Steve | Wrestling with Weight
In 1966, when I was 15 years old, I had just earned my Eagle Scout badge. I was in the top 10 percentile of my sophomore class in high school, in the so-called college prep strand. I had been good at wrestling in Junior High, and I tried out for the Senior High team. Wrestling was huge in my county and state, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Our coach was a former national champion and USA Olympic wrestler. A varsity spot on the wrestling team meant great status and respect. But making the wrestling team was highly competitive, and even if you made it onto the team, before every meet you had to beat every team mate in your weight class to win the right to be called ‘on varsity’ and compete in the match that week.
I made varsity the first week of the season as a sophomore. It was unheard of. The varsity squad was nearly all seniors with county and state competition experience. I had inherited a certain amount of what some call physical intelligence, and I was just good at wrestling, it came easy to me.
Wrestlers wrestle in weight classes. You are weighed in before every meet so that no one has a weight advantage. For some, making weight every week can be a challenge. I began the season at about x pounds and simply getting in shape made it fairly easy for me to make and keep weight for my x-pound weight class. But I saw many teammates really struggle and go to extreme measures to make weight.
Then something began to happen to me. Tell you the truth, I wasn’t cut out for all the pressure and competition. I was enjoying the glory and prestige of being varsity as a sophomore on a state-rated wrestling team, and I proved to myself and everyone I could do it. But I liked my academics and I wasn’t ready, or maybe willing, to put in all the hours of practice, week after week, month after month, that the role demanded.
But I didn’t know how to quit. My life was based on achievement and pleasing and appeasing my parents and elders, and I had not yet developed a deep and reliable sense of my truest self; no one had taught me how. When it came to quitting wrestling, I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. And I soon found myself beginning to sabotage my wrestling. At first, it was by not making varsity one week, willfully losing to a teammate. Then it was scheming to go down to a lower weight class. That way, I could postpone competing for varsity until I got down to weight. It was really a time of panic. I didn’t really know what to do, except delay. I could not just say no to something everyone was expecting a yes to.
I began my weight loss strategy to make weight for the lower weight class. I was willful and could control my eating – choosing the types of food, the portions of food, and the number of meals I’d eat. Much of my intensity came from the pressure inside me to avoid grappling with my deficit of real feeling. The pounds dropped slowly, but drop they did. I had begun the season with a lean adolescent body and taking off more pounds was not easy. My appearance began to show the strain I was putting myself under. Hollowed cheeks, thin arms, loose fitting clothes. I do not know when I slid into full-fledged anorexia nervosa, but I did. And most individuals with anorexia will tell you the same thing: most of us were smart, go-getter, good kids who somehow got focused on controlling our weight and it took over their lives.
For a while, I enjoyed what I was doing. Man, I was good at this! No one that I knew could control things like I was doing. I was proud! But as my weight dipped lower, the emaciation was beginning to affect my ability to simply go about my life, let alone wrestle. But still, in my full-blown eating disorder, I still had to eat less, drink less, every day. My weight stabilized during a few summer months while I was at Scout camp as a counselor. Getting away did me good, and I enjoyed scouting and my leadership role immensely. But once back at school, I plunged.
That autumn I picked up where I left off and continued my weight loss. I was baffled: I could not control my controlling. Yet I was too afraid to ask for help. One day, after knowingly not taking in any water or fluids for two days, I collapsed in gym class at school. My gym teacher, who knew me as a once promising, champion class wrestler, picked me up in his arms and said, “Steve, we need to get you help.” He carried me to the nurse’s station where they called for an ambulance and called my parents. The ambulance arrived and they piled my bones on a stretcher and off to the hospital I went.
At the hospital I weighed x pounds. I heard that and thought to myself, “Damn, I should have held on. I KNOW I could get down to x”.
Recovery from that very low physical bottom was long and painful. I did not know how to live, how to live with myself, a self I no longer knew.
Back then, anorexia nervosa was simply seen as a psychiatric disorder with no treatment protocol and no known cure. I was an inpatient at a psychiatric hospital for more than three months where, absent the pressures of home and society, I had begun to eat – obsessively and fanatically – but I did eat. Then I returned home. I again felt desperate, panicked, terribly lonely, and I again avoided food. I could not find solace in friends or family because I could not share what was going on with me because I still had no idea.
One day, amid my chronic suffering, I simply said: There will come a time again when I will eat and enjoy life. After all, I once had. I don’t know when that day will come, I thought to myself, and I have no idea how to get there, but I will try to eat and hope for that day. And that was my turnaround. It was an act of blind faith. A decision to stop resisting. A decision to trust that my body knew what to do with itself if I’d only let it. The road back was a rocky one: it was two steps forward and one and three-quarter steps back. While still harboring gnawing anxiety and unlimited self-contempt, I developed bulimia, an eating disorder involving compulsive binge eating followed by purging, i.e., purposeful regurgitation. This went on for about ten years, unconstrained at first, but declining in severity and frequency until I was about 30 years old. My eating became ordered to the extent my inner life became ordered. I have been eating disorder (ED) symptom free since then.
The journey of recovery, to freedom from the inward conflicts and outward anxieties, has been a lifelong journey. Along the way to my continuously improving mental, emotional, and physical health I partook of many opportunities. These lifesaving and life building resources included attending 12-step meetings for families of alcoholics; individual psychotherapy and counseling; rekindling old and starting new friendships and committed personal relationships; selecting a career path that best fit my innate abilities and most sincere goals; giving back my volunteering on ED self-help lines and mentoring programs; and weaving an eternally uplifting thread in the tapestry of my life: singing/songwriting.
In 1966, many of today’s diagnosed eating disorders existed, certainly, but not to the extent we encounter them today. Anorexia nervosa at the time was seen generally as a rich, white girl’s disease. Binging and purging was the chosen practice of horse racing jockeys and a few other professional groups such as fashion models whose weight or physical appearance were critical to their livelihood.
Today you don’t need to try to make a wrestling team, race horses, or be rich, white and female to be overly concerned about your weight or body shape. All you have to do is watch 10 or 15 minutes of television or social media; you’ll get the message.
Steve reminds us of the tremendous power in sharing your story with this moving blog post. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, Steve shares his journey and reminds us of how far eating disorder treatment has come but how much work is left to do.