Anyone who has suffered from an eating disorder is probably skilled in the art of hiding it from his or her loved ones and friends. Such deception is an integral part of the disorder, and a part of dealing with the shame of self and shame of being discovered.
I suffered from anorexia and then bulimia for almost 30 years. These are disorders born of fat-shaming at home as a child, and bullying at school by both adults and other kids. I became a heavy child. My thought process would soon allow me to see only a fat, ugly "monster" every time I looked in the mirror, no matter how skinny I would get through extreme eating behaviors. These are the beginnings of Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
I vividly remember the day I decided that I would use food to control my body. I can replay it like a movie in my mind, seeing every detail of her long brown curly hair, the derisive look in her eyes as she shared a laugh with her friend at my expense. I had just moved into my dorm as a freshman at Penn State University. I was gazing out the window and made eye with a pretty girl and her friends. I smiled. She giggled and turned to her two friends. "He's ugly!"
It was like a sonic boom from God. My "grotesqueness" of body shape was confirmed once more. I had to do something. I would begin to starve myself, and about six months later I would add binging and purging to the mix.
As a college student living in a dorm, it can be a challenge to hide an eating disorder. Common bathrooms and the constant stream of students using them turn creating an impression of normalcy into an artform. I hid the behavior from my dorm roommates first, then law school roommates, and eventually from my family when I would go home to visit. Then I hid from my romantic relationships.
The faucets turned up at full blast. The shower running, to hide the wretching sound of the purge. The eating in isolation and lies to cover the weight loss of the anorexic and bulimic starvation. The overtraining, the hundreds of miles run every week as I moved into exercise anorexia. I had a bag full of excuses for all suspicious inquisitors.
In addition to aiding in the deception of normal behavior, excuses were shielded me against the intense shame of being a male with an eating disorder – a condition virtually unheard of in 1980 when I first stuck my fingers down my throat. There was no national discussion at that time. Karen Carpenter – one of the first publicized victims of anorexia, who died in 1983 — was still just a beautiful songstress. Her death started the discussion, but it also helped cement the gender stereotype of eating disorders as something that only happened to women.
In reality eating disorders do not discriminate by gender or body type. Up to 20% of eating disorders sufferers are men. Men may be even more inclined to hide the behavior than women because of the gender stigma attached. Men are supposed to be strong. Any talk about "feeling fat" or binging and purging is deemed a sign of weakness. Better to just shut up and internalize it. That's what I did for much of my life until I finally came out with my story in 2008.
The steps I took to hide my eating disorder, however, are not unique. What do you do as a parent, family member or friend when you think someone you care about may be engaging in extreme eating behaviors? What are the signs? Here are a few: Trips to the bathroom right after meals as a regular occurrence. Bruised and scraped knuckles from sticking the fingers down the throat to purge. Evidence of purging not cleaned up in the bathroom. Secretive eating. These are all behaviors that may signal an eating disorder, and I engaged in them all.
If someone had picked up on these clues when I was a teen would it have made a difference? There are no guarantees and there is no magic fairy dust for eating disorder recovery. Picking up on these clues does, however, allow you to seek advice, talk to treatment providers and seek out knowledge. At least that provides the frame work for recovery if the eating disorder sufferer is ready to take that step. Only he or she can make that decision. As a loved one of someone with an eating disorder, you must be understanding; patience is a virtue. There are countless treatment and discussion options available today that were nonexistent when I became bulimic. If you think there is a problem, embrace it and deal with it by becoming knowledgeable about it. There is no shame. There is only hope and recovery.