Profiles in “Kourage”
Part 2: Interview conducted by: B. Leslie Cumberbatch
Written by: B. Leslie Cumberbatch
Name: Brian Cuban
It might be weird to think about, but I believe most readers probably feel a connection to an author when they read a biographical memoire or their journey through something difficult. It might happen more often today than it has in the past but many readers might not actually get the opportunity to sit down and meet the author and gauge their authenticity in their work to their authenticity in person. On a mid-September afternoon, I got the chance to meet with Eating Disorder Advocate and Author Brian Cuban. I read his work some years back when it was given to me in grad school by a male colleague who was also a ballet dancer and told me it was “an intense and refreshing read”, after reading the work I agreed with my friend and fell in love with the book.
When I got into the Dallas coffee shop where Brian and I were scheduled to meet, I attempt to make a habit of being early, however Brian had beat me to the punch. Sitting there focused with a note pad, a laptop, and phone was a present and warm figure deeply entrenched in thought. As I approached him and introduced myself I couldn’t help but feel an odd mixture of calm and excitement. His voice was deep, his handshake firm, and his heart and eyes kind and welcoming. He introduced himself and spoke much in person as he did in his book, Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder. The following is the conversation that occurred between Brian and myself on September 28th 2016 at a coffee shop in Dallas Texas.
BRETT: How do you feel about the stigma or stigmas surrounding eating disorders if you do believe there are any?
BRIAN: Well, I do believe there are stigmas and I can speak to that deeply and anecdotally. Karen Carpenters death in 1983 started the pre-digital age conversation on, and awareness raising campaign of eating disorders and what they can do. Her death put the subject into a national spotlight. So here I am a freshman at Penn State dealing with anorexia in 1979 and then transitioning to bulimia in the early 80’s and I didn’t really know what was going on or what to call what I was dealing with. There was a stigma, but it wasn’t a public stigma because to have a public stigma there needs to be a public conversation. There was a personal stigma, a deep sense of shame,a self-stigma thats till exists to this day. A lot people feel that eating disorders only effect women and much of our conversation and treatment options reflect this thought and stigma. This is a misperception, but right now the common one, and when you couple this with the misguided common belief that eating disorders are self-imposed, it does create a dangerous stigma, especially for men, especially for young men.
BRETT:What other perception issues do you feel remain surrounding the issue of eating disorders (ED) today?
BRIAN: From my standpoint as a guy I have to go back to the issue of shame and the horrible question a lot of guys dealing with ED ask. Why am I making these choices? For me I felt shame, but I thought restricting was something I had to do. I thought I had to make these choices to survive. The restricting made me feel accepted, it made me feel normal. Then the bulimia made me feel normal. Then there is a sense of guilt, and then you need to feel normal again.
Don’t get me wrong, there has been advancements, it’s a lot better today for people dealing with ED than it was in the past, but guys still lag way behind in the areas of treatment and awareness. One last thought on this issue,when I meet with young male professionals across all age demographics, almost most of them have never heard of a guy having an eating disorder, or even worse I still think a lot of guys are ashamed to come forward and admit they have one. In my heart I believe the number of guys who have ED is higher than reported because of shame and the various stigmas that prevail.
BRETT: On the issue and topic of vulnerability, what can we do for men dealing with ED?
BRIAN: Well, the first step is to get passed the notion that men do not care about the issue of body image,men care,it effects men,it is a real issue for guys. These conditions that we have to also accept that eating disorders effect everyone, not just women, and most importantly we need people to share, and speak out, and raise awareness. We need to have a wholesale campaign that lets people know it is okay to be vulnerable. We have a lot of men, we have a lot of youngsters who feel alone, and really we just need to let them know it is okay to be vulnerable and we can give them hope by sharing recovery stories and doing our part.
However, I want to say it goes beyond vulnerability. I talk to men, I talk to women, I talk to young people, and dare I say it, older people. And I think we just need to talk about life. We need to talk about journey, about childhood, about recovery, about obstacles, about going back to recovery, we just need to talk about life. But to circle back to vulnerability if I can, we cannot have these conversations about life if we do not let people know it is okay to feel vulnerable. So the conversation is larger than vulnerability, it is also about safety. However, we have to let people know they are larger and stronger than their own vulnerabilities.
BRETT: So there are a lot of deeper issues here?
BRIAN: Absolutely, being vulnerable opens up a lot of conversations around ED. Conversations that guys for a lot of reasons might not feel ready to have but need to have. When I meet with guys who are dealing with ED, issues of sexual abuse, drug use, child abuse, rejection, visiting their inner child, dealing with self-image, bullying, sexual orientation, all kinds of things guys might feel vulnerable talking about come up, and these issues are connected to ED and mental health and safety. Overall we need to do more than go through the motions of recovery, we need the deeper conversations, we need the deeper awareness.
BRETT: For those not familiar with ED what are 3 key things you would want them to know?
BRIAN: Well the first is whether you are in the middle of it, whether you are in the beginning of it, whether you are dealing with relapse, the first thing I want people to know is that recovery is possible. I did not go into recovery until my mid 40’s. I was bulimic for over 2 decades. Now I am going onto my 10th year of recovery and I feel great. Recovery is possible at any age, but PLEASE DO NOT WAIT TO BE MY AGE, that is the first thing I want people to know, recovery is possible.
Two, the earlier you start recovery the better your odds are. You become more resistant to recovery the older you get. And three asking for help is courage not weakness, asking for help is the most courageous thing you can do, that is courage, that is the embodiment and definition of courage. Do not feel you are weak by asking for help.
And I am going to add another one, no matter whatever you are going through, no matter how weak you feel, remember you are worth it. I can tell anyone to look at the studies and research, but inside you there is a strength. Inside you there is power and courage,and you are worth it. You might not feel it at times, but we are all capable of being strong, we are all deserving people, we are all worth it and worth looking inside of ourselves to find strength and hope. You can take that first step, that first step is important and you are worth it. You might be scared, you might be terrified, but you are worth taking that first step.
BRETT: What are your thoughts on relapse?
BRIAN: Well relapse is part of recovery and if you relapse you are not alone.
BRETT: What do you believe was a key point in your recovery?
BRIAN: The key point in my recovery was realizing, and this took a while for me to realize, and I hope no one has to go through this, and that was realizing there is nothing to be ashamed of. I did not realize this until I was 40. But it’s a stigma that a lot of people dealing with ED carry and we need to let them know you are not alone, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. On a personal note in 2008 while dealing with my alcohol and drug addiction and coming out of my second trip to a psychiatric facility, while opening up about my addictions and after reading an article about a model who passed away (Ana Carolina Reston Macan), I finally opened up about my eating disorders while I was supposed to be opening up about my addiction. Reading this article about how she dealt with anorexia and reading a comment from a guy about how he was dealing with anorexia served as a catalyst for me to open up. Then I went online and did my research, and really it was reading this article about a woman, and then seeing the input of a guy, and going to chat rooms, and then journaling, and then writing a blog that created my turning point. That was my turning point and it happened in 2008 when I was looking for others, I guess looking for others like me.
BRETT: What are your thoughts on cyber bullying and social media and some of the negative things that are said to young people dealing with ED?
BRIAN: Well, first there are good things that can be done on social media, however this might be controversial to say but I will say it. If there are triggers on social media and it is not a safe place for you in a certain stage of your recovery, stay away from it, abstain from it. It can help but also do not put yourself in a place where you can be harmed and hurt. It is okay to step away from the social media space for a while and heal and recover.
BRETT: What are your thoughts on the school of thought that dictates ED can be prevented?
BRIAN: I disagree, it’s a disease, can you prevent cancer, can you stop cancer? I believe in the disease model, I do not believe it can be prevented, I believe you can lessen the odds through education, empathy, compassion, treatment, through what works in evidence based treatment. I believe we can reduce risk, but I don’t think we can eradicate them at this point because of body image and all of the factors that correlate with the human condition that connect to ED.
However, we do have somethings to strive for and that is early detection, early intervention, early treatment, always searching for the best evidence based treatment and that is important and always worth remembering and striving for. Science and research are important, at this point just having a singular conversation or approach to prevention in my opinion wouldn’t work. I really couldn’t see how you would do that. But what I do know is that we have a lot of evidence based approaches to examine that minimize the risk and that is something I can see and furthermore see how it works and benefits others by getting them help at the earliest point, I hope that makes sense?
BRETT:You don’t have to answer this is you don’t want to. In regard to family members, friends, clinicians, what advice do you have for them in their journey to support and love someone who is dealing with ED?
BRIAN: Find support for your support, this is a journey for you as well and you need to be around other people who are where you are and dealing with what you are dealing with, and help each other. Support works on a number of different levels and platforms. Hear the testimonials of those who have been where you are and have dealt with what you are dealing with and who have tackled the feelings and emotions you are experiencing. Don’t be alone, build a community of support, trust, and awareness.
You do not have to know everything, even if you are a clinician you do not need to know everything,more problems arise when you feel you have to know everything,you don’t. Get support to keep on learning and keep on moving forward to learn more and help others. You need to know what you don’t know to know how to solve issues and help others solve issues. Get with other families and clinicians. Technology has given us a chance to connect. You know what makes me and other people feel helpless? It is the information void. Fill the void, do not let it exists, don’t be isolated, get with other people and share and fill that void.
BRETT: Any final thoughts, anything I haven’t touched on you want to share?
BRIAN: As an advocate, not just for eating disorders, but addiction and other mental health issues, we need to stop being so fragmented, we need to stop being so territorial. We need to work collectively as one and stop looking to protector gain turf. We just need to work together.