Not Just a Girl Thing

A man learns what women more often know: the emotional and physical trauma of anorexia.

by Paul C. Mihalak

Why did I end up like this? How did my life turn out so wrong?

These questions and many others rumbled like a freight train through my foggy brain. The bright lights of the emergency room intensified the headache from my first suicide attempt. Exhaustion gripped my body after it purged dozens of sleeping pills I had taken.

Although only twenty at the time, I had already failed at several jobs. The fundamental social skills needed for even the most mundane work seemed beyond my comprehension. My depression and anxiety had worsened over the past several months.

Seeds of sickness

Not long before, I had dropped out of college because of my self-imposed time restrictions. I stepped on the bathroom scale daily, charting my weight to the quarter of a pound. In addition, I devoted three to four hours daily to exercise, usually weight lifting and running. Fatigue was a continual enemy I could not battle.

Although ultimately I can’t blame anyone but myself, my father was emotionally abusive, always stressing perfection. He too was the product of an alcoholic, abusive father. Any change was viewed negatively, particularly changes in my body as I grew into adulthood.

Before being released from the hospital, I began a regimen of prescription drugs and psychotherapy to treat my depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Preoccupied with my body shape, I ate only certain foods, which I measured to the ounce.

My therapist taught me that changes in body shape and attitudes were an essential part of the aging process. As I began to apply his lessons, I grew in self-esteem and developed an adventurous spirit. No longer did I dread family get-togethers around the holidays. I too could eat most foods in moderation. Gone were those long exercise sessions. The joy I was beginning to experience outweighed the one or two pounds I could possibly gain.

Renewed life

In 1979 I returned to college part-time to pursue my degree in Business Administration. Academic success came slowly at first but bolstered my confidence to try even more new activities.

My desire for social activity and exercise led me to dance class. Eventually, at a small party sponsored by the school I met Janet, the beautiful lady who would later become my wife.

Shortly before our marriage, several gifted mentors guided me to a career opening at the automobile club in Cleveland, Ohio. My life began to blossom with the lucrative income brought about by three promotions.

Later in our lives, my wife and I fostered four daughters who needed loving care and guidance. We wanted desperately to share God’s goodness and generous provision. All are now grown women with careers and families of their own.

My father and I finally became close friends shortly after my college graduation in 1993. Dad remained my best friend until his passing in 2004.

Final chapter

Unfortunately, my life’s final chapter has been the most difficult. I was diagnosed with crippling arthritis and testicular cancer a year ago. The cancer nearly took my life, and for the first time in thirty years, I couldn’t work. I rapidly returned to the inappropriate coping mechanisms of compulsive exercise and food rituals to regain control of my life.

Thankfully, God again sent wise counselors into my life. Dean became like a Christian brother to me. He still calls and visits just to “check out” my mind. He has been a faithful ally in fighting these recent storms of life.

In addition, another friend introduced me to a Christian psychiatrist. His sound counsel and wise use of prescription drugs have eased my emotional and physical pain. Chemotherapy and radical surgery have eradicated any trace of cancer from my body. Though recovering my mental and physical strength has been long and hard fought, I am now back to work and progressing toward normalcy.

The ravages of the arthritis will last the rest of my life. My spine has degenerated too far to allow successful surgery. Keeping the pain manageable will continue to be a daily uphill battle, but one that I am willing to fight with God’s help.

Christian fellowship and faith in Jesus Christ have ultimately helped me to overcome anorexia and cancer. Now I will rest my future in God’s promise in Psalm 147:3: “[God] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (NIV).