In December, 2013, I returned home for Christmas after being unable to do so the year before. I left behind the grey, slightly cool climes of Vancouver and flew straight into the frozen hell of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. At least it was sunny.
This was the first Christmas my partner, Shannon, spent with my family, and it was a really wonderful time. We saw friends and family, played games, and chatted for hours. We even went for a bit of a drive around the city and I showed her a few places that held memories for me. Some good, some bad.
And, somewhat related, we ended up going through the stacks of photos that my mom and dad have kept over the years. Me as a baby. Me as a kid. Me as a fat kid in junior high. Me as a fat kid in high school.
Then I saw them. Three pictures from a year in my life when I lived in Calgary.
I was 19. And I was anorexic.
Not a lot of people talk about male anorexia or male body image, it’s not something, as a man, you want to share because of the shame you inwardly feel about it. And, to be fair, I haven’t talked that much about it to many people but I have thought about it in the years since. Quite a lot.
The fact that I was anorexic probably comes as a shock to a lot of people. I’m a big guy. Always somewhere between ‘could shed a few pounds’ and ‘does he breathe cheeseburgers?’. A few years ago I managed to get really fit and lose 60 pounds. I felt great. I swore I’d never go back to the way I was. And, here I am, two years later, in the exact place I was before. A place where my clothes feel like they crawl on my skin, where I never feel comfortable with myself no matter what I’m wearing.
I suppose the important thing is that, as of this moment, I’m taking steps to change. The problem is, I can change my weight, but I still haven’t really dealt with the greater issue at hand.
All of these feelings are rooted deep and bring me to 1998 when I slowly faded away and didn’t even notice.
I can’t even tell you how it started. I never had a moment where I looked in the mirror and decided that I had to be skinny. There wasn’t this sudden switch from a regular diet to eating nothing at all. It just sort of… happened.
I’ve tried to remember a lot of the details but, to be honest, I don’t have a very solid memory of that year. This is the first time I’ve ever written anything about it, so maybe more will surface. Bear with me.
I can give some context. I was working as a 7-11 cashier on a nightshift in one of the sketchiest neighborhoods in Calgary. I worked as much as I possibly could, even holidays. I didn’t go home to visit my family for over a year, and probably only once or twice in two years. I was struggling with religion, having grown up in a Christian family and in a town built around a Bible school. It was my first foray into the real world and I was utterly unprepared for it.
I was also seeing someone long distance from Australia and because I was young, didn’t realize how poisonous the relationship was. It was a melting pot of shit. Essentially, I lacked any sense of control in my life.
I suspect this was the seed. A feeling of drowning in chaos and hating how I looked.
Let’s talk about that.
It’s strange. I was always a skinny kid growing up. I lived on a farm, so I was always outside riding my bike or climbing on bales of hay. In the summer I’d be outside from early morning until the sun set. I was very active. Then, in grade 5, we moved to the aforementioned town so my dad could study theology. It was also the year I discovered video games. Now, I’m not going to blame Nintendo for being a fatty, but my time outdoors dropped significantly. It was the beginning of a long descent into gaining weight, puberty and extreme self-consciousness.
I don’t think I was fully aware of my weight or what it meant. The thing was, I was actually a popular kid growing up so I wasn’t ever the brunt of jokes or cruelty. But, there’s a very clear memory for me where that all changed.
Grade six. The soccer field beside the school. I could see two ‘friends’ pointing at me and laughing and I couldn’t figure out what the hell they were going on about. It kept on all day until I finally pulled one of them aside and asked what it was all about. The friend confided in me that it wasn’t his joke, that he was just playing along. That it wasn’t him who said I looked like John Candy.
Then it hit me.
“I’m fat and everyone knows.”
That’s the moment when I began to hate my body and, despite ups and downs, it’s NEVER gone away. It fundamentally changed how I engaged the world around me. I began to tease others to turn the attention away from me. I became cruel and cynical as a means to protect myself. I cracked jokes all the time to distract people, telling myself that if I could make them laugh then I’d be worth something.
I still do this.
It haunted me all through high school and, despite being outwardly happy and social, I was dying inside. So, I found a way to cope. Or, a few ways. The first was food. The worst possible solution to feeling horrible about my weight was taking something directly responsible for it and stuffing it in my face. The other was escapism through roleplaying games. But, you know what, this I will defend until my dying breath. It was the one good thing I took away from all of this that has taught me to be creative on the fly, to create real characters and tell interesting stories. So, fat kids, play RPG’s. You might become a writer while dealing with insecurities.
When I left home, I did so with no sure footing in who I was. I had ideas of who I was, but it was all fabricated, coping mechanisms that made a framework of Kurtis, but nothing real. So when I came crashing into the real world, I had nothing to ground me. I couldn’t experience life with a set of parameters that made those moments manageable. I had no control of what was happening.
And still, every day when I saw myself in the mirror, I hated that fucking face. That shitty body. That worthless, no good, rotten composition of flesh that somehow passed for a human. Something no one could ever see past because I sure as hell couldn’t.
Somewhere along the way, as I looked in the mirror and saw the exact same fat body, the rolls and the stretch marks, what I perceived to be true and what actually was true became two completely different things. I’d been losing weight at an alarming rate.
I remember numerous occasions where people would comment on how skinny I was and I would immediately be offended because I thought they were insulting me because I was overweight. I remember numerous times rejecting offers of picking up groceries with my roommates because I just wasn’t hungry, even though my shelves never had any food on them. In all this, I never realized I was sick.
I’m still not even sure how I survived, to be honest. I don’t remember buying groceries for at least a year. I used to steal burgers from work every few days and claim them as damaged on the ordering sheet. And I smoked. A lot. That is one thing I do remember. Every time I had a hunger craving I would light a cigarette. I think at one point I was smoking almost two packs a day. It’s a wonder I’m still alive.
I can’t imagine how my parents felt when they came to visit me before I headed off to Australia for a second time to spend time with my girlfriend. (who later became my wife, who later became my ex-wife, but that’s for another time) I have talked to my parents about that visit a few times over the years and mom has said that she thought I was a hard drug addict.
To be fair, all the signs were there. My skin had turned pale grey, my hair was falling out and my frame, normally a size Large, was now swimming in size small. It must’ve been difficult for them to send me off, not having seen me for a year, seeing their son wasting away and probably dying.
And I still had no clue.
What changed? How did I gain the weight back and find health again?
I suppose the honest answer is that I didn’t.
Sure, I gained weight back. I ate normal. I quit smoking. But that old demon has never died and I’ve carried it ever since. It just manifests in different ways, and while I don’t care to go into all those details, the one that is constant is how much I dislike my physical self.
I’m writing all this because I think it’s important for the world to know that men struggle with this. It’s okay for men to talk about this and admit to it. This isn’t a gender based issue, as much as the media or the world would have you believe it is. You aren’t a freak if you hate the skin you’re in. It just means that there’s some patterns that have developed and that you can actually overcome them.
And while I haven’t, I’m working on it. Going to the gym now to gain control of my weight is fine and definitely important. It’s only a small part of what the real problem is. Because even when I lost all that weight, I still felt inadequate. I felt like I deserved misery. And, eventually, those feelings grew and I couldn’t outrun them.
I’m also writing this as a soon to be father and the terror I feel for that child if they struggle like I did. That I want to be an open book, so that if this ever happens they know I understand. That I’ve been through this and I know how much it hurts and how hope is so easily lost. I don’t want them to be in the dark like I have been for so long.
Because you don’t have to be in the dark. You don’t have to suffer this alone.
You are loved.