Austin's Story: The Humanity In Me
By Austin Otocki
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Army Medical Department, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
The Early Years
My name is Austin Otocki, and I am 35 years old and have a supportive wife and two amazing boys. I am an Active-Duty Army Officer with over 12 years of service. And I have struggled with purging since the age of twenty-two.
Had you asked me a couple of years ago about my eating disorder, I would have denied it. While I was aware of my actions, over 10 years of purging molded my reality, and the unhealthy act of vomiting became as natural to me as breathing. It took the invitation of my wife Amanda for me to see the harm I was doing to myself. However, even then, I subconsciously denied it. This harm was both physical and mental. I am only now on the path of recovery thanks to the invitation of others to see that my weight is not a determining factor of my worth as a human being. This journey comes with perceptions, insights, self-loathing, and growth, and is an ongoing battle that I am working to overcome. Through the care of others becoming my pillar of support, I have made it this far. I share this journey with you in hopes that it may invite you to reach out and find support or be the support for others. I needed assistance to seek help, and even now am still requiring the support of others to remain healthy. This is my story about why I developed a purging disorder, how it impacted my life and nearly ended my marriage, and how through the safe space created by others I was able to take control of this destructive behavior.
It is hard to pinpoint when I started harming myself or even when the idea came to mind. I do not believe the 6-year Austin was mindful of his weight enough to be self-conscious or feel less than others. Yet, details of my childhood still linger with me today. I have connected these details of my past to the beginning of my disorder. Growing up I did not learn about nutrition, and we did not practice healthy eating in my household. I was energetic through my youth until the growth spurts stopped and I started growing wider, not taller. By midway through middle school, I became the token “fat” kid of my band of friends. Our close pack of middle school friends was a hodgepodge of people of each sort. We lightly made fun of our differences and did not mind hearing our friendly, yet harmful nicknames for one another. We even made a comic strip of our token superpowers. While we naively joshed with each other, this innocent act among friends planted my first seed of shame towards my physique.
I grew up with 90’s television, in an era where every male protagonist was thin, fit, and popular. I envied Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell, Freddie Prinze Jr., Matthew Lawrence, and Mario Lopez, knowing well that I would never be like them. Through TV, music, and social media I was socialized to see my larger build as less desirable than others. I begin to see the world around me through the lens of a “fat kid” and not through the lens of a human being. This began to negatively impact my interactions with others and my view of myself. For the first time in my life, I was becoming unhappy with who I am as a person. While my friends always had my back, there was a different kind of support that I needed. I needed the support that invites individuals to be better people, to seek help, or to be outward with themselves. Sadly, many of us fall prey to friendships that provide superficial support (kind words without the depth of empathy). This may supply short-term happiness but long-term feelings of exclusion.
The first time I experienced a healthy invitation to change how I see myself was in high school. An older peer of mine joined wrestling and was both losing weight and building confidence; two things I revered. Through his encouragement, I also joined and made my first attempt at taking control of my life. From the first day of tryouts until I graduated, Mr. Neuberg, our wrestling coach, only saw the human in me. He taught me about exercise and nutrition, the value of setting goals and achieving little wins, and he helped build my confidence through sincere appreciation of my efforts and not the outcomes of my actions. I entered high school lonely yet with friends, self-conscious yet successful, and inwardly focused on my challenges without taking others into account. Thanks, much to the safe space created by Mr. Neuberg, I graduated high school feeling included and confident.
If this were fiction, the story would likely stop there – a successful conclusion to a challenging beginning. However, this is my story, and I in turn went to college and stopped my extracurricular athletics. Within the first year, I gained weight and was not on track to get my growth under control. Thanks to the invitation given by Mr. Neuberg years earlier, I knew I had the potential to make a change in my life once again . . . but I needed help. During this time I was a resident assistant in college and one of my students happened to be athletic. Looking for support, I asked him if he would show me around the gym and hold me accountable for training. Randy enthusiastically said, “Yes!” and became the second person in my life to see me as a person. He worked with me every day that summer. Within three months, I signed up for a marathon, and began gaining my confidence back. It is remarkable how impactful an invitation to change can be when coming from a person who recognizes your humanity.
Destructive Social Biases
The ebbs and flows of life presented headwinds and tailwinds that impacted my ability to keep my weight in balance. The societal standards of physical success had me adopt an image of myself as being worse-than others through comparisons which created anxiety in terms of my undesirable weight, headwinds that I struggled to navigate through. The positive support of others created a safe space, inviting me to gain control of the aspects of my life that were challenging, tailwinds I could ride to triumph over my negative self image.
I spent the next few years of college enjoying life, my studies, the people, and the adventure. I was not worried about my physique as I was active and healthy. However, years of comparing myself to others planted the seed of concern early and deep. Its roots spread through my brain even when I was fit and trouble-free. I know now, but did not know then, that the leaner and healthier I became, the more unsatisfied and troubled I felt. I artificially tanned to be seen as more healthy. I changed my behavior and attitude to appear to be more confident (sometimes at the expense of others). I even purged to control my calories when my appetite filled my stomach more than my self-conscious nature wanted. Ironically, my poor behaviors led to positive feedback from others: “nice tan,” “looking good,” and “I wish I had your confidence.” During this stage of my life, I did not have anyone to help me maintain control. I was not alone, but I did not have the same pillars of support that I once had. Eventually, this became a negative cycle, an internal collusion of harm. The more I chose toxic behaviors, the more positive reinforcement I received from others, which in turn made me feel worse, and the cycle continued. When the physically and mentally unhealthy choices we make are positively reinforced by those around us it helps solidify those destructive social biases that we have placed on ourselves.
Partly because I wanted to serve, and partly because I thought it would help me stay in shape, I joined the Army through the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college. While the military promoted a healthy lifestyle, there was significant emphasis on both being physically fit and looking the part. Over the next ten years of my military career, I found myself defaulting to the safety blanket of purging when I noticed my weight not being where I thought it should be. Despite being well below the weight limit for my height, I continued to hold myself to a fictitious social/professional standard. The military does a decent job of encouraging soldiers to seek behavioral health to address struggles, stressors, and life events. However, as Johari’s window suggests, it is hard to fix what is unknown to both me and others. Despite utilizing psychologists for work stressors, these false societal standards were embedded in my core. My purging disorder went undiagnosed due to my own self-deception.
I Am Human, We Are Human
Eventually, in the spring of 2021, on the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic and while simultaneously going through extreme work hardships, my purging disorder manifested and finally became noticeable enough for others to mention. Without intent to mislead, over the years I hid my purging from my wife and those around me. It is hard to explain, but this one aspect of my life had complete control over me, and I stood witness as a bystander in its narrative.
In June of 2021, Amanda called me out for purposely “getting sick”, not in a negative way but in a way that showed her humanity (struggling with the internal hurt from my years of deception and from the perspective of a person who genuinely cares for me). She gave me the ultimatum of being honest with her over this issue or losing our relationship of ten years. My need to look a certain way had polluted my mind in such a manner that I deceived those that I loved and myself in turn. Amanda’s concern for my health and our relationship became the third time someone offered me an olive branch of self-accountability. She did not blindly stand by and support me through denial, nor did she run away and leave me to my own faults. Instead, Amanda outwardly provided me with the hard-behaviors I needed to take a step forward to recovery. In seeing me as a person she created the safe space I needed to seek further help and finally address my purging with my provider.
It has been a long road since the summer of 2021. Amanda’s support and the work with my behavioral health providers have kept me from purging for over 16 months. It took the help of others to trace the roots of my issues back to introjected regulation – “performing an action due to a sense of obligation rather than an internal desire or for enjoyment” (Uzun & Aydemir, 2020). In August of 2022, I had the opportunity to participate in the Arbinger Institute’s Outward Inclusion workshop – a workshop that “focuses on self-discovery through active participation, personal assessments, and group exercises and creates a psychologically safe environment for change” (Arbinger Institute, 2022). There were over twenty-five participants in our small-room discussion and each one assisted in creating a safe space through their ability to see the humanity in one another. For the first time in my adult life, I felt included so wholly that I had the urge to share my story. Up to this point I had not shared my struggle with anyone other than my wife and providers. Yet, I felt not only comfortable but encouraged to share with a group of people I had just met. It is amazing what good can come from seeing the humanity in others and being the pillar of support for others to stand on. Sometimes people need help, and sometimes people need sustained support. I was lucky enough to have multiple people throughout my life who invited the positive change that I needed. However, not everyone is that fortunate. If you are reading this and are battling with personal challenges, I invite you to reach out to others for support; it is challenging, but you can triumph. If you are reading this and have the fortitude to help others, I invite you to see the humanity in those around you and offer to be the pillar of support for someone else. I wish you all the best on your journey. I will be here if you want to reach out.
If you identify as male and are currently struggling with eating or body concerns, please consider joining our virtual men’s peer support group. Register now.
Arbinger Institute. (2022). Outward Inclusion. Retrieved from Arbinger Institute: https://arbinger.com/
Uzun, B., & Aydemir, A. (2020, April 22). Introjected Regulation. Retrieved from Springer Link: https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_690
Veritas Collaborative. (2021, August 24). How Does Purging Affect The Body? Retrieved from Veritas Collaborative: https://veritascollaborative.com/blog/how-does-purging-affect-the body/