Imagine, for a moment, the following scenario:
You are a typical American tourist visiting one of the major cities in Spain and/or Italy. You are middle-aged, wealthy, perhaps trying to escape from a stale marriage or reconnect with the dreams of your youth. You have been saving for this trip for months or years, and you’ve resolved to enjoy it to the fullest extent, so you stay in posh, comfortable hotels, take expensive tours, and eat gelato in cafes at every opportunity.
You are surrounded, in these cities, by people of every conceivable shape, size, color, ethnicity, background, and socioeconomic status?beggars, buskers, backpackers, fellow tourists, swindlers, hobos, prostitutes, drug dealers, junkies, drunks?but you diligently ignore most of them, unless they happen to be quaint or entertaining. You’re here to relax and unwind.
But one fine day in May or June, a particularly unusual-looking young man?a boy, really?catches your eye. After observing him for a while, you gather that he’s staying at the cheapest hostel in the city, just a few blocks away from your hotel, and he wanders around day after day within a certain radius of the cathedral. Something about this boy hits a little too close to home for you to ignore.
With his fair hair cleanly buzzed, and his beardless, rosy cheeks, he looks to be about 14 or 15 years old. And the unusual thing about this boy is that he is always utterly alone. And he doesn’t look so good. He is alarmingly thin (by your estimation, he can’t weigh much more than 120 pounds), and you often catch him eating scraps of plain white bread alone, in parks or on curbs outside of supermarkets. He is always wearing one of two tattered, dirty flannel shirts, and carries a backpack with a tiny guitar strapped to it. One day, you sit down in a park just a few feet away from him, and you notice that his backpack is filled to the brim with books. He seems to possess little else.
Looking closer, you notice that the books are all in English, and by authors that almost no one reads anymore?James Joyce, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Henry Miller, Arthur Rimbaud. From what you’ve observed, this boy spends all day every day wandering around the old Latin quarter of the city, reading from these books and scribbling incessantly in a tiny notebook, or staring silently and intently at his surroundings, or playing his guitar for no one’s ears but his own. You never see him talking to anybody, or eating anything but plain white bread.
And one time, as you walked through the park near your hotel, you caught a glimpse of him sitting cross-legged amid a circle of trees far from the main path, sobbing with his head in his hands.
Not being one to intrude on someone else’s affairs, you refrain from speaking to him. You even take care to ensure that he doesn’t notice you watching him. But you can’t stop yourself from wondering, ?Who is this strange, sad, emaciated boy? Where are his parents? His friends? Where did he come from? Why is he here??
Eventually, he disappears, and you forget about the whole thing as soon as you return home.
Why am I painting this picture? Because six years ago, in the summer of 2007, that strange, sad, emaciated boy was me.
I had actually just turned 18, but I looked much younger than my age. Having completed high school a semester early by taking online classes, I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the conventional path of working through the summer to save money and then going to college in the fall. I wanted to have an adventure. My generous, liberal, open-minded parents agreed that the conventional path didn’t make much sense for me, and my dad offered to take me on a three-week trip to Spain, for the purpose of exploring options for studying music or foreign languages in Europe, or just to see what it might be like to live abroad.
At the time, I was an arrogant, deluded, foolish teenager desperate to prove to the world how special and interesting and brilliant I was. I was chasing some ridiculous vision of myself as a vagabond poet, a wandering exile, a lonely expatriate writer; I wanted everyone back home to know how bold, spontaneous, and unconventional I was, so I insisted that I remain in Spain while my dad returned home.
My parents resisted the idea at first, of course, but I had already been accepted to several colleges, and I had thousands of dollars in savings from two years of performing as a professional musician, so they eventually conceded that there couldn’t be any harm in letting me spend a summer abroad having my ?adventure. They had been sensing some dark clouds massing in my psyche, and they thought that an adventure abroad, on my own terms, in the summer of my 18th year, might be exactly what I needed.
So I stayed. My dad flew home and I enrolled in a four-week Spanish language program in Ronda, Spain. And, almost immediately, I began falling victim to a messy, complicated, and frightening process of psychological and physical deterioration that got progressively worse until I returned home four months later, humbled and broken, with serious mental and physical health problems that would consume the ensuing five years of my life.
Things started to deteriorate after I left the language school in Ronda, when I began to isolate myself from normal human contact, journeying deeper and deeper into my own fantasies, delusions, and insecurities. A series of romantic failures in high school had convinced me, semi-consciously, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was seriously flawed and in need of fixing, changing, or repairing.
Then, in museums and cathedrals throughout Spain and Italy (where I eventually ended up), I encountered many depictions, in painting and sculpture, of a sort of idealized human form?absurdly lean, often gaunt, with chiseled facial features and ripped abs. These same artworks?artworks that I adored and worshipped, in keeping with my image of myself as a great writer and artist?often glorified suffering, starvation, and pain, things that I felt I had never truly experienced. What good was an artist who had never suffered, never starved, never experienced privation and poverty and pain? A seed was planted in my mind.
Also, for the first time in my life, I saw beggars starving on the streets, sometimes literally feet away from fat Americans eating gelato in cafes. I began to identify with the beggars, to see their condition and situation as nobler, purer, and more worthy of emulation than the luxury and comfort of the rich American tourists. I began to resent my cultural background; I viewed Americans as being inherently gluttonous, greedy, insensitive, and overfed, and I wanted to purge myself of those impurities. I began to view my actual flesh as symbolic of the cultural sickness that I had inherited simply by being born into middle-class white America. And I wanted to shed that sickness?literally and physically.
So I began starving myself.
I began by limiting myself to one loaf of plain white bread every day. I would buy my loaf at the supermarket in the morning, eat it on the curb outside, and then spend the rest of the day?generally 10 to 14 hours?walking on an empty stomach. If I got hungry and ate something else, I would violently chastise myself for my weakness and gluttony, and eat even less the next day.
This went on for about three of the four months I spent in Europe. By the end of this time, I was so weak, depressed, paranoid, and constipated that I saw no other option but to return home, even though I had originally planned to stay indefinitely. Unfortunately, my insanity and disordered eating traveled home with me.
I was so discouraged by my disastrous ?adventure? that I began starving myself even more severely. This is the sort of twisted logic that seems totally normal to a starving brainI reasoned, absurdly, that whatever was wrong with me must still be there (otherwise I would already have found the beautiful, perfect life that I craved), so I needed to deprive myself even more. I began running between one and two hours every morning over mountainous terrain, then coming home and eating a handful of cereal or a quarter-cup of cooked plain oatmeal. I started counting calories and limiting myself to a maximum of 1200 per day?but I deliberately overestimated the calorie content of everything I ate, so I was probably eating as few as 800 calories per day for weeks on end.
The physical consequences of this were profound. I lost around 30 or 35 pounds of lean body weight?and I only weighed about 145 to begin with. Every vein on my abdomen was clearly visible. After sleeping fitfully for 5 or 6 hours, I would quiver as I attempted to hoist myself out of bed. My hair became fine and wispy, and I began to develop?lanugo,? or the fine, downy body hair that is often observed in anorexia nervosa patients. (The lanugo was one of several frightening wake-up calls that helped me realize that I had a real problem.)
On top of this, I was an emotional wreck. I was constantly crying, scared, and paranoid. I felt trapped in my body. I had no interest whatsoever in sex. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. I would dream about food all night and think about it all day. By the time I was approaching my 19th birthday in December 2007, I was seriously considering ending my life.
For now, I’m going to have to leave you with that cliffhanger. Needless to say, almost six years later, I’m still alive and doing much, much better. Fighting my way out of the mess I just described, and then dealing with the lingering health problems that it created, has consumed the better part of the past six years. But I’ve already filled my allotted space and then some, so that’s a story for a different day. (If you want to hear it, let me know! And tell Matt too!)