Friday, May 31, 2019

TREATMENT WITH ASTERISKS

Free again! I was discharged from hospital yesterday after spending six weeks in a treatment program for people with eating disorders. It’s hard to know if it made a difference. Already this morning I’m restricting food again and obsessing over what my exercise will be. The habits of the disorder are so entrenched that it almost seems foolish to think a month and a half of interruption can have substantial impact. There’s deeper work to be done.

Can’t you just eat more?” I’ve had that question posed by my mother and by my best friend.

Others have said, “But you always eat when we go out.” True. The eating disorder likes to be secretive. It’s my own thing. I do it when no one else is around. It’s why I turn down a lot of dinners. (Being vegetarian makes for a surface excuse, no questions asked. I don’t know if it was just a coincidence, but at one point during my hospitalization, six out of seven patients on the unit were vegan or vegetarian.)

Even during my stay, I was straying from program whenever I could. I got daily passes to go home each day and, instead of taking the bus to and from as directed, I’d walk the three miles at a brisk pace, passing other pedestrians at every opportunity. While the program required three meals and three snacks per day, I’d skip the snacks while at home and reduce my meal. I figured two full meals and two snacks represented enough progress. And enough calories.

I had longer home passes on weekends and, while exercise was forbidden—full symptom interruption, they called it—I managed to fit in three moderate exercise sessions per week. This was as radical a change as I could tolerate. I told myself I was making the program my own.
Really, I lied. Just like an addict. After every pass, I said I had no struggles. I said I ate according to my meal plan. I told them I did not exercise. I had to lie so I’d keep getting passes. The daily trips off the ward were what kept my sanity. I told them what they wanted to hear. I left as a success story.

So what was the point of it all? Why did I give up six weeks of freedom? In spite of my cheating, my body took in more food and more variety. To a regular person, eating peanut butter or mayonnaise would not be a victory, but higher fat foods were real challenges. Heck, even the amount of water they made me drink was a challenge. My exercise was severely reduced. The miracle is that I didn’t gain weight even though that was my constant fear.

What most people focus on is the outward signs of the eating disorder—amount of food intake, bingeing, purging and exercise. These are clear things to follow when assessing progress. But if it were simply about eating more and exercising less, treatment would be relatively simple. What many people overlook is the psychological reasons for why the eating disorder developed and continues to be fiercely maintained. Issues like self-esteem, perfectionism, betrayal, abuse and neglect come into play. The eating disorder represents control, self-discipline, even comfort. As my eating disorder has gone on for decades, it’s far trickier work uncovering the roots of it so that real, lasting change can occur.

I may be out of hospital but more work remains, on my own and with professional support. Nasty bugger, this eating disorder.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A BELATED AFFIRMATION

There are days when I wake up in my hospital bed and I still wonder if I belong here. For the past five weeks I’ve been in treatment for an eating disorder, an affliction I’ve struggled to acknowledge within myself and I’ve struggled even more to get others to understand.

Each and every time I’ve dared to disclose to someone, the response is quick, a snap judgment. “You don’t have an eating disorder.” 

I don’t feel like having to prove my point.

It’s true that I don’t look the part. I’m male, I’m in my fifties and I’m not rail thin. I even sport some pesky love handles. 

Twenty-four years ago, I dared raise the possibility of an eating disorder with my family doctor, a compassionate gay man whom I assumed would have many patients with low self-image issues, disordered eating and excessive exercise regimens. I had a great deal of angst in the build up to telling him what I thought I might have. He dismissed it as if to reassure me. It only made me feel more alienated. If I didn’t have an eating disorder, then how could I get help? I was starving myself for huge chunks of the day, obsessing over fat content in foods and exercising through injuries, feeling trapped by my workout routines. If I missed a day, the belly would never be tamed.

There were ebbs and flows to my disorder. In relationships, I’d sometimes let up. I’d eat ice cream and pizza with my boyfriend, feeling like a sinner but happy to have a partner in crime. Whenever I wasn’t with my boyfriend, the food restricting would kick back into high gear. Aside from my non-skinny appearance, a big reason so many people haven’t thought I had an eating disorder is because the key behaviors happen when alone. It’s a clandestine disease. When my eating disorder ruled me, I didn’t want to be caught. I didn’t want anyone telling me to change. My eating disorder brought a twisted sense of comfort. It represented control and self-discipline when I felt powerless in many areas of my life. 

You don’t have an eating disorder.

I heard it so many times, I felt I couldn’t get help. I was embarrassed to bring it up. I didn’t want to be invalidated again.

Even when I was hospitalized for depression five years ago, refused food and obsessively exercised in my hospital gown on an elliptical, professional staff failed to recognize my ED behaviors. It took a second psychiatric hospitalization for a psychiatrist and dieticians to piece things together after the nurses complained about my resistant behaviors to eating meals and to eating with the other patients. I finally got a referral to an eating disorder program. 

There are no elliptical machines during my current hospital stay.

I’ve since been assessed by doctors several times. Each time, I hear a common refrain in my head: You don’t have an eating disorder. Each time, I am both disheartened and relieved to hear the doctors confirm the diagnosis. Yes, I have an eating disorder.

As I sit in groups with other patients with eating disorders, I nod with them. They say the same things I think. They nod when I speak. By golly, I belong. 

When I awaken at 5 a.m., I can’t help but wonder if much of my life would be different if I’d gotten help twenty-four years ago. With earlier intervention, maybe I would have overcome the insecurities about my body and chipped away at all the self-hate. 

In my hospital room, I tell myself it’s not too late. I want to believe this old dog can learn a new way of living and can be more forgiving of all the imperfections I obsess over. This cycle of treatment ends, however, in nine days and I know I’m nowhere near real change. Many of my co-patients have had multiple hospital admissions. Is it the program that’s unsuccessful or is the eating disorder just too strong? Maybe it’s both.

I’m lucky to have more counseling and another treatment program on the horizon. Another team of professionals is recommending I stay three months in a group home for people with eating disorders. 

Me? I may not look the part but suddenly the professionals won’t let me slip through the cracks. My behaviors still feel entrenched but I have some hope for change. I want this hospital stay to be the start of a different way of living.
  

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

DATING APOCALYPSE

Since December I’ve been awaiting a six-week in-patient treatment program for my eating disorder. As I’ve had traumatic experiences in hospital before, I pushed for a three-month group home option instead. Unfortunately, the medical team feels my symptoms are serious enough to require hospitalization first. (That’s right, my six weeks in hospital may be followed up with three months in the group home.) Seems my forty years of eating disordered behaviors really did a number on me.

Knowing I’ll be stepping out of real life for a significant chunk of time, I’ve told myself that dating is not an option. After all, it’s far from ideal beginning a relationship with hospital visits as part of the courtship. So no dating.

Still, there’s a little dreamer inside me—persistent sucker—that says this is when it happens. Off the market, I’m suddenly of interest.

But, no. There hasn’t been some hunky dude trying to strike up a conversation with me on an elevator. I haven’t had some dreamboat wanting to share my bench at the gym. An adorkable man hasn’t asked me about the ripeness of melons at the grocery store. I’m as invisible as I’ve ever been.

Same goes for online. I may tell myself that I broke up with the dating apps (or we’re taking an extended break), but it feels like the apps dumped me first. My inbox is empty. Always. I’ve even wondered if OkCupid is working anymore. Maybe the site shut down so no new messages are possible. For anyone. Ah, delusion. I wear it well.

I should correct something. I’m not as invisible as ever. I’m more invisible, if that’s even possible. I guess I knew it was coming. It’s part of being fifty-something. The younger set doesn’t notice you. Not even the forty-nine year olds. In gay culture, you’re supposed to step on an iceberg and float away. I do like the cold but I’m a little afraid of polar bears. Cute but beastly. So no thank you to the iceberg. No thank you even to Palm Springs. I am the walking dead in Vancouver. Without the zombie allure.

Technically, I should have company. There should be some other fifty-somethings, newly or perennially single. But I can’t identify them. Some have wisely decided to live as shut-ins, taking advantage of home delivery groceries and restaurants that hire cyclists to bring a jumbo burger and double order of fries to their door. Older gay men online have taken to lying about their age. A “fifty-five year old” is really mid to late sixties if not seventy-three. The fifties set pretends to be forty-two, maybe forty-five,...something far enough away from that dreaded half-century milestone. It’s blatant lying mixed with wishful thinking and the cop-out line, Everybody does it. In some ways, I get it. I too wonder how the hell I ever became fifty-four. I still feel thirty-four. I still want to believe I look that age. Or forty-four. It’s true, I’ve had people tell me I don’t look my age (although that’s become a much rarer occurrence). Basically, fifty-somethings are in hiding. So how are we supposed to find each other?

But, again, I’m not supposed to be thinking about such things. I’m supposed to have chosen this dateless predicament. I should really be focused on eating more and exercising less. Still, it doesn’t feel good, knowing that six weeks from my hospital admission—or six weeks and three months from then—I’ll be facing datelessness for real.

Maybe ice floes aren’t so bad. Maybe polar bears won’t sniff me either!

Monday, April 1, 2019

"IDOL" EVOLUTION

“American Idol” is no longer the juggernaut that it was when it debuted in 2002 and during the first half dozen seasons that followed. Many have switched their allegiance to “The Voice” or “The Masked Singer” or given up on talent competitions to binge-watch buzzier shows on Netflix. 

I took several years off from viewing but gave it another shot when “Idol” switched from Fox to ABC. I tend to multitask while it’s on, but the show still resonates with me. As a writer, I can relate to people in creative fields desperately pursuing their dreams, looking to build an audience, hoping to break through despite the fact that “Idol” winners now fade from memory a week after the season finale. They sing, they compete because they’re compelled to do so. I write on for the same reason.

One area of positive change on “American Idol” involves its openness in showcasing gay contestants. In the early seasons, I’d cringe when Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell exchanged gay putdown banter. I also hated when, in 2003, Clay Aiken competed (ultimately becoming runner up) as Joe Public speculated, derisively, over his sexuality. Indeed, Aiken remained silent during his time in the limelight and waited until 2008 to finally come out as gay.

Last night on “Idol”, the forty remaining contestants were pared down to the Top 20. At least two of them are openly gay men. I’d worried that, in casting its elite group, “Idol” would only welcome one as the token gay guy. So far both Ryan Hammond and Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon are still in the running. (The group will be cut to fourteen, perhaps as early as tonight.)

The first to make it through was Ryan Hammond. He spoke of missing his boyfriend Chris who couldn’t make the trip to Hawaii. Ryan dedicated his cover of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You” to Chris.

I love you in a place
Where there's no space or time
I love you for my life
You're a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone
And I was singing this song to you

In an interview clip, Ryan said of his performance, “I was just thinking about Chris at home so I hope I did it justice for him.”

As Katy Perry, told Ryan he’d made the Top 20, she said, “I think you’re probably finding out who you are in general for the first time so whatever you’ve been saying to yourself has been really working for you.”

Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon’s story has been more prominent this season. The son of a pastor, he worked as a janitor at the church, but he left home because his parents don’t accept him for being gay. With his boyfriend John in the audience—and identified as such by “Idol”, Jeremiah dedicated his performance of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” to his parents. 

Well, I've been 'fraid of changin'
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm gettin' older, too

Of his performance, Jeremiah said, “I’m doing this for me. I’m doing this for everyone who’s been outcast by their loved ones…If I can be open about it and vulnerable, then maybe that could bring hope to somebody else.”

Katy again, delivered the news about advancing in the competition. “I just want to say from one pastor’s kid to another that I see you and I love you and I accept you and I’m so proud of you.” Jeremiah hugged his boyfriend twice during his clip last night and the camera even stayed on the couple as they shared a kiss.

My, “Idol”, you’ve come a long way. But it’s not just the show. Here we have two openly gay young men being their true selves on a show still seen my more than nine million people, many from middle America.  Hats off to them. While many have indeed moved on from “Idol” days, I’ll keep watching.


Saturday, March 23, 2019

L.A. MALAISE

I really like the concept of fight or flight to explain how people react when under stress or duress. Whenever I’ve tried “fight”, it ain’t pretty. In fact, it’s downright embarrassing. I’m just too emotional and I come off as a big mess. So flight it is. Oftentimes, literally. I hop on Air Canada or Icelandair and hope that a change of scenery will not only calm me, but bring me a boost.

I’ve been stressed lately because I’m awaiting hospital admission for a six-week intervention for my eating disorder. In my mind, a hospital is the least conducive place for recovery. I’m a medical wimp. What’s worse, I’ve only been hospitalized twice in my life and both times involved extended stays in psych wards. The things I witnessed, the people I resided with only made me edgier and more depressed. I tried to “fight” this upcoming admission, arguing for treatment in a group home instead. I lost the fight. While I believe my weight is within normal, my symptoms are too acute, too entrenched so it’s a hospital stay before any group home care.

Bring on “flight” mode. When I was number two on the wait list, I boarded a plane for LAX. It’s been twenty-five years since I lived in Los Angeles but it’s still the place where I’m most connected to friends, a couple of whom go back nearly forty years. It’s also the place I finally began to live as a gay man, where I carved out many a four-day weekend in West Hollywood because, back then, the gay bars were the center of gay life.

I figured I’d soak up some sun, take in my favorite beaches, enjoy some trendy restaurants and shopping, view some art, immerse myself in good conversation and return to Vancouver as calm and refreshed as possible given that the hospital admission still loomed large.

Mission not accomplished.

I wasn’t in the mood to shop. Not a bad thing. My wallet had enough leaks as it was. I did go through the rest of my checklist—jogs along the beach from Venice to Pacific Palisades, a walk at El Matador State Beach in Malibu, trips to The Getty and The Broad, meals at favorite restaurants plus some new ones and, best of all, reconnections with friends where it seemed like only days had passed since our last get-together. Still, it felt like I was only going through the motions. I was only a fraction of myself. The trip offered convincing evidence of my suspicion that my antidepressants flattened my mood. I don’t go super low, but I also struggle to feel joy. I live in a narrow mood path whereby I have a generally low affect. I sense that I am technically present for various experiences but I’m not really living them. Rather than getting the mood boost I’ve picked up on so many of my travels over the past five years, I felt more frustrated and disappointed. I existed safely, as if I walked around L.A. wearing a helmet and kneepads, as if walls of mattresses flanked me on both sides.

Where’s the fun in that?

Returning to Vancouver, I’m now number one on the wait list and the flight mode remains as high as ever. How many days of freedom do I have left? Can I squeeze in a jaunt to New York or a road trip to Seattle? Can I afford to go? Can I afford not to? My foot taps nervously, my chest tightens. I’d prepared myself to go to hospital a day or two after being back. I’d emptied my fridge and prepared a packing list. Now I’m told it’s unlikely I’ll be admitted before April but I still have to be ready with a day’s notice if a bed opens up.

All I can do now is wait while I try to repress the old fight-or-flight. So far, not so good.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

PANSY BOY

By Paul Harfleet
(Barbican Press, 2017)

I stumbled upon this picture book at the library today. It looked like someone had propped it up as a display on a lower shelf, only to be knocked over by someone else. But maybe just seeing the title made me assume the worst.

The dedication page simply says, “For my seven year old self”. So many of us already know what author/illustrator Paul Harfleet means. The story introduces us to a boy “from an average town” who loves drawing, writing and marveling at the birds overhead. Alas, joy and freedom do not last. “Holidays passed in reverie but school was filled with jeopardy.”

His stance and demeanour may have been fey
His nature girlish and potentially gay…

Fairy, pansy or just queer
Were the words he came to fear

Somehow this boy had to find a way to withstand the bullying. He needed “a simple plan to tackle the hate”. Inspired by flowers that marked graves and invited reflection at a local cemetery, he began planting pansies in places where he was bullied. At first, no one understood why the flowers popped up in so many places on school grounds. When he finally explained to teachers, they took action and the bullying ended. Consider it as fanciful a happily-ever-after as there ever was.

The story is “a fictionalized origin story” of The Pansy Project, an idea that germinated in the mind of Harfleet back in 2005. He’s been planting pansies ever since.
Everything about the look of this book feels special, from the gorgeous, colorful flowers on the cover to the charcoal gray pages to the words that appear in white font and form curved passages of text. Today is Pink Shirt Day (aka Anti-Bullying Day) in British Columbia where I live and it saddens me that this book should be flattened on a bottom shelf instead of being in a classroom for teachers to elicit discussion from students.

This is a book worth tracking down and sharing with others. It’s beautiful enough to be prominently displayed on a coffee table or mantel, perhaps with some fresh flowers nearby. Track it down. The publisher is from Great Britain (www.barbicanpress.com). Maybe you’ll be inspired to plant a few pansies of your own as you reflect on your past.