Life: Subject to change without notice
My mother once gave me a small hand painted plaque she made with an inscription that reads, “Life: subject to change without notice”. As cliché this might sound (as the wisdom imparted from such knick knacks often is), this adage has come to ring true for me in a rather momentous way. If asked to answer the question, “Where do you see yourself in 15 years?” a decade and a half ago, my response would quickly and confidently have been “conservation ecologist” or something to that effect. As an academically successful biologist with a master’s degree, how else could I have answered? However, as life would have it, I did not follow the path I so ambitiously embarked upon. More specifically, my journey began with a leap down the rabbit hole of perfectionism that would eventually lead to the development of an eating disorder – anorexia nervosa. My journey up to and, thankfully, back from the brink of my own death would not only highlight the most immediate fact – my will to live, but would lead me through a path of self-realization and discovery. These experiences fundamentally changed how I saw myself as a person as well as what I wanted to do with the new life I had been given.
In order to understand a the impact that anorexia has had on my life, it makes sense to provide a brief sketch of my disease; specifically, how it began, where it took me, how I overcame it, and where this places me today.
As the younger of two children, I became the product of a divorce at the age of fourteen. As a result, I was the virtual ping-pong child, bouncing back and forth between each parent’s home in two-week stints. The dissolution of my parent’s marriage was an ugly one and I became a means by which my parents, in their own pain, lashed out at one another. As a direct result, my own sense of self was constantly being challenged and undermined. Consequently, it was during these formative years that I began to assert myself through achievement. I had always excelled both academically and athletically as a youngster, but family dynamics had finally pushed the concept of achievement to a place of paramount importance. Perfectionism became my creed and, eventually, my curse as well. It served as a means to establish a fragile identity and build my self-esteem. It undoubtedly enabled me to achieve nearly every goal I set my mind to, thus provided a tangible, if often fleeting, sense of self worth. However, years later it became the root of my unhappiness as well as sowed the seeds of an eating disorder that would alter the course of, as well as nearly take my life.
It all began with something as seemingly inconsequential a peanut butter and honey sandwich. I was in high school and had joined the track team, headed by a coach who emphasized the role of nutrition with respect to sports performance. My perfectionist tendencies led me to embrace this concept and, with that, I was off and running … literally. I began with small changes in my diet in an attempt to choose healthier options, with the switch from jelly to honey being the first.
Further, the decade of the eighties had vilified fat, so I later switched to turkey sandwiches in an attempt to comply. Ultimately, I would take this concept to the extreme and eliminate all forms of fat from my diet. By my senior year, I had become a vegetarian and, by my freshman year in college where I competed on the cross-country team my vegan years began.
My ideas around food and nutrition would prove to be ever evolving. I would develop a concept of “eating like a bushman” which involved a draconian adherence to a natural, organic diet, eschewing all processed foods. With the combination of such an extreme diet and the heavy demands of running competitively, my body output outpaced my input and my weight dropped. This is how anorexia snuck up on me. Somewhere in that slow process, my ideas around nutrition and athletics no longer made sense. It had morphed into an eating disorder which, when I look back, sucked me into a darkness from which I was unable to escape.
Once fully entrenched, my disease set me apart, relegating me to the role of spectator as years of my life passed me by. I remember days when I would go down to the boardwalk in my hometown of Laguna Beach and watch the volleyball courts, envious of those who had their health and were able to truly live their lives. I used to be able to run ten miles in under an hour but, with paper-thin limbs wasted by anorexia, I lacked the strength to simply step up a curb. Trapped in the isolation and darkness of my disease, I struggled to survive. I experienced no joy, no hope, and felt no love. Fear and pain were my norm and, rather than wondering whether I would live to see another day, I more often found myself asking the question of whether I actually wanted to.
As is the process of climbing out of a hole, recovery from an eating disorder is a process, and such processes often include setbacks and relapses. Even my road to diagnosis was a process, largely due to the fact that I am a man and, up until recently, it was largely believed that “men do not get eating disorders”. After years of being misdiagnosed with cancer and an autoimmune disease, I underwent a forced stint in treatment for my eating disorder, from which I immediately relapsed. Further, once the decision to seek help became my own decision, my family was exhausted, both financially and emotionally, and my insurance was unwilling to pay. Over the next eight years, I would lose two court appeals for inpatient treatment despite extensive preparation, media coverage including a story in the Los Angeles Times and an appearance on Inside Edition, and the testimonies of several doctors who asserted that I would likely die if I did not receive help. Yet, as the adage attests, from darkness comes light … and sometimes from the most unexpected of places. It is at this point that Dr. Oz and Rosewood Ranch enter the picture.
We all have experiences in our lives that change everything and it is through such experiences that the thread of our lives can shift, sometimes rather drastically. My time at Rosewood was just such as experience. With the support of a caring and compassionate treatment teach and the many amazing peers who walked a path similar to mine, I was able to reclaim my life. The journey was more difficult than I ever could have imagined, but with patience and tenacity, I was able to heal. I spent over a year and a half in Arizona, the place where my life truly began again.
In addition to restoring my health, Rosewood opened a portal to a new world I had never sought to understand – a world of addiction and mental illness. I had dedicated much of my professional career to the conservation of wild habitats and the protection of endangered species, yet I had never given much thought to the suffering of the percentage of humanity that lacked something that I had always taken for granted: sound health and mental stability. Yet in the years that my own health had deteriorated, I began to see the world through different eyes. I felt a connection with those who suffered in a similar way – those who knew the horror and frustration of being imprisoned in a cage of their own design. With understanding comes compassion and, as I shared my journey towards recovery with others, I discovered that we all shared a common bond, a connection through our suffering. Things I observed in others resonated with me as if I were looking into a mirror. Aspects of my own behavior that I had been blind to became evident, and it is through such self-discovery that I was able to heal.
There is no argument that today I strive to pay forward the help the undoubtedly saved my life. However, more importantly perhaps is the fact that I have been on the journey through my own personal labyrinth, to my center. I have had the benefit of many guides (in the form of my family, my treatment team, and my peers) along the way and I believe this puts me in a unique position to be of service to others. There is within me that sense of a connection to those who suffer – an empathy born of a shared experience. It is through this empathy that a new passion has bloomed, that I might be able to serve as a guide for those who seek to escape their own personal demons.