Thursday, July 23, 2015

My Story - Freedom

     I grew up in the city of Manteca, a smallish town of 25,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley of California.  My parents joined the Mormon church when I was 7, and I was raised like every young Morman boy is with the expectation of fulfilling a two year mission for the church when I turned 19. (Takes big drink of beer)  I was a varsity football player, voted most inspirational by the coaches my senior year, earned an academic letter, was the accounting student of the year, and graduated at the age of 17 near the top of my class.  
1984 Manteca High School, Age 17
After graduation I was planning to enter Brigham Young University in Utah to study accounting that fall.  During the summer after graduation I passed out in the hallway of our house right in front of my Mother. I passed out due to a substance addiction that I was doing my very best to conceal from my parents and the rest of the world.  My Mom and Dad had me admitted to a special part of Stanford University Medical Center specializing in the treatment of addiction. I spent three weeks in the hospital under rather continuous supervision, endured long talks with therapists, sat through daily group sessions with other addicts, and started to feel somewhat better about things after a couple weeks of treatment, but was nowhere near full recovery when the insurance money ran out after week three. Medical insurance coverage limits for addictions weren’t very stellar in 1985, and I suspect they haven’t improved much since then. Because of this episode my parents decided they would not allow me to venture off to Brigham Young University in Utah for school, and they couldn’t afford to assist me financially.  In retrospect I’m quite happy I didn’t go that path; always be thankful for your struggles.
     When I turned 18 that September “I was working as waitress in a cocktail bar."  Just kidding, I was the maintenance guy at McDonald’s “that much is true”, which meant amongst other things, I washed windows, unloaded trucks, and raised the flag every morning. Following that job, I got a position as a stringer, basically a freelance writer paid for each piece vs. getting a regular salary, writing articles for the sports section of the local newspaper. Being determined to enter college, I paid the $50 tuition for the semester and entered a community college to study accounting in the nearby city of Stockton, taking on a full load of classes.  Today a full load of classes there still only costs $552 per semester.  School went very well my first semester, and I received all A’s on my report card, but by November, it was clear to my parents I was still in the grips of my addiction, and since I was eighteen and they were fed up with my behavior, my parents told me I had to move out on my own. My Mom was a subscriber of that “Tough Love” trend sweeping the country at the time.  Me moving out most likely pleased my younger brother because now he would finally have his own bedroom. We shared a room the entire time I grew up, and you could practically see the dividing line between his side and mine. My side being nice and tidy, while Chris’s side of the room could have qualified for federal emergency disaster relief.  Oh, and I had a cool waterbed that he certainly was happy about being able to utilize in my absence. Shit, everyone had waterbeds back in the day. What the hell happened to those? Having only my little Subaru, and nowhere near enough money to support myself, I turned to a family with whom I was close to in our church. They welcomed me with open arms and took me into their family. I stayed with them for a month, and after a bit of pleading with my Mother my parents allowed me to move back home.
     Somewhere around Christmas I started dating a new girl, Donna, and during my second semester started giving her more attention than my studies. The classes were tougher, and It didn’t help that in addition to struggling with addiction, I was working a lot of hours, including graveyard shifts, which left me pretty exhausted most days.  I dropped out of school before the drop class deadline so as to not have bad grades hit my transcripts, and started working full time at a convenience store, a total “Clerks” worthy job. Donna and I broke up, which wasn’t a huge heartbreaker because she didn’t put out anyway.  
I still had a pretty bad addiction problem, was working full time, not going to school, had no girlfriend, and was feeling like my life was going down the toilet.  With my dreams of a college education being driven right over the cliff I decided I had to take drastic action to make some changes. I decided to join the Military. 
     I was 18 so my parents couldn’t say no, and the Army was the best option at the time because they offered the most money for college with the GI Bill + Army College Fund.  In May of 1986 the Army recruiter drove me the three hours down to Fresno California to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). Everything was fine with being accepted for service, as I had no criminal record whatsoever, but I still had to pass the medical exam as part of the process. The head medical doctor, Dr. Leticia Archer, a small Asian woman with a knack for rejecting recruits, was unaffectionately nicknamed “The Dragon Lady.”  I can understand why, she had to look at hundreds of recruits a day. She did not like to repeat herself, and would let you know it. Squat, cough, grab the jewels and check, bend over cough. Neither her, nor any of the subjects enjoyed that process. I knew my history of addiction would come up, as I had to provide access to my medical records, which included that three week stint in the hospital related to my addiction.  I was rejected from entrance to the military, but given a condition that if I proved I was making progress and came back in six months I would be given consideration to enter the Army. This made me more determined than ever, so I cleaned up my act and stopped using.  

So I'm guessing you are wondering, “Okay, here’s this Mormon kid, boy scout, straight A student, athlete, aspiring college student, future church missionary.  How the fuck is this kid on drugs?”  Well you see, the drug I used wasn’t like what most people used back in the 80’s, and especially, most males.  I was amongst a small percentage of males affected.  The drug I used was a natural requirement for human survival. The drug I used was food.   The illnesses I had were anorexia and bulimia, and I had been struggling with them from the age of 15.  At first it began as anorexia, I was just barely eating, but then I started purging, so the doctors diagnosed me as bulimiarexic. By the time I passed out in the hallway of our home I had dropped from 157 to 120lbs in the period of about two years. I was basically starving myself to death. Photos of myself back then scare the shit out of me now, which is probably part of the reason I tossed my high school yearbooks.  Anyway, so I started gaining weight, probably 15-20 pounds in six months, which wasn’t hard because all I had to do was actively start eating. I was already working out a lot, and had a pretty strong ritual for jumping rope in our garage.  Through all that rope jumping I probably listened to the albums Out of the Cellar by Ratt, and the Scorpions Blackout more times than anyone ever.  It was the only way I could feel not “guilty” for eating.  How did I develop this fucked up illness?  Well, as far as I can make sense of it in my mind, part of it is because of my Dad, and I call him that even though he is not my biological father, is the only father I ever knew. He treated my brother and me pretty harshly, always yelling, never being satisfied with anything we did, I basically felt he was kind of an asshole.  And as it happens, he was overweight. I wanted nothing more than to not be like him, so I did everything I could to ensure that never happened, all the while I just wanted my his approval.  Hell, I wanted everyone’s approval, as I always felt like the straight-laced Mormon kid who couldn’t go to all the fun parties on Friday’s after football games. My Dad and I are good now, it’s been so long since then, and I love him dearly.  Anyway, another reason why I had this addiction included the fact I was such a perfectionist.  Whether it was sports, school, work, or church, I always gave 100%. This was an advantage in many respects, but in many it was not. I wasn’t going to be just any bulimic, I was going to be a pro at it, goddammit.  Finally, I think I developed problems because it was a way to control a part of my life, as I felt I had little control over so many areas.  Once my parents discovered I had this illness they really started to observe my behavior at home. My dad would always say something about how long I was in the bathroom, question how I could possibly be hungry after having just eaten a meal a short time before, etc.  It got so bad I would often go into my bedroom and vomit into plastic bags, tie them up, and store them in my closet until I could secretly dispose of them when my parents weren’t at home. One day my parents found that stash and freaked the fuck out. I mean, could you blame them?!  Anyway, so you now have a better idea of how things were for me at home, and why I wanted to get away so desperately, even if I wasn’t healthy. 
Like I said earlier, by November of 1986 I had put on some weight and as far as I can remember wasn’t binging and purging. Not because I was really over it, but because I had set my mind on entering the military and this was the only way I could make that happen. I returned to Fresno and was sworn in as a Private (E-1) Supply Specialist in the US Army.  I shipped off for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina on 2 December.  You’ve probably heard Army food wouldn’t ever by any means make it to the Virginia Pilot’s (local newspaper) “Best of the Year” restaurant list, so it was obviously very difficult for me to handle. I became so strict with my diet it triggered me to fall back to the old “warm and safe blanket” of bulimia.  Except for a puke free period of about two years due to some very intense therapy around 1998 while stationed in Hawaii, I continued this behavior for the rest of my Army career.  Not many days went by where I wasn’t binging a shit-ton of food and throwing it up, on purpose. For the record, a shit-ton is the heaviest of the tons, much bigger than a fuck-ton. However, a fuckload is bigger than a shitload. Sorry, I don’t make the rules, that’s just how it goes.  Dozen donuts and a quart of milk? No problem. Extra large fast food combo meal with a large vanilla shake?  Yum. Box of cereal? Bring it on. Entire bag of M&M’s and a bunch of Reece’s Peanut Butter cups?  Sounds good to me. Half dozen hot dogs with buns and a can of Pringles? Child’s play. I could binge on most anything and easily get rid of it; it seemed like the best of both worlds. Eat all you want without any of the consequences, which is totally untrue, as I have suffered many irreversible physical and emotional consequences as a result.  I've had most of my top teeth replaced with crowns...twice. Time will tell the extent of damage I inflicted on my internal organs, but I'm very lucky I didn't suffer heart failure during this time.  
Germany - 2000
It is a complete mystery, while at the same time a miracle that, 1. bulimia didn’t kill me, and 2. that I was able to stay in the Army for twenty years like this. It wasn’t illegal or anything, and was/is classified as a mental illness. Hell, the Army was too worried about making sure homosexuals and drugs weren’t in the ranks to go on a witch hunt for bulimics, but even so, I was able to hide it from everyone in that world, often in very austere environments without bathroom facilities.  If we were training out in the woods I'd just walk far enough away so as so not be seen and vomit right there on the ground. I'm not proud of these things at all. It's quite shameful, but it's the truth.  There was a period somewhere along the way where I tried to use the fact I had this problem as a way to get out of the Army, and it was a very viable reason to be discharged, but doctors just sent me to therapy and prescribed me Prozac.  That said, I did well for myself in college and in the Army.
University of Tampa - 1995
I didn't use exercise as a way to cut weight, but I have always loved being very physically active, ever since I was little.  I remained the same in Army and in collage, and was a finely tuned machine, I scored off the charts on nearly every physical training test I ever took, was a sub 10-minute two mile runner, ran the 1996 Boston Marathon in 2h:43m, was the university conference cross country champion, two time Academic All-American, selected as Soldier of the Year in the 160th Special Ops Aviation Regiment (same special operations aviation unit that was part of Blackhawk Down.), and after making Staff Sergeant, E-6, was chosen to receive a Green to Gold scholarship so I could become an Army Officer. I went to the University of Tampa and graduated in 1996 with a 4.0 grade point average and was the Exercise Science Department graduate of the year, as well as ROTC Cadet Battalion commander. I was also chosen as the #1 ROTC graduate out of all the new Lieutenants in over 270 colleges and universities in the entire country. For the next 13 years I was an intelligence officer, and spent time as a successful company commander of over 100 Soldiers, spent 24 months deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and retired in 2009 at the rank of Major. All the while I suffered under the grips of this terrible eating disorder. 

     For the record, screw the phrase "eating disorder." I was an addict, just the same as someone who uses drugs, alcohol, or any other substance to escape. We use the word disorder in our culture as a way to put people into nice little boxes. “Oh, he’s got ADHD, we’ll prescribe some Ritalin.” I'm not a medical professional, but in my personal opinion heroin addicts and alcoholics don’t have disorders, they use substances to escape what to them is perceived an unbearable reality. I used food as an escape, and as I said earlier, as a control mechanism. This I could completely control. I could eat to stuff my feelings in, or avoid them altogether, and then push them out by bending over a toilet.  Unlike alcohol, cigarettes, or hard drugs, you require food to survive, you just can’t walk away cold turkey, which made it very hard to face every single day. 
I haven’t yet mentioned my family life. Shit, I was married twice for a total of 17 years while struggling with bulimia. The marriage with my first wife lasted nearly ten years, and for a while at the beginning of our relationship my ex-wife even starting binging and purging with me. “Hey Honey, wanna go scarf and barf at McDonald’s?”  Now that’s about as messed up kind of date as there ever could be.  She had two children from a previous marriage, and within two years of being married to her we had two children of our own.  So there I was, 24 years old, married with four children, in the Army, and a fullblown bulimic.  We didn’t have much money, and it was terrible of me to waste it on food that was literally going down the toilet. This affected my wife, my kids, and of course myself. It wasn’t entirely my addiction that ended our marriage, but I definitely would say it didn’t help things between us at all.  We had many many other issues that contributed to the demise of that fiasco, but that’s another story, for another time.  My second wife was from Naples, Italy.  I met her while stationed there, and through the seven years we were together she never found out about my problem.  I was really good hiding it, and she just thought I loved her cooking and had the metabolism of a hummingbird. That marriage ended for many reasons back in 2007, but the elephant in the room was because I didn’t want to begin a family with her, while she desperately wanted to be a Mother. 
So after 20 years and six days of service I retired from the Army in 2009 and spent five years as a government contractor supporting militaries of the United States and our allies. I even spent a year and a half over in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) working to help their Army, while simultaneously having a blast living the good life.  The brunches there were unbelievable, everything you could imagine, but truly the worst thing a bulimic could ever be around. It would be like putting a heroin addict in the middle of an opium production facility in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.  Not all in Abu Dhabi was negative, during the last few months I made a vision board that has since been manifesting itself, and it keeps doing so. I didn't know what the next chapter would fully entail, but the stars were aligning for me.  The gig in Abu Dhabi ended in 2014 at the end of June, which takes us to the most pivotal part of the story. 
My Vision Board

In 2011 I started practicing yoga, and I immediately knew I would be stepping onto a yoga mat for the rest of my life. Yoga has amazing physical benefits, but it also had just as incredible spiritual and emotional benefits, like nothing else I had ever experienced.  I have always been in touch with my inner wisdom, but yoga actually promotes cultivating that sense of awareness on a daily level.  After about a year of daily yoga practice I felt I wanted to enter a yoga teacher training program at some point, if nothing else, for the personal educational benefits it would afford to my own practice.  The opportunities never lined up with my busy work/travel schedule, but things completely changed once my contract job ended in Abu Dhabi; my choices were wide open.  My time there helped me become financially free, as I was able to pay off all my debt, but on the flip side had to stay outside the US for income tax purposes last year.  Based on these factors I was able to, and decided it was definitely the time to enter that teacher training program.  So I ventured off to Costa Rica in July of last year, in fact 22 July 2015 is the one year anniversary of that trip.  I had been on a weeklong retreat back in 2012 at the resort (Anamaya) my training was going to be at. 
     Everything about Anamaya and Costa Rica were healing for me. The food - all organic, much of it grown on the farm the resort runs, the yoga, the surroundings, the people, everything was perfect for a real transformation in my life. During the month long training we weren’t allowed to drink, smoke (anything), or engage in sexual relations. So you gotta give me credit for all that, especially since I was the only male out of 24 students. Seriously though, we quickly became a family, and to this day we are all really close and it’s been wonderful to see how everyone has been taking what they have learned and experienced, and are continuing on as better people in the real world.  During my training I didn’t have a single issue with food. I ate anything and everything they served.  For one it was all healthy, and two, there was no way I was going to pollute my own process with an addiction.  There was a lot of transformation during this period for many of my fellow students, but even through all of the exercises designed to break down our barriers to our own healing and transformation I had still not come “out of the closet” about my struggles. While I was technically not a practicing bulimic during this time, I knew that to fully heal I had to be able to share my truth with others. So that training ended, I was an official yoga teacher, yet I still had four more months in Costa Rica. 
     There was another month long teacher training beginning a week later, and after sitting around the beaches and basically doing nothing for a week, I decided I should do it, so I did. It was another intense month with 21 other people, this time there were two other males, which was kind of nice in that I had some male cohorts to connect with. It was a completely different group with a different teacher, so the experience was very different. Both trainings fulfilled all the requirements to certify us as yoga teachers, but the second one included a lot of time sitting in circles sharing as we discussed the chakras and how we struggled with different roadblocks in our lives. Like the first training, the time never seemed right for me to share my story, but many others were having breakthroughs of various sorts. There were countless tears shed, and a lot of tissues were passed around. We had fire burning ceremonies where we let go of people or things in our lives that no longer served us; bulimia was what I quietly threw into the fire. When I finally make my mind up on something, that’s it. Period. This entire process had basically confirmed to me I was beyond the grips of this addiction that had had me in its’ dark grip for 32 years, two thirds of my life.  
     During the last week of the second training we all had to teach a 45 minute solo class.
As I was the “experienced” teacher I was chosen to go last.  The week started and I knew, I knew I could not end that training without sharing my story. I had to tell it, there was no choice in the matter. I was beyond terrified and emotionally exhausted as the time got closer to my class. I decided that I would “come out of the closet” as part of my class to my fellow students. The day came and it was raining hard in the jungle, and when it rains hard in Costa Rica it is quite incredible to behold.  The amazing yoga deck overlooked a vast expanse of jungle and sea, it was truly breathtaking.  I went down to the deck alone and spent about two hours coming to peace with what I was about to do. The tears flowed as I meditated to calm my nerves.
Anamaya, Costa Rica - 25 Sept 2014
     I played music to help calm my trembling nerves, which included some tunes by my favorite all time band, The Cure. The roll of thunder and the falling rain on The Same Deep Water as You was a perfect flavor for the soundtrack of that moment. So the time came and everyone assembled for class.  I had them all sit, and it was difficult for me to speak, but I proceeded to spill my heart out to the group. I don’t think there was a dry eye there, and it was really fucking hard, but after I started talking it was like the heaviest of shit-ton loads was released from my soul that had literally been dragged to the gates of hell for so many years. And just like that, I was free. I don’t remember if the sun showed its’ face that day, but to me the world was never as bright. That brightness is still there, and I’m happier than I have ever been in my life.  There is a best version of ourselves in each and every one of us that wants nothing more than to shine brightly as a beacon to the world. Life is so precious, and so damn short.  We never know how long we will be on this Earth, so I urge you to not put off whatever may be holding you from finding true freedom in your lives. Love and light, namaste.