The thing about recovering from an eating disorder is that you don’t really recover. You just don’t do it anymore. You don’t go three days with nothing in your stomach but coffee. You don’t count the calories in chewing gum. You don’t chew extra hard to compensate for all those extra five calories. You don’t wander wearily from aisle to aisle in the super-market looking for something you can eat. Not bread. Bread makes you fat. Not meat. Meat makes you fat. Not cheese, or milk, or eggs. Fat. Apples. Apples are okay. Carrots. Not peas (peas are carbs pretending to be vegetables). Not cookies. Definitely not. But maybe just one cookie? Just an Oreo. An Oreo won’t make you fat. Two Oreos won’t make you fat. Not even three or four or five Oreos will make you fat. Six? Now, you’re pushing it. Seven? Jesus Christ, what are you a whale? Eight. Fucking slug. Nine, ten, eleven—you’re disgusting goddamnit why don’t you just eat the whole goddamn box you fat mother-fucker. You eat the whole goddamn box and you’re just lying in bed feeling Oreo cream stick to your ribs you’ve got crumbs on your hands and you’re fucking disgusting but you know what you can do something about it so you dust yourself off and go to the bathroom which you share with everyone on your floor and you get in the shower and you turn on the water and you get on your knees and you’re in there an hour just puking your brains out. Tomorrow, you think, I’ll be good. I’ll skip breakfast. I’ll go to the gym. I’ll be good. And then tomorrow comes.
When you finally are ready to give it all up, not because you want to, but because you’ve become so physically exhausted that you can barely manage to go to class, or walk or stand anymore, and you don’t throw up anymore, and you don’t count calories, but even then it still isn’t quite over. When I stopped actively making myself sick, I still lived day to day with all the accumulated psychological detritus of my sickness. I couldn’t sit down to a plate of ravioli without steeling myself; I couldn’t wear jeans that fit me because feeling the waistband on my belly would make me cry. I couldn’t go to the gym for almost a year after I started therapy because I couldn’t quite reconcile the idea of running with the idea of eating three meals a day. Running was something healthy people did; eating was for fatties. Weighing 143 pounds, I was a fatty.
Worse than that, I was a bad person. I was mean. I was hateful. I was in so much pain; I lashed out at anyone in an arm’s length of me. One afternoon in the park, I told my mother in no uncertain terms that she, her specifically, not my father, or the media, but her overbearing, smiling, baking, manipulating, undermining brand of motherhood had been the cause of my eating disorder. She cried. Later that night my father came to my room to talk to me and I told him if he really loved me he would have beat me as a child because I was a bad person. I cried. At the time I thought I was telling tactical lies. I was hurting those I thought were hurting me. I felt like Tyrion Lannister. I was more like Cersei.
Let’s do a time-skip to two years later. The anger had faded, and the raw pain was gone. I was out of therapy. I had dated two nice boys, become president of my theater troupe, and been accepted to grad school. I felt like a whole person again. I looked, by all accounts, fine. I felt fine. I was fine. I was looking to get laid. It was mid-July, and I spent most days proofing insurance binders in my father’s office. I spent most nights re-watching the bits TrueBlood with male nudity. I spent weekends at my friend’s boyfriend’s house, with my friend’s boyfriend’s friends, drinking, and falling asleep on the couch with my friend’s boyfriend’s dogs, when all of my heterosexual friends went upstairs to hook-up. Monday mornings I would change in my friend’s boyfriend’s kitchen, then walk to the train station to go to work proofing insurance binders at my father’s office. It was a life. I needed to get laid.
One Wednesday when my father was away, and nobody in the office needed me to be on Reddit from 9:00-5:00, I decided to spend the afternoon in Manhattan. I followed my friend to her job on Park Avenue then drifted down the lower west side to Washington Square Park, then back up to Union Square. I ate a sandwich. I people-watched. I admired the feeling of being invisible, leaning against some railing, poking my elbows into a rose-bush, all of the flowers unopened. For almost six hours I squatted by some foliage smelling above all Starbucks, and beneath that car exhaust, and beneath that summer. Anonymous, I had all the confidence in the world. My body no longer felt obtrusive. I no longer felt the weight of my gut, the slimy circumference of my stomach, which two years prior I had often imagined I felt. Then, I decided to go to a gay bar.
Listen, I can’t speak for the gay community as a whole, but I will tell you, in my experience, it should not be difficult for any young gay man to find someone willing to touch his tidbits. Armed with that knowledge and my newfound sense of self I strutted towards The Phoenix bar, where I then proceeded to wait outside for an hour-and-a-half, working up the nerve to step through the doors. In only a few blocks all of my foolhardy tomcat big-dick swagger had dissipated and I started to remember that I was, in fact, a weird, lonely, fat kid, and how could anybody want me? It didn’t matter that I had like a foot on my middle school self, and I was like a hundred pounds lighter, and had a much better haircut. Leaned up against a fire hydrant outside the bar, smoking, pretending to text my brother, all I could think about was how much I wanted someone to want me, and how impossible that seemed. The more I wanted it, the more impossible it seemed.
This at last was the deep gash in my psyche from which bulimia had bled out. My eating disorder was not, as I had believed, a sickness, it was a symptom. The sickness was all of those things I felt as I sweated through my tee shirt on that 90 degree night outside the Phoenix. I didn’t tell myself I was fat anymore. Instead I thought: I’m awkward. I’m immature. My nose is too big. My dick is too small. I’m a dork. I fall in love too easy. I hurt people. I’m crazy. I wouldn’t want me. I’m a coward. I played it on loop for an hour and a half, waiting for a little voice inside me to pipe up and say, “Actually, you’re really brave. You’re strong. You’re okay looking. You deserve a blow job.” And it never came. When the bouncer started to give me funny looks (because I was a six-foot broad-chested blond guy with a backpack hanging outside a gay bar for an hour), I decided to cut my losses and boarded the next train to Jersey.
Of all the low points of my life, riding the 1:00 a.m. train, horny, sweaty, ashamed, and frustrated is pretty low. But I remember that night more for the 2:00 a.m. walk back to my parents’ house, when I slung my sweat-soaked tee shirt over my shoulder, and put my shoes in my backpack (because it was still in the high eighties, and I was chafing), and chased a deer through suburbia. That sounds crazy. It was crazy. I was still stung from my utter defeat at the hands of my self-loathing, crunching cicada shells with the calluses on my feet, feeling as if this proved, once and for all, that I was a weak person, and that weak-people deserved nothing, when suddenly there was a deer. It was only a silhouette, the shadow of a buck traipsing in-between the conical light of the streetlamps. I felt all the hair on my chest stand up. We made eye contact. Everything appeared to move in slow motion, probably because we were both moving very slowly. I dropped my backpack to the ground, and let my shirt slide off my back. All the muscles in my stomach tensed. I slid my left foot back into a starting position. He knew what was coming. He ran. I ran. I didn’t even know why I was running. He swept down a side street. He ran across lawns. I followed.
It was completely mad. I was a shirtless barefoot man in his early twenties hunting a wild animal through the ill-kempt lawns of my slumbering neighbors. I was completely sober. But after hours of self-lacerating, and years of actually being crazy, acting crazy, and not caring, not caring and enjoying it, gave me the first glimpse of the sane, happy person I could be (I’m pretty sure that’s irony, someone check for me). The deer finally leaped into someone’s back yard and disappeared. I walked back to where I had abandoned my baggage on the side of the road. I was out of breath and sweating harder. I’m pretty sure I had stepped on a pinecone. I was still incredibly horny, and kind of lonely, but I was just a little bit proud. The kind of senseless, stupid pride that you sometimes need to get by in life. Some people collect mint condition comic books. Some people write blogs. Apparently, I chase deer. Whatever works for you.
Recovery, like the second coming of Christ, or the sixth season of the Venture Bros, is a long wait. First you bleed, then you scab, then you pick, then you bleed again. Maybe eventually you scar. In the meantime, you throw a Reptar band-aid on that sucker, and remind yourself, Reptar is pretty fucking cool.