Growing up in North Dakota in an environment abundant with oceans of wheat, vast plains, rolling hills, and wonderful people, it's hard to believe that such a tumultuous journey could lie ahead in a young man's life.
To each outcast, in every sense possible, this piece is for you.
In a quiet community of roughly 1,000 residents, I lived a fairly "normal" existence. Worshiping in my hometown church, participating in community events, and riding my bike everywhere until dusk was part of everyday life. But dark clouds gathered in the distance of my sky, and I had no idea a "perfect storm" would soon begin my Stepford-like existence.
For the first 16 years of my life, I was exposed to emotional trauma at home and bullying and teasing in school, and I became very good at trying to make everyone happy. I wore many hats when tackling my ever-changing surroundings. My mother always instilled in me that there was nothing I couldn't do. I was always encouraged. Sure, my parents pushed for solid academics, but like all parents, they wanted me to succeed. I embraced being respectful to everyone I was surrounded by and used humor to attract attention in an attempt to separate myself from my insecurities.
I played every sport possible and was even named "Senior Athlete of the Year." However, this "jock" was nervous, hated his looks, and was forced into internal seclusion despite his outward demeanor. I never realized I was struggling. Everything I was feeling, good, bad, or otherwise, was simply pushed down and nearly unnoticeable.
Fortunately, I was introduced to faith, true faith, during my teen years and embraced all it had to offer. The Lord took my heart at the age of 18 and never let it go. I'll never blame my faith for obstacles I've endured. In fact, it's what keeps me going through the most difficult of times.
Staring at myself in a mirror, I internalized my shame, guilt, and insecurities. I believed my appearance defined my existence. The perfect grades, the perfect body, and appearing flawless would somehow make me complete. I've learned, though, that we aren't mean to be "perfect"; we're meant to be whole.
College is everyone's opportunity to be free, thrive on their own, and separate from their roots, right? Well, with no idea of where life would take me, I spiraled into an addiction to exercise, paired with anorexia -- aka "eating disorder not otherwise specified," or EDNOS.
Yes. I'm a guy with an eating disorder, a jock, a Christian... and gay. One of the major contributors to my illness was the internal fight where faith was my guide and being gay was incredibly wrong. However, I could never simply throw it away and believe that's why I've struggled for so long.
In an appearance on Dr. Phil in 2009, I sought help and endured six months of residential treatment to begin my recovery. I addressed emotional trauma, my parents' divorce, perfectionism, self-hate, bullying, and family alcoholism. However, throughout that time, and even the year after, I never addressed the internalized homophobia that manifested out of my desire to please God. Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders aren't about looking good. Through extreme exercise and trying to control what I could, the physical, I nearly killed myself, twice, by pushing my body to the brink, enduring self-punishment and starvation.
I've drawn my own conclusions about the responses I'll receive concerning my sexuality: avoidance, hatred, acknowledgment, and pity. Just FYI, I'll take any of those responses but pity. It's taken so long to be where I am and to find my voice, so I'll never regret the journey here.
Telling a few loved ones that I'm gay has been interesting, but most people who know me are learning this for the first time as they read this piece. Aug. 31, 2010 was a first step. On that day I received the craziest response: acceptance. That's the response I'd feared. Odd, right? Even more terrifying, though, was that that person had "wondered" about my sexuality for some time.
I thought, "Had all my personal hell and pain in silence been for nothing?" I mean, my entire belief system wanted rejection and ostracism; it's what I deserved for being "wrong." After all, I fought for 22 years by myself and tried two years of traditional and Christian counseling to change. If the Lord didn't love me, who would?
You see, I knew I was "different" by age 5. In that small community, I remember leaving the yard against my mother's instructions, stopping next to a fire hydrant about a block from home, looking up at the sky, talking to God, and asking Him for a boyfriend. I look back with two contrasting views: first, what an incredibly pure and even "cute" third-person memory of a boy praying to God innocently, but second, this may have been the beginning of the shame I've always carried.
On my knees I cried and prayed for God to take it away, to take me away. I even prayed for a sign that would tell me that this was what I'd have to carry by age 16. Needless to say, that age came and went.
The movie Prayers for Bobby really hit home. Because of my incredible faith and hope for acceptance, I imagined the mother and son as a single unit, fighting for what was "right." Growing up with direct and indirect messages that you're part of the moral decline of society is rough. I'll never forget being told that God hates me or that I should be isolated on an island.
Self-hatred is nothing but a disease. Even if a small amount thrives within, life doesn't have to throw much our way to bring down all the good for which we've worked so hard.
My biggest challenge now lies in societal assumptions. I'm not a label or stereotype, and I refuse to be generalized. I'm still that respectful young man from home, not because I'm gay, but because I'm me. I don't emulate many of the caricatures of LGBT individuals in the media. And, yes, I'm still Christian. It's not internalized heterosexism when I say that my sexuality doesn't define me any more than my eating disorder does. As a culture, we need to move beyond limiting beliefs and one-dimensional labels that take away from the amazing individuals we actually are.
In my fight to end eating disorders, I've spoken to thousands through advocacy with the National Eating Disorders Association, NORMAL in Schools, Inc., the National Association of Males with Eating Disorders, MentorConnect, PBS' This Emotional Life, and those working legislatively to ensure a healthy environment for all. But before today, I never mentioned my sexuality. I've always thought that people, specifically men, have enough stigma when it comes to eating disorders. From being told it's a "woman's-only issue" to being called "weak," stigma prevents too many from seeking the help they deserve. Why feed into the erroneous belief that everyone with an eating disorder is gay? Not all people who have eating disorders are gay; that fact should be pointed out. However, a large portion of the LGBT community is plagued by this illness, stemming from non-acceptance, self-hate, and feelings of unworthiness that must be addressed before one more person is lost. I won't participate in the social structure that denies anyone's opportunity to survive.
To those individuals in my past who've thrown at me the words "p*ssy," "f*ggot," or anything of the like, yes, I remember your names, faces, and words, but I have to ask, "Are you happy now?" You may have been correct in your assumptions concerning my sexuality, but you were very wrong in estimating my resilience in recovery and my perseverance to eventually stand on my own.
I've had many mentors during the course of my life, and I pray that I don't lose their respect. I'm the same individual I was 10 seconds before they clicked this link. That said, if they turn away, it will be my turn to take their place and become another's ally.
I now embrace everything that's come to pass. I'm here for a reason. A heart attack and organ failure resulting from an eating disorder, partly fueled by internalized homophobia, nearly killed me, twice. Being alive is God's way of saying He isn't finished with me yet. I want to help find the gray in a society where black and white dominate. Life isn't black and white, and the experiences we endure help shape who we become. Fear is a major obstacle, and there's advantage in being confident enough in your own opinions to educate yourself without abandoning what you deeply believe.
It's been said that man's greatest moment in life is when he finds out who he truly is. Well, I'll admit that I'm still searching. Perhaps not knowing is the greatest part? Rosie O'Donnell said she never knew how liberating being open is. Well, here's to you, kiddo.
My hope is that society can look at the real me. Don't assume a label or jump to the physical. Rather, remember that I've done something. I dedicated my existence to serving others, helping youth, using my past to improve others' future. I want my parents to know that they did well, and I want my family to believe that they helped this man survive.
I want to write a book, become an ambassador and a motivational speaker, and make certain everyone knows there's always hope. I want to change the world.
My struggle has been difficult but worth it. I've believe there's something powerful about saying, "I finally shared my secret. It was no longer mine to keep." I'd encourage everyone to discover what it truly means to feel worth it -- just as you are.