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Perfect Illusions: Eating Disorders and the Family
Personal Stories
Brad

I think it's really difficult to call yourself anorexic, or to admit that you're anorexic. Because the stigma behind it and because... I'm really ashamed of what I did and... I don't feel good about it. I guess it's one of those... to a certain extent I'm in a state of denial. It's hard to admit-yes, I was anorexic.

Brad has a great family, probably the best thing in his life. His family and friends are his system of support. But Brad's family still does not know that he has fought anorexia for years.

It's really hard for him to admit. He is ashamed, and it's a shame that keeps building. He felt ugly for it, then started hating himself for feeling ugly. It's a vicious cycle.

Brad began limiting his intake of food when he was in sixth grade. He remembers the collective groan when he weighed in at a pound over the limit, and let the team down. According to the rules, guys who played quarterback couldn't exceed a certain weight, so Brad maintained that weight.

I felt very empowered by being able to do it. I felt like my personal hero for being able to control my body in that way and deny myself food and the enjoyment of eating.

Once they're older, football players want to be big and strong and tall. But Brad still wanted to be thin, wanted to be the "master of [his] own body." He gave up football, picked up a guitar and started a band.

At 14, his idolized rock singer was "really skinny with beautiful blond dreads, a heroic kind of a Christ-like figure, very pure, very sacrificial and... cool. You worship other people when you don't have the self-esteem it takes to kind of... worship yourself... I didn't have a sense of what it was about me that people could love or respect or admire. Worshipping another human being in that way, to me is a sign that you don't have a sense of self."

Brad strove to attain a sense of spirituality. He decided not to eat certain things, then just decided not to eat. He set himself a daily minimum caloric intake. It was easy to hide this from his family. He left early in the morning, was at school all day, then at the dinner table he'd say he had had a big lunch, and could leave without "raising any eyebrows."

He learned to gauge whether his Mom thought he was taking enough on his plate. He learned to eat very slowly so that he wouldn't finish before anyone else. He appeared to be always eating. And no one noticed he wasn't.

What Brad didn't notice was that this was not normal behavior. He saw himself as overweight and dieting. Even when his high-school friend was hospitalized with anorexia, weighing 75 pounds, and Brad too was not eating and losing weight, he didn't equate the two. He wasn't like her.

Between age 16 and 17, Brad lost 50 pounds. At 120 lbs, he thought he still looked "pudgy," and continued his gradual process to get down below 115 and 110. He was between 5'10" and 6" and never thought he looked skinny.

But he hated the way he looked. He thought he was ugly. He hated his face, everything. The only body parts he thought were skinny were his arms, and he hated them too.

I always imagine myself as when you go to the fair or the circus... and you go to those mirrors that make your legs look longer and your torso shorter, or your legs look shorter and your torso longer. There was no part of my body that I liked. There was no part of my personality that I liked either. There was nothing about myself that I liked at all. Yeah. I didn't like myself.

Brad wore baggy clothes, and was famous for never taking his shirt off. On the hottest summer day when friends were swimming, he'd be in long pants, shoes and socks-uncomfortable, sweating and miserable. He would vow to survive the misery, make it through the day, not give in to it, suffer the pain and discomfort and make himself even more miserable if he had to. "It's not going to best me, I'm going to best it." He felt powerful being able to do that.

Brad's Mom worried about his weight loss, but it would never have occurred to her that he was purposefully not eating. "An eating disorder would've been the last road she would've started looking down." After all, he was a guy.

As is typical in cases of men with eating disorders, Brad's doctors didn't notice either. No doctor ever asked me, 'Are you not eating?' ... They'd ask me if I was eating the right things, or if I had a good diet. They'd ask me things like, 'Are you just drinking a lot of Pepsi during the day? Are you eating your fruits and vegetables? Or are you just subsisting on a teenage diet of chips and snack foods?' But no one ever asked me, "Are you eating?", just kind of simply and to the point.

Brad continued to not eat in college and graduate school. He drank only coffee, and a lot of it, because it has no calories, and began developing radiating stomach pain and having problems urinating. Weekly visits to the university medical center proved unproductive. They still didn't ask him, "Are you not eating?" They kept trying medications, running tests and not finding anything. His health deteriorated, and he accumulated medical bills. "They had their theories, and all their theories were shot after awhile."

I thought I needed to lose weight and I didn't think it was an unhealthy endeavor. I didn't think to say, 'Oh, and you know what? I'm on a pretty strict 800 calorie diet.' Some of the best doctors in the world with some of the best equipment and all the knowledge and the books, and yeah, they couldn't nail it down. And they couldn't nail it down because they didn't know what questions to ask. Like they didn't know to ask, "Are you eating?"

Only recently has Brad begun talking about the eating disorder, his past and his feelings about it with his girlfriend, Maggie. He couldn't hide it. She recognized anorexia because she had struggled with it, too. Their relationship has helped him feel more comfortable with who he is and what he is.

Within the last few years, Brad had begun to allow himself 1000 calories a day, but at one point he was eating no more than 500. Now he can enjoy food if he doesn't know how many calories or how much fat is in it. He doesn't weigh himself every day. He still knows how many calories are in a slice of bread, turkey or an apple; that mustard and lettuce are freebies; and pretzels are his safe food. But his perception has changed bit by bit. It's not resolved, and he doesn't think it ever can be. "It's not something you fix. You understand it. And manage it."

Maggie has encouraged him to search back for the hidden root causes, and that has helped him progress out of his eating disorder.

Last week was the first time that I've ever had a full confessional. It was a very good feeling. It was actually... it was more than a good feeling. It was a very peaceful feeling.

He wants to tell his parents.

Brad is a now a Special Education teacher working with autistic children.

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Brad
Brad

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If you're a guy, you're supposed to eat as much as you can and want to be as big as you can, and fierce and tough. You're not supposed to want to be this little waif of a person.

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