Strange Loop

Written reflection (stream of consciousness on Google Doc)

          I haven’t been full since I was 10. I’ve been starving, bloated, gaunt, and plump; but never full. My mom was snipping coupons out of her circulars when I burst into her room to ask the question.

          “Mom...am I fat?” I asked.

          My mom continued cutting, and I wondered if she’d even heard me. After she added her next deal to the mounting pile of clippings, she looked up at me and said, “You could lose 5 pounds.”

          The concept of my body being seen and judged had never occurred to me until this moment. My mom always said I had the body of a linebacker, but I didn’t know how much I wanted the body of a running back. I was aware that I didn’t have the stick legs or natural abs of the other young boys, but it didn’t connect that other people noticed too.

          The next time I passed a mirror, I stopped to dissect the abnormalities and fat deposits that defined my developing body. This was the inception of what became an hourly ritual.

          As I was finishing 5th grade and preparing to enter middle school, and by proxy my preteens, I realized this “fat” issue would only become more apparent to my peers. I already had enough to conceal from them, and I didn’t need to add my body to that list. I needed to lose those 5 pounds.

          The next weekend, I tagged along on my mom’s shopping trips to stock up on healthier meals. Her Target coupons bought me Lean Cuisine meals for every night of the week. At 7 o’clock sharp every Monday, I’d plop down in front of the TV with my oversalted, cardboard-flavored pasta to watch “The Biggest Loser.” The contestants on the show became my “thinspiration,” and every time I felt a pang of hunger, I’d imagine Jillian Michaels screaming in my ear.

          By the time I started middle school, I had dropped the 5lbs and then some. I ate like a bird at school every day and saved my calories for one large meal in the evenings. If anything, I was too good at ignoring my body's cries of hunger.

In the summer after 6th grade, my feet always had friction burn. I sprinted on the treadmill every morning, barefoot, until my feet were raw. 45 minutes of cardio burned off the exact number of calories I’d consume each day (210). My day was bookended by my breakfast, a pack of gushers, and dinner, a can of Amy’s Vegetable soup. My calculator was my most used app and lifeline for counting calories, and I agonized on restaurant websites tabulating what I “could’ eat if I dined there.

          On cheat days when I would add an Orange or Fiber One bar into the mix, I would barge into my mom’s room and ask for her approval.“Do you think it’s ok if I eat this?” I’d ask, and each time I saw her face sink with concern.

Chicken tenders finally sent me to therapy. My sister begged me to eat at a local diner one afternoon for lunch, and I sobbed as I added up the calories in a Butterburger Value Basket. That night, my parents were thrilled when I asked for professional help.

          Dr. Lugar wasn’t really my type, and not only because he was a man (How was I supposed to confess my feelings to him?). He was everything I imagined a therapist to be, a manicured Sigmund Freud, but he also kept me at arm’s length. I think we both knew my issues stemmed from something deeper than my issues with food, but Dr. Lugar never veered off course. In his defense, I would’ve shut down if he had.

          I spent the rest of the summer filling out food logs for Dr. Lugar, detailing my food crises and exercise routines. When I brought the logs in for review, he studied them for a while.

          “I’ve never seen such elaborate journaling from a boy your age,” he commented, reading over my meticulous notes. After a few minutes, he spread the pages out on his desk and met my gaze. “I think you have a rare form of bulimia.”

          “Bulimia?” I asked, thinking I misheard him. “But I don’t puke.”

          He warned me that burning off the majority of the calories I consumed was a unique form of bulimia but could have similar long-term effects. Part of me beamed with pride at my ingenuity, and part of me feared for my body.

          I stopped seeing Dr. Lugar once I started 7th grade, and I restricted my time on the treadmill. I begrudgingly ran on the cross country team, and my starvation tactions fell by the wayside. Despite my parents thinking my obsessions with food were in the rearview mirror, the fear of gaining weight still loomed over me. I was careful to maintain my slender physique. It wasn’t that I was emaciated, but it was clear that I fought against my natural body type. As a shorter, more “compact” guy, I refused my stockier build for the lean distribution of someone half-a-foot taller than me.

          “Your son looks like a rail! Is he ok?” someone asked at my Grandfather’s funeral the next spring. It was the only time I smiled that day.

          In 8th grade, I’d gripe with my best girlfriends about how much we hated our bodies because it was the humble thing to do. I was complaining to my favorite science teacher about how fat I was one day when I had met my quota on valence electrons, and she stopped me mid-sentence. “I think you have body dysmorphia,” she said in front of half the class.

          Based on their tilted heads, I realized these thoughts had never occurred to the other male students before. This was one of the first times I really risked exposure. On another day when I was expressing my admiration for Monica Geller and her neuroses, this same teacher said, “It’s not normal for a boy to only have female role models.” Once again, the other boys concurred.

          As I entered high school, my shame around food morphed into grappling with the fact that I was gay. It wasn’t like weight where I could just stop eating to control it. Our bodies are the one thing we can squash, suck, and starve into something palatable, but our truest selves are an entirely different beast. No matter how little we eat or how much we exercise, the sinister knowledge that who you really are constantly bubbles below the surface is debilitating. For a long time, maintaining a straight person became my new obsession and survival tactic. I gained weight, but the shame of this new realization made me too distracted to notice.

          When I finally came out in my senior year of high school, I thought I had left all of that shame behind. I was out and proud and completely in control. Until I started college. During my freshman year of college I was balancing severe anxiety and depression along with my first real, albeit co-dependent, relationship. This was the year that my relationship with food swung to the complete opposite extreme.

          Everyday, my roommate and I took hits out of our bong, admiring the swirling fumes that filled our dorm room. I would take enough bong rips to ensure that the room was spinning, and then eat until the floor settled. This often meant eating to the point where I was physically ill and bloated beyond movement. I was ostensibly in total control of my life for the first time, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

          During my sophomore year, my romantic relationship hit a fever pitch of emotional abuse. I noticed my food intake rising, but it was the only thing that cushioned the verbal blows. If I didn’t have a safety supply of weed and food on-hand at all times, I felt uneasy.

          “Do you really need that second piece of pie?” my mom asked at Thanksgiving that year. I was immediately transported back to my 10 year old self. I waited until she went to bed that night to eat it like a guilt-ridden raccoon.

          My freshman 15 spawned the less popular sequel, the sophomore 30; I was the heaviest I’ve ever been. As my relationship fell apart at the end of my sophomore year, I decided to prioritize my health for the first time in years. But what was ​health​? I exercised and ate well, but I noticed I reverted to some of my eating disorder habits; black iced coffees were now a majority of my meals. Scarcity was the name of the game.

          After a few months of these starvation tactics, I lost the weight, but I still hadn’t mastered moderation as a virtue. I just vacillated between extreme dieter and binge-eater with each mood swing. The behavioral cycle eventually became obvious to me: eat obsessively when feeling out of control, and then starve yourself until you’ve “earned” another binge.

          No time was this pattern more apparent to me than the start of quarantine. I would exercise everyday and eat occasional snacks for nourishment, then chug bottles of wine and eat chips and cheese until I passed out. In the morning, my stomach sloshed back and forth with wine bloat, and my head pounded from a severe hangover.

          I was commending myself for losing weight over the past year, but was I really any healthier? By the time I emptied an Advil bottle because of my countless wine-induced hangovers, I realized I needed a change. I limited my wine intake and replaced it with coffee. I stopped forcing myself to do Instagram workouts I found on bodybuilders' pages and went for a long walk instead. And I ate dessert when I felt like it.

          This isn’t to say that my relationship with food and substances in general isn’t still tumultuous; my neuroses surrounding these things still lingers in my mind. When I pass a mirror, I still have to fight the urge to grab onto the accumulations of skin that line my dwindling frame or admonish the growing presence of my overstuffed belly. But I’m trying to be comfortable with where I’m at and what I can control.

          Scarcity and abundance exist on a spectrum, and my challenge in life has been finding the middle ground. I’m constantly running back and forth across this tightrope as I navigate life’s various crises, without ever giving myself the chance to walk it. As someone who has spent my entire life trying to be scarce, I have a new goal. I don’t want abundance in my life; I want to be abundant.