very high, and told me I was basically ruining my metabolism, so it would be very difficult to lose weight if I didn’t start getting healthy and recovering from all of this disordered eating immediately. I was put on a treadmill for a stress test, and those few minutes were the hardest I’d worked in year. Within seconds I was drenched in sweat, huffing and puffing, and within 15 seconds, I was totally winded, and begging for a break.
I did nothing, but that morning I knew I had a decision to make, and I did. I threw out the laxatives I usually took (almost 10 daily) every day, the tri-daily appetite suppressants, the other supplements. I went to my kitchen and threw out all of my energy drinks, sodas, beers (until this point, I was hydrating so poorly that I was almost always carrying nearly 20 lbs of water weight) and did the same in my pantries. I was ready to stop making excuses, and to stop taking shortcuts.
I was sick of having a stack of pants in my closet I couldn’t wear because I’d gone up two sizes in the last 6 months. I was sick of eating fast food in my car for almost every meal because I didn’t want coworkers or neighbors to see me with a fast food bag, or cramming a cheeseburger or cinnamon bun into my mouth.
My first impulse was to diet, and while that wasn’t necessarily a bad decision, it was the wrong move for someone who knew that they had disordered eating.
When I began gaining weight back a couple years prior, I saw a therapist who advised me that I had textbook symptoms of being bulimic, and that I was almost certainly a compulsive overeater. So, I went to Overeaters Anonymous, and intermittently Eating Disorders Anonymous, but found neither was what I needed.
This time, I joined WeightWatchers. I liked the point structure, and found it easy to follow, but I was still restricting, and not addressing my urges, so after a successful 3 week run, I had lost 9 lbs, but was slowly losing my grip on restricting myself to these prepackaged, frozen meals.
The fourth week, I began trying to work in other food, which led to me rationalizing bringing fast food into the mix, which resulted in a nearly 5 lb gain at the next meeting. After which, I quit the program.
A few weeks went by where I managed to maintain my meager weight loss, but knew the time was approaching where I’d need to recover from my EDs if I was ever going to be healthy again.
That day came, and with help from a nutritional counselor, that I made a recovery plan, and I had to accept a few things that would be commonplace to someone not obsessed with food and eating: structured eating, and coping when I do overeat or binge.
My recovery plan basically called for a structure of 3 meals, and 3 snacks during the day. I was warned I’d likely gain weight initially, which made me exceedingly anxious, but I was willing to do what it took to normalize my eating.
The second point, coping, is where my anxiety really has been tested. The plan calls for me to, basically, do nothing if I do slip-up and overeat, or if I overeat and then end up bingeing after, and simply deal with the discomfort. Perhaps the goal is to disincentivize that experience, and you condition yourself to avoid overeating, but more importantly, it removes purging as an option in that situation. It is no longer a response to this sort of problem.
Easier said than done, you might be thinking, but how else do you break a pattern but by making a new one?
And that is where I am today; now one week into my recovery plan. I’ve had some slip-ups, a little too much at a meal, an ill-advised snack at a fast food restaurant, but if I wait out the ensuing panic (and the discomfort), I find that maybe I don’t need to purge, and that one slip-up won’t make me fatter, but purging and yet another binge definitely will.
It’s about patience, it’s about wellness, it’s about respecting your body enough to give it what it needs, rather than depriving yourself, and then when you can’t take it anymore, going on a binge, and giving it too much. It’s about balance, and while I haven’t found my balance yet, I feel myself finally getting closer, and to putting my past behind me so I can become well.