I have an eating disorder.
I’ve known it for a long, long time, but I am only just now getting the ability to articulate it in words and confront the truth. It’s not courage, and I’m not brave. I’m just too exhausted to pretend any longer that everything is ok.
I’ve always heard people talk about “rock bottom” in an almost glorious way. It’s supposed to be this dramatic, almost picturesque turning point, where everything comes to a halt and all becomes clear. For me, that didn’t happen — it was slower, more subtle. A covert cloud of darkness suffocated me a little bit more every single day. For as long as I can remember, I’d been hanging off the edge of a cliff by my fingertips, scared to look down. Last week, I finally let go.
Something snapped, but it wasn’t climactic and it wasn’t extreme. Ambulances didn’t come, arrests weren’t made. I didn’t wake up after seeing the light, not a single tear was shed. Instead, I just sat alone on my couch on a typical Thursday night, looking at the floor, and said out loud in a sobering whisper: “I need to get help.”
I googled “eating disorders” and started reading, horrified by what I saw. I hadn’t realized how bad things had gotten, and the various prognoses didn’t seem very hopeful. More importantly, I didn’t fit easily into any one category (like anorexia or bulimia), so finding information about what I was dealing with was incredibly hard.
The next hour was a mess. I felt like an astronaut being shaken violently as his capsule reenters the atmosphere — as if, at any moment, everything was going to explode and crumble. The panic started building, the walls closed in. My life as I know it is fucking done, I thought to myself. I broke into a cold sweat, put my head in my hands, and closed my eyes. Then, somehow I caught my breath. The room slowly stopped spinning.
How did I get here?
I was heavy as a kid — not obese, but stocky. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve being pudgy and experiences of overindulgence followed by shame. I can remember countless times I was reprimanded or felt ostracized for eating too much. At family gatherings, people would tell stories about it. There was the time I fell down a flight of stairs holding a brownie and refused to let go, raising it triumphantly at the bottom. Another time, I was entrusted with a cookie to bring home for my little brother, but I couldn’t control the urge to eat it en route. “Give him fish,” I offered as a consolation. “He likes fish….” They were funny stories that seemed harmless, but I was embarrassed by them.
I remember being shirtless at a doctor’s appointment (even today, I despise being shirtless) when a nurse came into the room and joked about my Buddha belly. I was so angry at myself for being that way. What was wrong with me?
It didn’t get better in my teens. My typical American diet of fast food and junk served in gloriously patriotic portions, coupled with my lack of self-control, was a recipe for trouble. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that I wasn’t much heavier. I do remember seeing stretch marks on my hips one day when I was around 16 years old and not really comprehending what was happening. But I had friends and girlfriends, so I just went on living what looked like a normal and happy life, quietly hating myself and the way that I looked.
Then I started a band.
I grew up playing the drums, but as a teenager, I started playing the guitar and singing, too. I had never been cut out for school, so when my friends left for college, I focused on launching my music career.
It became obvious very quickly that being overweight as a lead singer wasn’t an option if I wanted to “make it.” This message was driven home by various managers and industry professionals, who told me to lose weight or find a new dream. I wanted to make it so badly that I finally decided to lose weight at any cost. I told myself it’d be worth it.
One of my flaws is that I can’t do anything moderation — it’s just not how my brain is wired — so when I decided to get skinny, something in me just clicked. It was binary. Black and white. Zero in between. I stopped eating anything I deemed “bad.” In retrospect, my diet was based on strange rules patched together with little knowledge and no real understanding, but the weight flew off me. I lost about 90 pounds in six months, and I felt incredible. When my friends came home from their first semesters at college, they barely recognized me. Girls noticed me more than ever, I felt more confident on stage, and most important, I no longer worried that my weight was holding back my dreams.
When I got hired to join Avril Lavigne’s band a few months later, it only proved that losing weight was paying off. As I saw it, after being heavy for years, getting skinny was now causing my success. In a business where looks can literally make or break a career, there was no way I’d ever let myself go back. The stakes were too high. In my head, I was always just few pounds away from being back in my parents’ basement in Baltimore, alone, powerless, and sentenced to a life of failure. It only got worse when I got a solo deal with Warner Bros. and became the center of attention. The restrictive eating worsened, as my obsession with being skinny grew and grew. Until recently, I hadn’t had a hamburger, french fries, or any real dessert for 15 years.
Every meal out became a source or terror and anxiety. I’d google menus ahead of time to make sure they were safe. When friends wanted to share an appetizer or dessert, which they usually did, I either caved to the pressure of taking a bite (only one) and then tortured myself for eating something bad, or refrained and dealt with the awkwardness of everyone wondering why I wouldn’t even try it. One time, I was in Japan and the record label took me to the “best pizza shop” in the whole country. Normally, I would have found a salad or something random on the menu and made up an excuse about allergies or something, but the place only served pizza. I was starving and had no choice but to eat a slice. It ruined my entire week. Thinking about it still gives me anxiety.
Eating clean stopped being good enough. So I added exercise — three days a week, then four. Then five, six, and finally seven. I watched the weight go down and down and down with pride. I would smile when I saw numbers on the scale that I knew weren’t healthy. When people would act concerned and say, “You look skinny,” they didn’t realize that it was the best thing I could hear.
Exercise led to obsessively counting calories and tracking macronutrients and weighing portions. The mental math became exhausting; at one point, I was literally using a calculator to decide when and where to eat. I knew it was getting really bad when I started skipping social dinners to stay home and prepare something, so I could be absolutely certain that no extra oils, fats, or sugars made it into the meal.
Slowly but surely, I became a prisoner, a robot. The last year was the worst. I was constantly injured and exhausted, and I stopped going out unless it was absolutely necessary (which is a lot in the music business). I could feel myself racing toward the edge of something horrifying, but I kept ignoring it. Finally, I broke. I just couldn’t hold it all together anymore.
Even as I type this, I can’t believe it. I’m so embarrassed and ashamed. How pathetic. How weak. I can’t believe I’m so shallow, so vain. The questions keep racing through my head. How did this happen? How will my friends react? My coworkers? How will a girl ever be able to love me? Sometimes, I laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, but the reality is that I’m scared to death. I’m scared I’ll get fat, scared I’ll be average, scared I’ll be invisible, unloved, undesirable. I’m scared I’ll fade into the background and lose part of what makes me unique. I’m scared I’ll become less successful and less like able. I’m scared I’ll lose control and feel powerless. I’m scared I’ll be the pudgy awkward kid who hated himself so much.
They say the hardest part is admitting you have a problem.
But the burden lifted since I finally did has been immeasurable. First, I called my doctor and my therapist and told them. They were incredible. Then I told my brother, my parents, and my best friends. Every single one of them welcomed the news with total and complete acceptance. Most were happy that I’d finally admitted what they long suspected, and everyone offered any help I needed. There were no judgments, no rejection, and no consequences. I can’t explain the debt I feel, how incredible it is to be totally vulnerable and still loved. That is the beautiful thing about people: they can impress you in ways you never imaged.
I still have a long road ahead of me. I don’t know exactly where it will lead or how I will look when I get there. But I know, now more than ever, that it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that for the first time in nearly 15 years, I’m starting to feel alive.