It was a beautiful fall morning as an incoming freshman at Penn State University; that day, my thought process, health and chances of my very survival would take a turn for the worse.
As I stared out the window of my dorm at other students beginning their journey into the future, I made eye contact with a pretty browned hair girl talking to friends in the parking lot facing my dorm window.
She smiled. So I thought. It was actually a smirk. She turned to her two friends and said in what seemed like a sonic boom from God, “UGLY! UGLY!”
Brian Cuban’s Recovery Story & Keynote Speech at the 3rd Annual Media And Mental Health Awards in Pittsburgh. As Posted By: Brian Cuban
Words like daggers in my already damaged psyche from years of fat shaming at home and bullying over my weight at school (including a physical assault) as depression induced eating soared my weight to obesity levels. In my mind, it was clear that this beautiful girl had talked to my mom. Nothing would change at college.
I was still the fat pig that would never get a date. Never kiss a girl. Never be included in those groups of the seemingly all good-looking, thin, or muscular kids that were getting to have those experiences. My entire world was out of control. What could I do? It dawned on me in that moment that I did have control over one thing in my life: food.
The food I had taken refuge in as my mom hurled food-based insults at me, just as had been done to her by her mom. These things are often generational in nature.
This time, however, I would try a different approach. Instead of eating more I would starve myself. Starve myself into love from my mother. Starve myself into acceptance from the bullies. Starve myself into acceptance from the beautiful brown haired girl in the parking lot.
Of course the genesis of the problem was not the harsh words from the brown-haired girl. Her words were simply one of many triggers that probably would have sent me down that road. Eating Disorders are complex. Caused by many different factors still not entirely understood.
And so it began in the fall of 1979. Before eating disorders were discussed publicly. Before singer Karen Carpenter had passed away, putting them into the national spotlight in the pre-digital age.
Decades before I would have any concept of what eating disorders were. I became anorexic. Within the year, anorexia would transition to traditional bulimia. Then exercise bulimia.
I would stay bulimic until I was 45 years old. Not understanding the nature of eating disorders. Too ashamed to tell my family or admit the problem to myself to the extent I understood it.
As I dropped a substantial amount of weight, the affirmations came. “You look great Brian!”, “Keep it up!” Wow! Acceptance! The key to acceptance was losing more weight! The only problem was that as I got thinner and thinner, I kept seeing that obese eleven-year old in my dorm mirror.
The beginnings of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. As I moved into my sophomore year, I transitioned to exercise bulimia. I was running fifteen to twenty miles a day, then binging and purging at night. Classes were an afterthought to what was important. In my mind, my mental survival was intertwined with the behavior that made me feel accepted. There were some days I was so de-hydrated from the running and traditional bulimic behavior that I could not get out of bed.
I would miraculously graduate from college and go on to law school, still engaged in exercise bulimic behavior but also adding alcohol to the mix. As is common with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Eating Disorders are only one destructive behavior that can occur.
Before I would finally step into the light of recovery I would add alcoholism, cocaine and steroid addiction to my list of destructive behaviors in addition to my bulimia.
Finally in 2007, after a near suicide attempt and two trips to a psychiatric facility, I was able to stop the slide into the abyss and take my first step forward. It was both the love of my family and the fear of losing that love that finally moved me forward.
The thought that my family may love unconditionally, but there are limits on their willingness to see someone they love destroy themselves without taking any steps forward. I felt that moment was coming. That terrified me.
April 8, 2007, I took that first step. Honesty. Honesty about where I was and then honesty about how I got there. Honesty with my shrink. Honesty with my family. Eventually, honesty with my mother who became a big part of my recovery because she was willing to explore with me how she was raised and the verbal abuse and fat shaming she endured from her mother.
It was not about fault. It was about understanding. With understanding came forgiveness. The next step in my recovery. Forgiveness of my mother. Forgiveness of the bullies of so many years before. Of course it has not been easy. Twelve step. Lots of therapy, which I still receive. Medication. Little steps forward. Some steps backwards. Am I cured?
I still have unhealthy thoughts. What has changed is how I process those thoughts. I now realize that they do not define me. What I can say is that I have been eating disorder behavior and drug free since that pivotal day in April. Everyday I try to pay that forward and let those who may be going through difficult times know that there is hope and recovery.
The first step is dropping that wall of shame for just one second and letting those who love you and want to help you into our crazy world of thoughts. Stop. Look around. Take a deep breath and realize that it was worth it. Then take another. It all starts there.
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