Jon Derek Croteau, Ed.D., is a senior partner at Witt/Kieffer, author of books on higher education leadership, and an adjunct professor. He has focused much of his life advocating for access to higher education and LGBT youth and young adults. His memoir, My Thinning Years: Starving the Gay Within, will be published by Hazelden Publishing in August 2014.
When my mother died suddenly in 2009, I found myself longing to return to an old, forbidden love. It had been years since I'd gone there -- a good seven or eight. But now without Mom -- my greatest champion and ally, who'd stuck by my side even when my father cruelly rejected me for being gay -- I felt un-moored, completely lost really, and once again craved the strange but familiar comfort of my old, destructive flame.
I had no business going back to it; I now had the real love of a good man, my husband, Justin, whom I'd married two years prior. I knew this wasn't fair to either of us, but I couldn't stop myself.
It wasn't long before Justin noticed the changes in me. I was isolating myself. Running again. Eating less, sometimes nothing at all. Dropping five pounds. Then ten. Then fifteen.
"I know what you're doing," he finally said to me one day. We were sitting at the kitchen counter in our Boston home, as I made yet another excuse about why I didn't want breakfast. "I see where you're heading, and you need to stop now."
"I'm grieving, Justin," I snapped, rolling my eyes like the teenager I was when the old love affair first began.
"No, you're starving yourself," he replied. "And I'm not going to let you do that again."
He took me in his arms, and I bristled. The pain of losing my mother reminded me of how deeply afraid I had been of being so close to someone, and why. It reminded me that real people can desert you, leave you in their absence. Justin kept holding me, though, until I finally warmed and relaxed into him. Oh, right -- here was my real love.
My old love had been anorexia. Together with excessive, punitive jogging for hours around my hometown of Andover, Massachusetts, it had been my great obsession since the fall of 1994, when I was 19 years-old. Shrinking myself -- depriving myself of food and burning the ever-diminishing fat on my body -- was all I cared about then. I was devoted to it the way my friends were devoted to their boyfriends and girlfriends; I planned my life around it, thought about it constantly, and put it above everyone and everything, adhering to my carefully devised, strict regimen at all costs. We even had dates -- running dates, early morning dates, evening dates, sometimes both, every single day. We spent weekends together in the hot summer, punishing noonday sun.
I didn't realize it then, but I was taken; I chose anorexia as my love so that no one else could really love me. More specifically, no men could. While my friends were experimenting with sex and drugs and alcohol, I was discovering new ways to reduce fat from my diet, and burn what little I did consume. It not only kept me thin, it kept me chaste, pure. It made me feel safe and secure like nothing else could.
Earlier that fall, I'd spent three days in college before dropping out. It took three days for me to realize there was no way I was going to be able to hide being gay. Three days before the fear of being found out caused me to drop the idea altogether. The effeminate way I moved and spoke -- characteristics for which my father, an athletic coach, had scolded and even slapped my limp wrist for years -- was becoming increasingly transparent.
In hindsight, I suspect that going home to him was a way not to forget how to be straight. His criticism -- and the starving, the running -- would keep whatever this thing I was in check.
The same went for sex. If I kissed or touched a girl, I'd find out that I lacked the desire for them; the truth would emerge, and there would be no way to turn back. I took Sophia to prom the year before like I was supposed to, but fell for my best friend Chad instead. I would pray to God every night for Him to forgive my un-Catholic thoughts about Chad.
Repressed, the thoughts intensified, driving me mad. I was longing for someone I couldn't have, and wanted someone I'd been taught that I shouldn't. Unable to change, no matter what I tried, I wanted to evaporate, disappear, melt away. The thoughts -- like the fat -- had to go.
I avoided the stares in town -- Why did one of our top students quit college? -- and got a job at the local bank. Most of the women I worked with brought salad for lunch and talked constantly about their weight. I soon mimicked them, replacing the mac 'n cheese and Philly cheese steaks my mother packed for me with a few leaves of Romaine, a couple slices of tomato, a cup of fat-free soup. And I ran. I ran for every last thing that had to go.
I started to feel good, accomplished. My runs got longer and longer; soon I was at 120 minutes a day. "Keep running, you Sally!" That was the mantra I'd learned from my father on the sports fields. I'd say it over and over -- an engine keeping me going -- and envision myself getting thinner and thinner. My runner's high, a euphoria that was probably heightened by my starvation, was intoxicating. It felt more like love than anything I had ever known.
I felt strong enough by next fall to re-enroll in college -- this time at Emerson College and, against my father's wishes, in the "sissy" departments of musical theater and poetry. I started to make space for other people and things. I went out on a date with a guy, and kissed another one -- though I kept peering over his shoulder, convinced my father would barge in any moment and scold me.
I would eat and drink on my dates. But the morning after, the shame and guilt were unbearable. I would obsess over how many grams of fat I'd let pass through my lips. To compensate, I'd run longer and harder, and skip eating for the following two days. I discovered laxatives, and began to depend on them to purge. Then I turned to fat burners, swallowing them by the fistfuls. I wound up urinating blood.
The shame I associated with intimacy prompted me to stave it off, too. I'd get involved with a guy, but as soon as we started to get close, I'd reject him -- a sort of sexual anorexia. After each break-up, I would return to starvation and running to help me forget. To replace the possibility of real love with an affair as trustworthy and familiar as I'd ever known.
The tug of war between anorexia and real love raged on inside me for years. Sometimes love would prevail, like during my semester abroad in Holland, when I divorced myself from anorexia long enough to outgrow the size 28 corduroys I'd arrived with. But I returned to the U.S. obsessing about my waist size once more.
I went to Northwestern for grad school, where, again, I chose starving and running over having a boyfriend. I ran the 1999 Chicago Marathon. It helped me stay dedicated to eating less and running more. Suffice it to say, I did not load up on carbs.
With each passing year, I punished myself for each sexual indulgence by trying to starve the gayness out of me, and maybe even slowly kill myself. I'd tried a couple therapists before, but they always wanted to focus on the eating disorder, and make the running stop. These were my life rafts, and I'd be damned if I had to go through life without them. Therapy never lasted long.
But in Chicago, I met Dr. Robert. He didn't want to talk about anorexia or obsessive exercise. He went to work on my internalized homophobia instead. He challenged me, impressed upon me that I could be both a good person, and gay. It went completely against everything my father had ever taught me. It was hard to digest. But in some time-released way, later it clicked.
For the next several years, I found balance, gained weight, and enjoyed life. I fell for a man named Stephen. I drove back to Andover to tell my parents I had a steady boyfriend. My mom was happy for me; my father chased me out of the house. I found that when I had the courage to love and be loved by another man, against my father's regime, my obsession with running and starving myself lessened.
A psychology professor at Emerson once told me that consistent love could cure most things. And that's what I've found with Justin. When I met him, there was a warmth and kindness in his face that I knew could sustain me. After buying our first home together in Pittsburgh, I filled out a bit. We cooked meals, dined out, and spent holidays together, surrounded by friends and family who embraced us. We traveled and tried new foods. I let Justin's consistent love fill me up. It made, and continues to make, me feel that I deserve the nourishment of food, and the everyday pleasures that life with him has to offer.
Justin vanquished my heart from the bottomless pits of anorexia and endless running. After my mother died, they tried to win me back. But Justin's love prevailed. My weight now fluctuates within a few pounds. There's a little more of me to love. And it's all Justin's.