Powerful Disorder, Emotional MÃªlÃ©e
Inside a former athlete’s haunting struggle with bulimia
Junior Matt Green has struggled with his sense of identity ever since he started battling bulimia in high school. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum
Matt Green remembers watching as his abusive father was repeatedly slammed into their front lawn by police officers.
He remembers staring at five two-liter bottles that were full to the brim with his own vomit – he'd glance at them between sets of curls, push-ups, and sit-ups. Those bottles contained his breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and this two-hour workout was his third of the day.
Last week, during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, a female friend told him: "eating disorders are only a girl thing." He paused, reflected, and gathered his breath.
"No they aren't."
Green is a junior architecture major who grew up in a violent home and has struggled with bulimia since his sophomore year of high school. He has been gradually overcoming the disorder for two years.
Nobody suspected it in high school. Green was a massive 6-foot, 230-pound offensive lineman on the football team. He was an all-around athlete, excelling in football, baseball, and wrestling. But he was self-conscious. His dad constantly mocked him. He had no self-confidence.
Between the middle of his sophomore year and start of junior year, Green dropped down to 170 pounds.
"People were like: ‘oh wow, you've lost a lot of weight!' I was getting congratulated," Green said. "It was like encouragement."
His methods of losing that weight, however, were surreptitious. He'd do all the right things: play sports at school (and win his baseball team's MVP award), go to the gym (albeit too often), and eat healthy (at least one salad a day).
Bulimia was the real catalyst of his catastrophic weight loss.
He'd throw up at least once every day – either in his room at night as he did another lengthy workout and glanced fearfully in the mirror, or in his bathroom when he was afraid of being discovered.
"I would go into the bathroom, turn on the shower, and just throw up," Green said.
He thought nobody knew. His friends at school certainly didn't; they'd ask him for tips on losing weight. Perhaps the only person who was onto him was the worst person it could be: his father.
"I was surrounded by abuse," Green said. "Mental and physical abuse. It led me to be isolated…at the dinner table [my dad] would make sly comments like: ‘are you sure you want to eat that?' He never extended a hand to help me. He'd condemn me."
Green said he knew full-well what bulimia was and he knew he was a prime offender. He tried to stop…he just couldn't.
Others noticed his vast physical changes. He didn't.
"I just wanted to feel accepted," Green said.
He didn't feel like he was getting any smaller. He dropped from a size 40 to 33 in jeans, but they didn't feel any different to him. Now when he looks back in pictures, he can see the drastic change, but back then he'd look in the mirror and see the same kid he always saw.
He's not the only student at UB who struggles with bulimia. A female sophomore – who preferred to remain anonymous – understands everything Green went through. As it was with him, her struggle began at home.
"My parents were getting divorced at the time and it was difficult for me to see them in so much pain," she said. "I think the lack of support that I could offer them made me feel powerless, and picking on my weight in attempt to perfect at least one aspect of my life, in a twisted way, was my method of coping. Once the fear of becoming fat entered my mind, it was difficult to get it out."
She tried eating less, but she was an athlete and didn't have energy when she didn't eat enough. Then she thought about throwing up.
She thought about it constantly for a month.
Then she gave in.
"Finally, I attempted to make myself throw up and physically could not, but I would not give up on it," she said. "After about one month of trying, I was finally able to…Once I perfected being able to vomit without making any coughing sounds and figured out how to escape others seeing me, I no longer had to lie. My secret was safe and there was nothing stopping me."
She, too, would turn on the shower so her parents wouldn't hear anything.
She kept up the routine until a friend's mother noticed and brought it up. That's when this student realized she had a real problem. From that moment on, she took steps toward healing, and for the most part she's succeeded – though it's been a long process.
"There have been moments where it's been tempting to do it again and there have been days that I've caved into those temptations, but only when I've felt very nauseous; I've never felt good about it afterward, though, like I used to," she said. "The health risks are so scary and I don't see myself ever going back to the days where throwing up was a part of my daily routine and inevitably an important part of me. I still have the same ‘hide behind a smile' personality, and I don't think that will ever change about me, but I also don't think I will ever have another self-inflicted problem."
She makes a sensible point: the health risks of bulimia are numerous. According to anorexia-reflections.com – which is run by a woman who suffered from anorexia for over 25 years – the risks include stomach rupture, brain damage, and death.
"Bulimia is one of those eating disorders where, as with anorexia nervosa, the longer you suffer from it, the more damage it can do to your body," according to the website. "Over time, bulimia nervosa impairs the cognitive functions of the brain. Some also refer to it as a form of brain damage."
Forcibly throwing up could help someone lose weight, but according to the two interviewees it doesn't help that person feel better, and it's exceptionally dangerous.
As for Matt Green? He knew he couldn't stop on his own, so he finally opened up to his best friend two years ago. This same friend's mother suspected his disorder.
"She used to try to feed me and feed me," Green said. "She didn't realize that on my way home I was throwing up chocolate in the snow."
That friend helped him through the battle. She encouraged him and he researched the long-term health effects.
"Having that person that was sympathetic and caring toward you was all I needed, but I never had it," Green said.
He now belongs to a support group that meets on Saturday nights. He has regained all the weight he vomited away – but this time it's muscle. He still works out religiously, but Green doesn't feel the urge to throw up anymore. He sticks to a strict egg, tuna, oatmeal diet, because unhealthy foods make him feel self-conscious again.
Just why did he decide to tell his story?
"I feel like I could be an inspiration in a way," Green said. "Once you have the ability to talk about something and admit and publicize it, it's almost like you've conquered it. I know the story in itself can be an inspiration to anyone."
He and the anonymous student both had the same final advice for anyone who currently suffers from bulimia: tell someone. Green encourages others to be candid and hang out with positive people. The anonymous student says: "seek help right away."
These two escaped the combat, but there are still approximately 8 million Americans suffering from eating disorders every day, according to state.sc.us.
One of those 8 million might be closer than you think.
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