Monday, July 13, 2020

STILL GOT IT

A year ago today, I checked into a group home, beginning a thirteen-week program alongside seven other people with eating disorders, hoping that I might finally end all the self-hatred about my body (and the rest of myself).

My meals were monitored, with portions measured out to make sure I was taking in enough of the right kinds of foods. The program strove to introduce me to a new way of looking at food, replacing four decades of fearing meals and restricting my intake. Through a reduced exercise regimen that permitted only five one-hour workouts per week, my body was supposed to recover from being constantly overworked, part of an endlessly desperate attempt to work off calories, love handles and an oversized belly that existed, I am told, more in my mind than in reality. While some people with eating disorders have bulimia and throw up foods they binge, exercise has been my way of purging anything that I considered to be harmful intake.

With the other residents, I attended a hospital program four days a week, a combination of individual sessions with a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a dietitian and group sessions led by a rotating team of professionals.

A year earlier, I’d belonged to an out-patient provincial eating disorders program, picking and choosing various courses and making absolutely no progress. I resisted everything. My eating disorder had become my way of coping with the uncertainties of life. I may not have been able to control external factors, but I’d mastered how to control my body. If I forfeited my eating disorder, I suppose the thinking was that I’d be left with chaos. Instead of forgiveness and self-acceptance, I would experience a spike in self-hatred. There was no chance I’d make progress in a casual program. I knew I was a complex piece of work and I begged to be admitted to the group home program.

I contend that my eating disordered thoughts and behaviors became deeply entrenched because it took so long for me to be diagnosed. I’m far from the prototype for an eating disorder. My body has only looked like what you’d see on an eating disorder poster a few times in my life. Usually, I feel certain that my body needs to lose weight and that it’s not just in my head...anybody would see that if I ever strayed from the baggy clothes styles that came into fashion in the ‘80s.

I’m male and men are under-diagnosed for eating disorders. I grew up seeing photos of emaciated teenage girls and knowing that Karen Carpenter died from an eating disorder. It was a feminized condition.

My family doctor missed it—even when I said outright, “I think I’m anorexic.” The doctors and psychiatrists in the psych ward missed it, even as nurses complained about me refusing to eat and doctors assigned me daily consultations with dietitians (whom I stressed out) and brought in a cardiologist due to abnormalities with my heart.

I was well beyond my teens when I was finally diagnosed; I was fifty-three. This was not part of some midlife crisis. My symptoms first appeared before I reached my teens. I offer this background information to illustrate why I’m still conflicted over my eating disorder diagnosis. I’m the “wrong” age, “wrong” gender and “wrong” weight.

While in programs, I glance at protruding collar bones and frail arms of young women sitting across from me and I have to fight the feeling that I’m an impostor. Most programs have wait lists and I feel I’m taking up a space that should be for someone with more urgent needs. I regularly share this with professionals and they always assure me that I belong. (Gee, is that a good thing?) In fact, they denied my repeated requests to be put on the wait list for the group home because the team felt I wasn’t ready. I would fail without first being admitted to a more intensive seven-week in-patient hospital program. That required another wait list. All along, I asserted that the hospital program was wrong for me and it was with a twisted sense of triumph that I went through that whole thing making zero progress.

Ha! Told you so.

As it turned out, the group home experience didn’t work out either. My mood crashed. I battled with the dietitian. (Taking away my cottage cheese and forcing me to eat peanut butter felt very threatening!) Just as in the hospital program, I lost any sense of independence, my writing routine—my life’s passion—almost disappeared and other immature, attention-seeking personalities in the house became a huge distraction. I made the decision to leave after five weeks.

And now, a year later, my eating disorder is on autopilot. My one slight victory was that, since the hospital admission ended in May 2019, I’d stuck to a slightly reduced exercise schedule—much more than allowed in the hospital or the group home, but a bit less than my prior standards. All that slipped away a few weeks ago. I’m relishing exercise, even as some injuries have popped up recently. Just do it, my brain says. (Thanks for that, Nike.)

All ties to the professionals at the hospital ended the day I withdrew from the group home. I attended one more course as part of the provincial out-patient program but, per protocol—largely due to funding, I presume—I was exited from all supports connected to that program last December. After a three-month “stepping out”, I was allowed to refer myself back into the program, but I didn’t do so because I’d planned to move out of province...until COVID-19 came along and sidelined all that.
With more than six months passing, I now require a completely new referral for any kind of support. I’ve decided to wait on that. I could still move so it doesn’t seem the right time to re-invest. Moreover, the services would like be through Zoom and, while convenient, I know I need to physically show up if I’m really going to commit.

And that’s the biggest issue. I’m not ready to commit again. I know I still need help but I’m not ready to change. Another program would only mean another failure and that would only be a win for the pesky eating disorder. More entrenchment. You can’t beat me!

As I write this, my stomach is calling for food. It’s not even a growl as my body has gotten used to prolonged periods of fasting. A meal is still hours away. A big run comes first. (Weirdly, when I exercise, all feelings of hunger disappear.)

One year later. No better, no worse. I could say I’m learning to live with this, but the truth is, I accomplished that ages ago. I hold out hope that the time will come when I am tired of all this—thought I’d reached that point by the beginning of 2019, but I was wrong.

Change is possible. Someday.

Friday, July 10, 2020

VOTED OFF THE ISLAND...OR NEVER LET ON

I recognize my dismay this week at seeing Fire Island celebrants forgoing social distancing and face masks goes beyond a health concern. In any other year, similar pics would still ruffle me. Oh, the frivolity! The shallowness!

And, yes, in any other year, they could snap back, “Envious much? Looks like someone doesn’t know how to have a good time.”

If the retort stings a little, it’s because there’s some truth to it.

No one has ever thought of me as one of the fun gays. And never ever has a gay stranger asked to have his picture taken with me—And here I am with a hottie. A real sweetie, too!—in an attempt to boost his likes on Instagram.

Of course, I’m way past Fire Island prime. My Best Before date would have been somewhere around 1992. A few spritzes of Carolina Herrera cologne might have masked any sour milk stench until 1995.

It wouldn’t matter how much tinkling I did with a time machine. At no time have I fit the Fire Island brand. I’m more of an Island of the Misfit Toys kind of guy. (If you think I’m putting myself down, read this, my second most-read post ever...after the one about Ricky Martin, coincidentally a quintessential Fire Islander candidate.)

I’m pretty sure if I’d ever shown up in my twenties or thirties to board the ferry to Fire Island, they’d have refused my money and kindly suggested I spend my day at the Long Island Aquarium instead. A different kind of otters. Penguins, too! Let the overload of cuteness assuage the pain of It Gay denial.

Yes, even in my prime, I’d have been better suited for a spot on my very own Arctic ice floe than standing poolside in a Fire Island crowd, asking the frenemy beside me, “Do you think if I chew this ice cube it will make my abs look less defined?”

Abs. As if.

It’s a little too convenient for me as an “ancient” fifty-something to roll my eyes at the waxed and buffed thong strutters and say the party boys have their priorities out of whack.

Morning selfie, stepping into the shower. Low-fat smoothie. Work.
Another smoothie. Tweets about the Kardashian du jour. Work.
Tanning appointment. Gym. Post-gym selfie. High-protein, low-carb
dinner. “Real Housewives of...Salt Lake City”?? Resting-in-bed selfie.
Nighty night.

God, even without Trump and the coronavirus, 2020 seems like a mess.

Still, back in the day, my life wasn’t all that different. Sure, we had “The Real World” instead of “Real Housewives” and photos had to get taken to the drugstore or little drive-thru huts to get developed. (If anyone pointed a camera toward themselves and pressed the button, they would have looked utterly ridiculous and, dare I say, vain.)

There was no shortage of gym divas who madly tanned and toned between circuit party weekends. I attempted some form of parallel play, showing up without fail to Sports Connection for step classes, a weekly ab-cruncher session and extended weight workouts. My abs stayed absent and my butt never bubbled. For all my curls, I never managed to coax a bicep to come out, come out wherever it was. My impressive leg press load failed to add definition to my chicken legs. It was all pain, no gain.

If I couldn’t muscle up, I figured I could at least lose my love handles. The quest caused me to have a falling out with Ben. And Jerry. (I might not have turned my back had I known that they’d one day discontinue Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.) My fridge was full of nonfat products and six-packs of Tab. For a while, I think I was personally responsible for a resurgence of celery in Southern California produce sections. Num-num.

Alas, the love handles loved me too much.

If weights, twelve hundred sit-ups a day and nonfat cottage cheese had done what they were supposed to do, I might have become a different kind of gay. I would never have fully crossed over—always a geek and never a pill popper (rarely even Tylenol for a migraine)—but I might not have stood out for all the wrong reasons when I was It Gay-adjacent. I might have gotten a little recognition for all the time I’d put in and all the sacrifices I’d made in pursuit of the body beautiful.

I realize how sad that sounds. Pathetic even. I’d come off as so much more evolved if I claimed I’d always focused on what’s inside and if I’d easily accepted my body, flaws and all, never tearing up as Christina Aguilera sang “Beautiful,” never once calling Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” My Song. But I’m committed to being honest on this blog, even when it exposes the ugly parts of me (and, here, I’m talking about what’s inside). Truth is, I wanted to look good. I wanted to be looked at. My goal was always to find love but I thought, if I looked hot, I’d have options instead of defaults and booby prizes.

My friends crammed in extra sessions at the gym in the weeks leading up to the annual White Party in Palm Springs. I silently marveled at how their extra sets added the right kind of bulk while my body stuck to status quo. As they headed for the desert, I stayed home, sticking to my line that I couldn’t handle the heat.

Peripherally, I knew gays who showed up at Halloween balls dressed as shirtless firemen one year and gold body-painted Adonises the next. My most memorable gay Halloween party costume was as a Crayola crayon. I rocked it in head-to-toe yellow felt.

Even on ordinary Saturday nights at Rage or Studio One in West Hollywood, there’d come a point when the It Gays would send each other stud signals and shed their shirts to show off firm pecs and washboard abs glistening in sweat. Yes, their sweat was sexy. The stares they got were just rewards for all the time they’d put in. I served as a harsh Wall Street lesson: not every investment pays dividends. I kept my shirt on. Always. Once my pit stains got big enough from decidedly unsexy sweat, I’d slip out and walk far too many blocks back to my car alone, trying to shake that pesky Janis Ian song from my head.

Who knows what may have happened if my body had ever become Fire Island-worthy or even Friday night Santa Monica Rooster Fish-worthy (a spot for the non-West Hollywood gays). I’d struggled with an eating disorder for a decade before moving to Los Angeles and coming out. The gay scene didn’t cause my condition but it certainly made things worse.

Sometimes I wished I could somehow magically wake up and be straight. Among other things, it would have meant feeling safer walking alone at night, having less fear about getting AIDS and not having to edit my mannerisms. More than that, it would have taken off so much of the pressure to look a certain way in order to be looked at in return. It would have meant Fire Island never being on my gaydar and maybe a few photos of me lying shirtless by some Club Med pool, downing another Budweiser with one hand, proudly patting a Buddha belly with the other.

Blech. No Club Med. And no Fire Island. At fifty-five, I’m still adjusting to my own little island. Sometimes it feels good knowing my supposed prime is in the past. For many of us, “It gets better” gets even better with age.

Monday, July 6, 2020

ON AN ISLAND, NOT FAR ENOUGH AWAY

I saw the pics of party boys crowded together on Fire Island over the Fourth of July weekend, face masks ditched along with most other accessories and articles of clothing. My first thought was a combination of horror and shame. I’ve always gotten defensive when a gay person or a group of gays does something that makes it easy for haters to cite while claiming we are a deplorable lot. It’s as if gays have to always be on their best behavior. No gay man can be a COVIDIOT. It’s a doubly damning when a gay group comes off as hypersexual and vacuous.

I suppose my defensiveness comes from growing up in an era when homosexuals were regularly labeled as perverts and recklessly lumped in with pedophiles and other societal pariahs. With so few openly gay men forty years ago, the public actions of one was easily deemed the actions of all. It’s why I resented and despised the only gay organization I ever read about in media: NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association). It perpetuated the notion that gays were pedophiles and, lo and behold, there wasn’t a throng of “regular” gay men coming forward to state otherwise.

Despite all the gains the LGBTQ community has made, I remain wary that acceptance is far from universal and there are intolerant factions emboldened by the occupant of the White House who look for fodder to fuel their campaign to return to a reign of straight white men.

Maybe I should just chill and tell myself that the “good ol’ days” won’t come back just because a group of gym-primed gays lets loose after months of lockdown, drinking and doing party drugs while cramming together like sardines at some party venue. There have been plenty of photos of predominately straight people flocking to beaches and bars, face masks and social distancing recommendations be damned. There’s a contingency of humans that flocks to It places—crowded spaces—eager to see and be seen, excited to post that they were part of The Happening on social media. Look at me, bitches! I’ll bet you wish you were me!

Actually, no. But then I’m an extreme introvert whose daily life didn’t change a whole lot as the planet shut down on account of the coronavirus. Still, I get that many people have felt like they’ve been cooped up for too long. Lockdown fatigue has led to many episodes of shortsighted, selfish behavior.

As I pass septuagenarians and octogenarians, I take wider detours to give them space and I hope for their continued wellness. I would be shattered if I somehow passed the virus on to them through my action or inaction. I wish more people would remain cognizant of the people most vulnerable to this epidemic.

I truly hope that the Fire Islanders do not contract the virus. I have my doubts though, considering how badly New York was hit. I worry the attendees will return to households, workplaces and communities, unknowingly spreading the coronavirus to elderly and immune-compromised people they come across. It takes a little reminder, but I know their actions do not represent most gay men. Stupid people come in every race, gender, social class and sexual orientation. It’s just when they are COVIDIOTs, the stakes are so much higher.

Be sensible, people. And stay healthy.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

THE SINS OF THE FATHER

Yeah, we tried this a time or two when I was a kid. 
After that, the subject of Little League never came up.
I’ve sat on this for two weeks. Lots of head shaking, a few debriefs with friends, but writing is always my best outlet. Here goes...


Okay, so another Father’s Day has come and gone. Whew.

It’s always an awkward occasion for me. I call my twice a year out of obligation: his birthday and Father’s Day. Judging by the number of times my dad clears his throat—a habit that kicks in whenever he’s uncomfortable—the calls are painful for both of us.

His birthday is Christmas Eve so there’s always the tree, the grandkids and the upcoming church service to talk about, something to make the call last beyond five minutes. The June call is usually peppered with golf talk—his own game and whatever tournament is on TV that weekend. (I hate golf, as either a participant or a viewer, but I do a quick online search to find out what’s up with Tiger and Rory and to read about the latest opportunities for greatness squandered by Phil Mickelson.) If it’s a good golf week, we have a shot at nearing the ten-minute mark before saying our goodbyes.

The calls have only gotten more challenging over the past decade as my father’s hearing has gotten worse. In person, he can pick up more, but over the phone we’re often reduced to parallel conversations. I say something that he can’t make out and he responds with, “Anyway...” He talks about his lunch at Panera Bread and I desperately try to build on the topic.

Do they make good coffee?”

Cue throat clearing. Then: Anyway...”

Right about the point when we’re both duly frustrated—Stupid obligations!—he puts the call to rest. “I should let you go [clears throat]; you’re paying for this.” (A whole nickel or dime on my phone plan but I don’t argue the point.) “Thanks for calling.”

And we’re in the clear for another half year.

This Father’s Day call proved to be different. I put it off all morning, coming up with excuses about him being occupied with whatever he might doing due to the time difference—lunch, church, watching old golf tourneys on the Golf Classics Channel. (I didn’t Google it, but surely there’s such a thing.) I tried to come up with a few topics to help us along. Politics was always off-base. (Much too much throat clearing.) Weather would be good; after all, we’d had a bit of ran recently. There was always the coronavirus. Talk of face masks alone might eat up a couple minutes. And so I called.

It may have been both the best and the worst conversation we’ve ever had. For starters, it was an actual conversation. As I’d exchanged texts with my mother earlier in the week to finalize his gift—a few rounds of golf at the local golf course for him and his buds, what else—she’d shared his cell number, a special phone that allows him to hear better. (Was this a new purchase or was this just one of the many things they overlook in telling me? Like when my great-grandmother died. Like when the family dog died. Death is some sort of taboo thing.)

For the first time in ages, I think my father heard at least 80% of what I said. Presumably because of the reception, he only said “Anyway...” a few times. Even better, he didn’t clear his throat once. Gosh, had I been wrong interpreting all that phlegm shuffling as awkwardness, possibly even disinterest? With his Miracle Phone, our chat surpassed the half-hour milestone, an all-time record.

Mostly it was him talking. And I’m absolutely fine with that. Most of the talk was about the impact of the coronavirus on my parents’ lives. My mother is 80, my father 83. Neither has any problematic health conditions but they fall in the most vulnerable cluster due to their age. He talked about hitting grocery stores during designated seniors’ hours. Buying macaroni and lettuce on sale has always been a source of great joy for my father. (When I was younger, all I had to do to agitate him was say I don’t mind paying full price on things.) A hunch of mine proved right as he went on a long tangent about foolish people refusing to wear masks, making vulnerable people more susceptible to getting the virus. It was a rare occasion when I could chime in and agree. And then my father, a lifelong conservative (Progressive Conservative while in Canada, Republican in the U.S.), went on a rant against Donald Trump.

Hallelujah! A couple of months ago, my mother gave up on Trump and now my father was done, too. I actually started to enjoy the phone call when my father called the president “an egotistical buffoon”. I offered my two cents—okay, maybe a dime—and my father actually agreed. I swear, it’s the first time in my lifetime that the two of us have been on the same side of anything political.

And then things took a turn. Enter Too Good to Be True.

My father brought up the current racial tensions in the United States. I’m pretty sure he knows I’ve been to two Black Lives Matter rallies since I posted pics on Facebook, but we didn’t talk about that. Instead, he said that there were some very nice black people in the building where my parents live but “most of them aren’t like that.”

My heart sank. Please, Dad, stop talking. But here he was, feeling super chatty and there I was, too stunned to interject with my own “Anyway...” He talked about how the number of black people killing black people so far exceeds incidents of white police officers doing wrong.

Our pleasant, extended Father’s Day call, the first one EVER to be without a trace of strain, boredom or friction, entered the most uncomfortable area of all time.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. About twenty years ago, while on a boat ride with my aunt and uncle, my aunt said, “You dad’s become quite the racist since moving to Texas.” I looked at my uncle who nodded slightly. It was a jolt, but I didn’t probe. I chose to put my hands over my ears, thankful. I suppose, that my father had enough sense to know he couldn’t share whatever racist thoughts he had around me. I was the reactive son, always quick to counter, always reverting to thirteen-year-old me who thought that raising my voice somehow made my arguments more potent.

Last summer, when we were together at the family cottage in Ontario, I headed into Ottawa for the day on a scouting mission to see if I felt I could move there. As I was saying goodbye to my parents on the deck, my father said, “Stay away from The Bayshore.” That’s a mall in the city. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I presumed there was some construction work in the area, but I asked why. His answer: “That’s where all the Somalis live.”

Pardon?” I said. Had I heard right? Had he forgotten who he was talking to? Could he walk it back? Nope. He repeated himself to the shock of both me and my mother who had the sense to try to correct him. I turned away, stunned and determined not to make a scene. Is this what comes with old age? No filters? Had he been racist his whole life?

It reminded me of a time in the 1980s when my paternal grandparents were visiting us in Texas and I was watching a tennis match on TV, Ivan Lendl versus Michael Chang, I think. My 80-year-old grandfather, a gentle soul who loved dogs and broke out in merry whistling whenever my grandmother wasn’t harping at him, looked the screen as Chang was about to serve and he asked, “Who’s the chink?” I’d never heard the term before, but I sensed from his tone it wasn’t a term of endearment. I stayed composed and told him it was Michael Chang. His response confirmed my uneasiness: “Well, I hope the other guy wins.”

I never saw my grandfather the same way again.

Like grandfather, like father. It’s little comfort that that’s where it ends. I’ve always known “Like father, like son” has zero relevance in my relationship with my dad. But that’s hardly a comfort.

I tried to process what I’d just heard my father say as he’d moved on to what he considered to be the nonsense of his church’s decision to hold services on Thursday (with a maximum of ten congregants), which were then available for viewing online on Sunday. His sound bite: “Thursday is not a church day.”

And somehow that example of inflexible thinking helped. Still, I struggled. A Black Lives Matter sign, “Silence Is Violence,” flashed in my mind: So did a related article I’d read that said we cannot resign ourselves to the notion that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

As he moved on to talking about how his email provider had reformatted things and made everything unnavigable, I thought of backing up the conversation. I could call out my father’s racism. I could attempt to counter whatever rhetoric and images of fires and looting he was being fed from his ultra-conservative “news” sources, all designed to induce fear and increase the deep American divide.

Instead, I just shut down. I stared out my window and let my father run out of rants. As we wrapped, I knew it was probably his first phone conversation with me that he enjoyed. Let that be his real Father’s Day gift.

My father has his good qualities. He was a beloved family doctor and emergency physician. He has loved and supported my mother for six decades. He paid for the university education of my siblings and me as well as for all his grandchildren. I wish I could just leave it at that.

Let me step away from my father’s shadow. In truth, I’ve never felt within its reach. Guilt and shame will not bring me there now.