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Wickenburg, Arizona was a town so small and desolate that one morning just past 5 AM, as I sat on the curb smoking a cigarette, ,an actual, honest-to-God tumbleweed rolled past my feet.
It was a town so small and desolate that when Christine, a compulsive exerciser with oily hair and what I assume was undiagnosed borderline personality disorder, locked herself in her room and began self-mutilating, two cop cars, two ambulances and a fire truck filled the parking lot in a parade of shrieking sirens and honked horns.
“Overkill,” we all said to each other, considering the rescue of an adolescent cutter the psychiatric equivalent of pulling a cat out of a tree, but it didn’t feel superfluous after Christine had been sedated and stretchered out -- it just felt sad, and strange, and delirious.
I had come to Wickenburg in August, just before my 19th birthday, to go through treatment at the unfortunately titled Rosewood Ranch for Women, a nationally renowned eating disorder rehab.
When I called the intake specialist to say whatever I said, probably a gurgle to the effect of “Help I’m bulimic I can’t stop and I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” the man on the other end (who had a soothing baritone and who, in my emotionally fragile state, I convinced myself that I would probably marry someday) told me that indeed, they treated men, but it wasn’t until I arrived there that I discovered that I was the first man to ever go through the program at Rosewood.
They put me up in a separate room, with no roommate like the other women in the program had, and I was grateful for the en-suite bathroom, with nobody snoring next to me or waking me up in the middle of the night to complain about detox pangs (as had happened at the other rehabs I had been through for a battery of mental health issues that had plagued me since early adolescence).
The year before that, when I was 18, I had pulled together nearly a year of tenuous sobriety in 12-step programs for chemical dependence, only to find myself binging and purging and restricting with such severity that I had to return to rehab.
I was humiliated to be returning to treatment with almost a year of hard-earned sobriety under my belt, horrified that something as seemingly innocuous as food had evolved into such a snarl of chaos and compulsion.
Even if drug addiction carried a certain stigma, it was also fairly common; among the rarefied circles in which I’d grown up in Manhattan (as an upwardly aspirational have-not who among the super-rich, I should say), going to rehab was as predictable an adolescent rite of passage as a bar mitzvah.
But the shame that I associated with my abnormal relationship with food, and with my body, was deeply embedded; drugs were addictive, whereas there should be no inherent abuse potential in food; anyone, I reasoned, could develop a drug addiction, but it took a certain type of profoundly damaged, dysfunctional personality to develop an addiction to food, or stranger yet, starvation.
The ugly emergence of my eating disorder seemed a testament to the fact that sobriety didn’t work, that I was so clearly damaged beyond repair that even the hard work I had undergone to rebuild my life without drugs and alcohol could be so easily undone by something as inexplicably cunning as food.
But, even if it sounds trite to lambaste “the media,” that shadowy, amoebic catch-all for publicly visible social ills, for contributing to my sickness, still, it is true that I was awash with images that tormented me -- in particular, the hegemonic images of beauty ubiquitous in the relentlessly judgmental and thin-promoting gay community, where I had felt ostracized for being fat early in adolescence and later, after a lot of Adderall and hours clocked at the gym, prized for my thinness.
(The time when I was 17 and a handsome businessman at a bar asked me whether I was a model was my crowning accomplishment as a human being; regardless of any other accolades I had mounted in my academic career or personal life, nothing could ever matter more than that.)
I longed for a rippling abdomen, a perfectly defined chest, slender yet muscular calves like the men in fashion magazines and on runway shows. Nothing could top these pursuits in importance, and I would lose myself in the gym, dreaming of perfection, denying any morsel of food -- food, which I knew was the enemy.
It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be difficult to find treatment for an eating disorder as a man -- after my extensive experience going to rehab, I had assumed, foolishly, that it would be as easy as all the other issues I had been treated for with varying degrees of success, especially given that 30% of patients with anorexia or bulimia are male, and gay men are three times more likely to have eating disorders than straight men.
(Accordingly, I have something of a chip on my shoulder about the frequent categorization of eating disorders as a “women’s issue”; the paucity of men who are willing to speak or write openly about their experiences with disordered eating, I think, maintains the stigma surrounding the issue, and perpetuates a code of silence among men who suffer from eating disorders.)
The therapist I was seeing in southern California, where I was living at that time, gave me the names of some facilities, but they only treated women; I did research online and only found one program that had a special eating disorders track for men, at a psychiatric hospital in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. They had a six-month waiting list.
With a growing sense of dread, I began calling facilities I found online, asking if they treated male patients. It was there that I found Rosewood, and the nice man on the other end of the telephone whose reassuring voice told me that help was available, that I wouldn’t have to be in pain anymore.
I fell in quickly with the women at Rosewood, who welcomed me as one of their own -- because I was, I realized, just like them, gender be damned -- but the moment I remember with the most dazzling clarity was that night when they came to took Christine away, the mix of panicked dismay and delirious, groupthink excitement in the air as we crowded in the parking lot, watching the scene unfold.
While the police and firefighters and emergency medical technicians were scrambling around trying to get the knife (or whatever) out of poor Christine’s hands, the girls and I climbed up into the fire truck and took photos, in which we are all smiling and laughing just like normal, sane people -- people who didn’t chew paper or shoplift laxatives, who didn’t need feeding tubes or “bathroom buddies” -- and except for the odd clavicle jutting geometrically from a bony chest or the sinuous outline of muscle poking from a sleeve, nobody would ever know that any of us were sick.
(In the picture I still have from that night, I can’t help but marvel at how disproportionately large my head looks; even though I was far from thin, binging and purging has a way of producing a weird bobble-headed look, making the bulimic look like a walking caricature.)
I felt alive that night, as if I was finally understood by people who were as broken as I was, who understood that every meal was a battle in an interminable war, who knew the panic of standing in a supermarket, feeling utterly lost, instinctively sensing that food itself is poison, that to deny myself it meant control and freedom and also, counterintuitively, death.
I celebrated my 19th birthday at Rosewood, and when they brought out cupcakes for the evening’s celebratory “Dessert Challenge” (the challenge was to finish the dessert), one girl burst into tears. The unfinished cupcakes were stored in a cabinet secured by a sturdy padlock, collecting dust, I imagined, in perpetuity.
I had imagined that all of the women at Rosewood would be skinny, but to my surprise, there was more diversity in their bodies than I could have predicted. Some of the girls were wasted, of course, with the pallid, brittle frailty of the terminally ill, but others looked quite robust.
It’s a source of much anxiety for me that people, even mental health practitioners, tend to lump patients with disordered eating under one umbrella, even though anorexics and bulimics couldn’t be more different.
Whereas anorexics tend to be neurotic, tightly wound and perfectionistic, bulimics are impulsive, gregarious, and spontaneous; and while the bodies of anorexics are externally enervated -- that is, they look like people with eating disorders -- the bodies of bulimics deteriorate from the inside out, so bulimics never get as skinny as they want to be.
Yet as their bodies are deprived of nutrition, their organs begin to shut down, until one day they simply drop dead from organ failure. (I was told that this happened to a patient who died en route to Rosewood, which made my stomach drop in its shocking, surreal gravity.)
This, to me, seemed like the cruelest irony of all: to die of malnutrition while still overweight. (But this, too, is a product of my eating disorder -- it is funny, almost, that to me, more unfortunate than being dead would be being fat and dead.)
A therapist once told me that the hardest sickness to treat is the sickness that masquerades as health, and I would think of this as we smoked cigarettes in the parking lot after group, the big girls who wore too much makeup and the skinny girls who didn’t bother wearing any and me, all of us dying, some of us surviving.
It has been years now since I was at Rosewood and I have not made peace with my body, which remains utterly unlike what I imagine it should be; to me, it is still a tomb, a prison, a foe that I fight with daily, even if I now know to nourish it adequately.
But if I go to Rosewood’s website now, they have changed the name from “Rosewood Ranch for Women” to “Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorder Treatment,” and they make a point of proclaiming that they treat both men and women.
I am grateful that I was the first man to pass through the program, even if someone was bound to be the first eventually, grateful that I have carved out a place in history as a pioneer who was able to join that group of strong, scared, powerful women and lay bare my pain, too.
Several of the women I met at Rosewood remain my dearest friends, the women who have seen me at my darkest and most vulnerable, the women who know me best. And even if they don’t know what it’s like to walk into a gay bar and feel the eyes of a thousand snide, imperious queens evaluating my build for its many imperfections, that doesn’t matter -- our sickness is one and the same.