THE OTHER DAY I was going through old Facebook photos. As I poured through hundreds of pictures of me dancing in bars, on vacation, wearing lots of scarves (I realized I am a big scarf person) and cringing at snapshots that should have never been taken, I came across a photo that I had forgotten about. It was taken in the spring of 2008, right before I graduated high school. And in the photo, I am in my theater classroom. Like many young gay men, I was a theater person. Most of us are not actually all that good at theater, but in high school theater kids are some of the most accepting bunch, especially if you are creative. So that’s where we hide.
Anyway, the photo was taken by one of my best friends at the time, who was the Grace to my Will in those days. I am holding a certificate that states I had just won “Best Playwright” in our theater department for an original short play I wrote. It was called “When a Bulimic Goes on a Diet.”
The play was about a young girl who begins to diet in high school. However, when her mother finds out, she thinks that the dieting is really an eating disorder and immediately sends her to an outpatient program at the local hospital. On the first day of the program, she sits in the waiting room and meets a motley crew of people who all have different forms of eating disorders. For example, one character carries a trash can around at all times so that he can induce vomiting anytime he thinks he’s absorbed a calorie. He is bulimic.
Throughout the play, all the characters compete over who has the most severe or debilitating eating disorder. During her afternoon with the other patients, she begins to develop bulimia herself and the play ends with her vomiting while all the other characters celebrate.
It’s a dark comedy.
The play was performed at my school after I won the award and received much praise. Not because it was smart, or daring, but because a high school boy wrote about bulimia and that was fascinating to everyone, because high school boys don’t have bulimia (Well, that’s what my teacher said).
The first time I made myself throw up was at the age of fourteen.
It was a Sunday night and my father, stepmother, and dog were all in the living room watching television. I sat in my room with a carton of sugar-free chocolate ice cream and a spoon, shoveling every drip of the quickly melting ice cream down my throat.
It was Spring and the Tennessee humidity pressed onto our bodies even as the A/C worked overtime throughout the house. I was in my room eating, which had become a daily habit over the years, especially after I started dieting around age ten. This particular week I was supposed to be on a quick-fix diet that my stepmother had given me, which she had received from a girlfriend. It looked like this:
1 piece of toast 1 boiled egg
Sugar-free Jell-O packet
1 can of tuna
1⁄4 cup brown rice
Sugar-free Jell-O packet
1⁄4 cup brown rice
1 cup of steamed broccoli
16 oz chicken breast or 6 oz steak
***Only drink water or unsweetened tea or black coffee
This new diet was supposed to help me lose ten pounds in one week. I was on Day Three and starving. I had lost four pounds.
While my family sat in the living room I had scavenged the fridge, looking for something to fill me up quickly. I had recently learned that I loved the feeling of being full more than eating. Eating was actually annoying and took too much time. After a few minutes of staring into both the fridge and freezer at the same time, I settled on the ice cream that my stepmother had bought for herself. It was even low-carb and sugar free. I headed back to my room and began eating.
Once I got about halfway through the gallon, I felt my stomach begin to hurt and decided to take a break. I walked downstairs to the kitchen to put the ice cream away. When I got there my stepmother was standing in the kitchen pouring a drink into a plastic wine glass that she loved using. She had originally bought them to only be used by the pool, but they quickly became useful everywhere: in the living room, on the porch, while doing laundry and even in the car.
“Were you eating that ice cream upstairs?” Before I could answer she grabbed the ice cream from me, inspecting how much I had eaten. “Damn, you’ve eaten about all of it, I see,” she said. My stomach began to hurt more, but this time I think it was a mixture of shame and the aspartame that had filled my system. “Not all of it,” I insisted. “There’s still some left.”
She lit a cigarette and smirked, “Well, I am sure you will finish it off before I even get some.” Stomach pain.
I did have a problem with this — the binge eating. Ever since I was ten I remember trying wacky quick-fix diets. This was in the era when Atkins ruled the world and no one could stop talking about how they quit carbs. I would eventually fail at each of these diets and find myself in the pantry or fridge in the late hours of the night, stealing food to sneak upstairs. I would even hide the evidence in my pillowcases.
I moved slowly out of the kitchen and into the living room to join my father. He was stretched out onto one of the sofas, beerbelly pointing up toward the ceiling like a mound of dirt you’d find on a construction site. He was an ex-football-star-turned-businessman, and his body had gotten fatter as his pockets did.
“Guess what your son did?” My stepmother blurted as she passed me to sit back on the couch with my father. I hadn’t figured out where I was going to sit and just stood at the edge of the room staring at the TV as I felt both their eyes now settle on me. “He ate a whole tub of ice cream in his room. Can you believe that?” She laughed.
“No,” I corrected, “Only some of a tub and it was sugar free and low-carb.” For some reason, I thought adding on how “healthy” it was would ease the judgment I saw rise in my father.
“Son,” he shifted in his seat so he could face me in a more direct way, “Why are you eating that shit? That’s for girls. If you want to lose weight, why not just go run or something? Jesus.”
“If you don’t like that belly, then you gotta do something about it. Don’t sit in your room eating ice cream. What the hell does that do?”
I began to look at the floor. Shame overwhelmed me. My dog lay a few feet away and stared at me. I searched her face to see if she understood what everyone was saying. Right as I thought I saw something in her eye she turned over and began licking herself.
“Nothing,” I responded. That was all I could say and do. Nothing.
“If I was you, especially at your age, I would be ashamed of my body, too. I know I am big now but I could lose this if I wanted to real easy. I just don’t need to.”
His words soaked me like spring shower.
After a few moments, I responded, “I don’t feel good. I think I ate too much ice cream. I’m gonna go to bed.” I could feel them both watch me as I walked away.
I remember walking up the stairs to the bathroom that I shared with my sister without really knowing what I was going to do. I remember sitting on my knees, as if I was praying to God. I remember staring into the toilet bowl for many minutes. I remember the full moon pouring in through the window shutters and serving as my only light.
I remember even more sharply how my fingers jammed down the back of my throat — searching desperately for the spot that I had heard about that will make everything you ate, everything you hated, come right back. And I remember that moment when it did all come back and how the ice cream still tasted sweet and like sugar-free chocolate. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment. I remember lying down on the cool tile and smiling while thinking: “That’s it? That’s all I have to do?”
I remember as I lay on the tile, in total bliss, I could faintly hear the television and my father’s laughs. I wondered if my laugh would sound like his one day when I was much older.
I came out when I was sixteen. The first person I came out to was my grandmother.
She called me after school and asked if I wanted to have dinner at her house, she’d even pick me up since I didn’t have a car.
My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a sweet, older black woman. She went to church multiple times a week, made incredible soul food and watched the Lifetime channel non-stop. Her life was simple.
Ever since I was little we had some uncanny bond with one another. There were many Fridays when other kids would rather spend time with friends at sleepovers and I’d ask to stay at her house. I think it represented escape for me, or something.
As I got older I began to slowly dislike going to her house. Not because I had better things to do besides hang out with my grandmother, but because she had only one bathroom and would notice if I disappeared for too long.
On the day I came out, she arrived at my house around 4:00 PM and honked from the driveway, signaling that she was here and I better come outside now. I ran outside and popped into her car, schoolbag in hand.
“Hay, sweetie.” She cooed as she pulled out of the driveway and began making her way down the road that ran parallel to the lake I grew up on.
“Hi, Jean Jean.”
“How was school today? What’d ya learn?” I never knew how to answer this
question. It always seemed too overwhelming. She obviously didn’t want me to truly answer this due to how impossible it would be, so I always gave the same answer: “Stuff.”
We sat in silence for many minutes as her car pushed down the road. As we drove, the sun reflected off the lake and bounced around inside the car. Her gospel music hummed just louder than the motor, and she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. Her nails were a crimson color and she wore three gold rings that looked like painted stripes across her dark, worn skin.
“Baby, you know I love you, right?”
“Of course,” I replied immediately. My stomach began to turn. Whenever someone starts a sentence off like that, it never ends in a place you want it to. “Why would you ask that?” I asked scared for what her response would be.
“Do you throw up after you eat?”
My heart stopped. The light that bounced off the lake and into the car, stopped. All I could feel was the door handle, which I clinched onto as if it were going to float away if I didn’t hold on. “Hold on,” a voice said from the dark places in my mind. I held.
“Baby, just tell me. You’re not in trouble. You know I am always here for you.”
Tears began to pour down my face. My throat closed up. All I could think about was the ice cream from years ago.
“I…do. I do.” Tears poured harder.
Jean Jean began to cry but never took her hands off the steering wheel. The gospel music still played on.
Tell me who can move a mountain/Move out of my way
And when I’m in trouble/Who’s right there to help me pass every test
Tears still poured down my face. My hands shook, “Every time,” I sputtered, “every time I eat.”
God is able/God is able
“Baby, you know I love you, right? Do you need us to get you some help?”
God is able/and He won’t fail
“I don’t think I can be helped, Jean-Jean.”
The car stopped at a stoplight that brought us to Gallatin Road, the main street that ran through town. Her hand reached over and grabbed mine. I stared out the window crying, shaking.
I hadn’t eaten all day, my stomach growled and I felt empty.