I have struggled with food and body image all my life. In fifth grade, I hid underneath a hotel bed for hours to evade being seen in a swimsuit by my own family. Before the largest cross-country meet of my middle school career, I cooked and ate an entire bag of pancake batter — to “fuel my nerves.” By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had been waging a silent war against sporadic “dieting” for years.
Things only worsened in the fall of 2016, when, at age 16, I joined the local swim team. I had been “dieting” for almost a month, eating as little as possible for as long as possible. I may have reveled in the loose-fitting swim trunks for a time, yes, but I soon quit the team after my family could no longer afford to pay the membership fee. Then my dad switched jobs and my brother, the most courageous and inspiring person I know, came out to our Catholic family.
Stress levels were at an all-time high in my household. The last thing I could worry about was food.
Soon after I quit the swim team, my disordered eating peaked. I vividly remember the day I trudged up another daunting flight of stairs at my high school in Great Falls, Montana, feeling only one emotion: pride. For three days and counting, I had somehow managed to subsist on barely eating anything. As a result, my head was clear, I felt thin, and it was all just difficult enough to keep me distracted from my family troubles.
Fast-forward 24 hours later, and I was passed out on the living room floor — while my terrified parents looked on.
The day my family watched me nearly die from low blood sugar was the day I realized my eating habits needed to change. As a 16-year-old teenage boy, however, I was still not prepared to accept a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. But my mother, a registered nurse, somehow managed to strong-arm me to the nearest eating disorder therapist she could find.
It was eventually decided I would take the month of December off from school. I would put all my energy, something in short supply at the time, into intensive outpatient therapy.
Before I could stop it, an outrageous thought passed through my mind ― ‘I would rather die than feel fat.’ It was the first time I recognized the all-consuming power of an eating disorder.
I hated my parents for making me get help. “My counselor talks in riddles,” “The sessions are too long,” and “I do not have anorexia,” were just a few of the excuses I made routinely. It took a long-overdue “a-ha” moment for me to see how they were actually saving my life.
About a month into treatment, as I stood mere feet from the spot where I had passed out in front of them, my parents and I were once again arguing about my treatment plan. Before I could stop it, an outrageous thought passed through my mind ― “I would rather die than feel fat.” In that moment, it finally became clear to me that my parents were right.
Although I had already suffered from anorexia nervosa, the deadliest mental illness in America, for several months, that night was the first time I accepted it. It was the first time I recognized the all-consuming power of an eating disorder. I wasn’t fat, but I was dying.
From that moment on, I vowed to stop fighting my recovery process and eventually came to understand how my eating disorder had developed. My alacrity to transfer the problems of others onto my own shoulders played an unsurprisingly major role in developing anorexia.
If there is one thing I have learned from surviving — and I have been recovered for almost a year — it’s that, just like Oprah says, we all have a responsibility to put ourselves at “the top” of our priority lists. When I recognized that I have a calling, just like everyone else, and that my real job is to honor that, I found my self-worth.
I attribute discovering my calling, and therefore a large part of my recovery process, to one person: Donald Trump. The 2016 presidential election had just unfolded before I finally accepted my anorexia diagnosis, and I needed something to keep my mind occupied for three meals a day. Needless to say, I was riveted by the spectacle of it all. Sitting in front of the newspaper or television with a fork in hand at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I fueled my body and mind. I had a front row seat to history.
I knew then that I wanted to be a journalist. The mental and spiritual freedom I found when that revelation clicked was surreal and sped up my recovery process tenfold. I had something to control: my future.
Despite my temper tantrums, I continued therapy for a year in total with several counselors. The level of unfiltered honesty in those settings was excruciating at times, but talking through my feelings allowed me the luxury of effective and efficient progress. For the first time, I felt like I no longer needed to feel an inordinate amount of pain, hunger or sickness every day to consider myself a hard worker.
In my own state, young men are dying because they are too embarrassed or defiant to seek treatment.
Today, I derive an enormous sense of responsibility from recognizing how fortunate I am because I overcame anorexia nervosa. There are millions of young men across this country who are not so lucky. From the outskirts of Montana, I am doing my part to change that.
I am now a national ambassador for the nation’s largest eating disorder nonprofit, Project HEAL. Not only am I the lone male ambassador, working with 31 women, but I am also the only Project HEAL representative in my entire state. It’s a tough job.
As of 2016, the state of Montana ranked highest in the nation in suicide rates. At the same time, studies show those who suffer from anorexia are 57 percent more likely to die from suicide than their peers. While I enjoy the benefit of hindsight reminding me of the aversion so many young men feel toward therapy, that is not a universal luxury. In my own state, young men are dying because they are too embarrassed or defiant to seek treatment.
I could have been one of those boys.
It was because I accepted my diagnosis that I am alive today, and I am so thankful for that. The most important lesson I can impart unto others as an eating disorder survivor is one of habitual gratitude. Every day I make a conscious effort to stop, look around and count my blessings. Not only do I appreciate my patient and respectful relationship with food, earned from therapeutic retraining, but I also recognize the pricelessness of living a life at all.
It’s my senior year in high school. That means I dwell in an environment where homework, standardized test scores and scholarship applications too often trump the well-being of those around me. Thankfully, I know better. There are far more consequential things in life.
Reducing stigma is one of those things. So is ensuring that boys everywhere know being anorexic is more common than society likes to admit. I’m telling my story for them, because past success is the best predictor of a bright future. I want to motivate, difference-make and inspire. I want others to seek help and come out on the other side ― the way I did.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.