The first time I remember trying to hide my body, I was 11 years old. I walked around my aunt and uncle’s house with a hand over my belly, as a reminder not to relax it all the way lest someone see what I really looked like. I remember the voice of some faceless adult asking, “why is he always touching his stomach?” I didn’t hear the answer, nor did I really know it myself.
I started wrestling in 7th grade. I was soft. I cried after the first few practices, and even during practice once or twice. I was utterly ashamed of my weakness, and wanted to quit, but also wanted to prove to the boys who taunted me that I could beat them at their own game. Near the end of the season, another coach came up to my coach and asked for “the little kid who knows what he’s doing” to wrestle one of his younger boys to get him some experience. I felt strong for the first time I could remember.
In 8th grade, I switched to a school one town over and decided no girl would ever like me unless I had a six-pack. I started eating less, and berating myself when I slipped. Hunger made me mad and eating made me feel weak. I never looked any different, no matter how hard I tried.
In 10th grade, I started lifting and found that I could outwork my peers, even if I was smaller than they were. I also got my first programming internship, at a small website development shop in town. I started to realize I could outwork my peers professionally, too.
In the fall of my junior year, I learned I would be wrestling at 126 pounds that season. I weighed 135, and those 9 pounds sounded like a lot, so I started cutting weight in September. I ate salad for nearly every meal. I think my parents were worried, but I was strong-willed enough that they knew I would reject any attempt to get me to stop. I wasn’t going to fail my team.
I’m not built to be ripped, and it was a struggle to lose that weight. Like many wrestlers before and after me, I hardly ate or drank for the 24 hours before each weigh-in, even during practice. Sweat, sweat, sweat some more. My coach called me fat. I never missed weight. I made it to States that year, where I was eliminated in the first round by the reigning state champ. He gave me a shoulder injury that still hurts sometimes, 7 years later, but I never blamed him. That was our game. I was back at 135 pounds a week after the season ended.
By the summer after 11th grade, I was undeniably jacked, but to my confusion, hardly anyone noticed – at least as far as I could tell. I still felt like my stomach stuck out when I looked down, though, and I kept trying to suck it in even as I wore tank tops to show off my newfound strength.
I landed an internship at a small startup in Boston. I stayed there four days a week. I didn’t know a soul, so I went to work, lifted, then went back to my room and worked some more. My loneliness felt disproportionate to the amount of time I spent alone. On the weekends I went home and got piss-drunk with people who seemed like my friends, even though it didn’t quite feel that way.
My senior year, I cut from 145 pounds to 132. It was far harder than the year before, and I lost a lot of hard-earned muscle. I spent 6 months restricting myself once again, from September to February. I hated every day of it, but wouldn’t let myself give up. I went to bed hungry, woke up hungry, and spent all day at school hungry. Once, a friend made me go have a snack because I was on the verge of passing out in Statistics. My coach still called me fat. I still never missed weight, ever, in my entire wrestling career. In a series of matches to decide who got the 132-pound varsity spot, I repeatedly embarrassed one of the boys who had made fun of me in 7th grade.
My very last match, I was pinned in a move called a spladle, which is a way of forcing someone’s legs apart until they can’t take the pain. It was a humiliating way to end my career: I screamed in a crowded auditorium as I tried to hold on for a few more seconds. But honestly, I was relieved to be done. I could finally eat.
A few months later, I lay in bed after a party with a girl I’d had a crush on for more than a year. We cuddled, and she pointedly told me she’d never be with a guy who didn’t have a flat stomach. I was right: no girl would ever like me if I didn’t have a six-pack.
I lived in a constant battle with my appetite. I never felt full, and I never really felt hungry, either, but I always wanted to eat. The fickle number on the scale each morning decided my mood for the day.
I deferred college for a year, and the August after graduation, I set out across the country on my 40-year-old motorcycle. I was with a friend for the first few days, and then I was alone. I was on the journey of a lifetime, everyone told me, and they were right. I learned so much about the world, and about myself. I also was frighteningly lonely. I rode through the Smoky Mountains as fast as I could as dusk fell, trying to find cell service before it got dark so that I would have someone to talk to in my tent. Bizarrely, it felt like my life hung in the balance. I was terrified. I felt guilty, too, for having anything other than a spectacular time on this spectacular journey to spectacular places. I learned that the faster I rode, the less alone I felt. I only had time to react to the road.
I was home for 6 weeks. I hated how I looked, and started running 5 miles a day. I pushed through the pain like I learned to from wrestling, and badly hurt both ankles in less than a week.
Several months and several countries later, I got another internship in Cambridge. This time I was working full time. The shoulder injury from my match at States kept me from lifting, I still didn’t know anyone, and I couldn’t figure out how to meet people. So I ate less and worked more. If I just worked hard enough, got rich enough, was ripped enough, maybe someone would notice me the way I longed to be noticed. I started journaling, and discovered I did not love myself.
I started school at Northeastern. From the beginning, I felt like an actor. I was there out of a sense of duty. I made a few good friends, but I felt trapped in the concrete, working towards a piece of paper I didn’t need. Nothing mattered. The dining hall was a buffet, and I couldn’t stop eating. I lifted constantly so that at least some of the weight I gained would be muscle. I gained almost 20 pounds in 9 months. I missed the road, I thought.
I decided to take another year off school. I got yet another internship, this time in New Hampshire. I didn’t live alone, but it would have been better if I did. The mentally ill woman I rented a room from never, ever cleaned or took her pets out. It was a scary place. I stopped showering there after the first week and showered at work instead. I kept journaling like my life depended on it. Maybe it did.
I asked to work four 10-hour days a week, and worked the 5th day (and some weekends) for the startup from the previous summer. I had injured my wrists and elbows at the end of the school year, so I again couldn’t lift, and it hurt to type most of the time. I hardly spoke to anyone outside of work during the week, and ate as little as I could bear. I began fasting for 40 hours once a week.
By the end of the summer I was the de facto manager of a team of four interns. When I left, one of the other interns baked me a cake as a thank you, which was one of the sweetest things I could remember anyone doing for me. I thanked her profusely and ate it with a side of guilt.
I set out across the country on my motorcycle again. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it again, and enjoy it this time. I was deeply lonely once again. I met a girl in Michigan who liked me for who I was, but I didn’t like myself enough to believe her. I rode west, berating myself for my cowardice.
I pounded out the last 1500 miles to Los Angeles in a few days. I needed to get to my friend Jonah – I couldn’t take the solitude any longer. I hovered around his house for a couple months, trying not to take up too much space. I wasn’t sure if his roommates wanted me there. I worked a lot, because I didn’t know what else to do. I kept writing.
That winter, Jonah and I went to Europe. I decided to drop out of college in a hostel bed in Venice at 1am. After months (years?) of indecision, that choice awoke traces of self-confidence for the first time. It was revelatory. I remember sitting on a roof in Morocco, smoking a cigarette, feeling just a little bit cool.
Then: COVID. I lived with my parents in rural Western Massachusetts. I worked, worked, worked. I often weighed myself multiple times a day. The scale still ruled my inner life. I made some money, and what I took away from that was that I was right: I just needed to keep working harder, and someone would recognize me. If it worked for my career, why wouldn’t it work for my personal life? Besides, I had no idea what else to try. Effort was my only frame of reference.
In January of 2021, the day after my dad’s birthday, I moved to Boulder. I had never really moved anywhere else, except for college: I traveled incessantly, but my parents’ house was always home base until then. I felt a deep sense of fear and guilt for leaving them, despite their encouragement.
Boulder felt like Mecca, and I felt like a sinner. The outdoors were a step away, and the landscape was impossibly beautiful. Yet loneliness was still my closest friend. I cried in my car in the supermarket parking lot. I felt like a failure. I made more money, got fitter, but still couldn’t lift or climb or run because of my injuries. I kept traveling just as much – anything to escape. For my birthday, I drove two hours south to be with my only close friend in Colorado. I couldn’t bring myself to journal that day.
Somehow, I stumbled onto a corner of Twitter where people encouraged each other to be nice to themselves. That idea had never even occurred to me. It ran counter to my every instinct: my work ethic was built on self-flagellation. I thought their methods were overindulgent, but they seemed so happy that I decided I might as well try. I felt even weaker for trying, but over time I woke some latent emotional self-awareness within myself.
On a trip to Brooklyn, I stayed with friends of a friend, and felt deeply seen in a way I had never felt before. I was confused, because I hadn’t done anything to impress them – they hardly knew who I was. Why did they pay so much attention to me? I cried the whole flight home.
I decided to move to New York. I spent much of the rest of the summer staying at my newfound friends’ apartment. I felt the beginnings of something happening between me and one of the women there. My struggle with my weight evaporated, which baffled me. I stopped weighing myself so often. I felt alive in a way I never had before. Those crazy people on Twitter were right: being kind to myself felt amazing! Who cares about work?
She helped me move my things from Boulder to Brooklyn, and she took my virginity the night we got back. A moment later, she asked me not to tell anyone. The “why” is irrelevant. From there, my newfound happiness crumbled around me. The friend group I moved there to be with fractured.
That winter, I fell into loneliness again, a place that I thought I had left behind forever. This time, I knew what I was missing. I hardly ate, and only left my apartment to take walks through the bleak, dark, windy streets. I felt like I was barely hanging on. Surrounded by 8 million people, I felt more isolated than I ever had before.
In January, I rented a decrepit old warehouse. I was determined to build my way out of loneliness. If I created a place where everyone wanted to be, I would never be alone. I moved in on a cold March morning, surrounded by mold, trash, and work to be done. The heating system didn’t work. I worked in a down jacket, and slept in a sleeping bag in my car, inside the warehouse. Some days, I thought I was crazy. No one wanted to be there – I lived in a biohazard.
Several months later, it started to become usable. Some friends saw the vision I saw, and I was no longer working on it alone. I allowed myself a faint ray of hope. I also drank more than I had since high school, hardly slept, and worked day and night. I got out of shape. I was too scared to weigh myself, and I still thought I would never feel the lightness of the previous summer again.
The warehouse started gathering steam. I couldn’t believe it! People liked it! It was working! I granted myself a bit more hope. I was too busy to spend much time writing or reflecting.
I went to a weekend beach party with some friends, and met a woman there. She had just moved from France to Montreal. We spent two magical days together, and I thought I would never see her again. Kissing her goodbye at the New Haven train station nearly broke my heart.
We fell in love, and made it work from New York to Montreal. My problems were no longer all-consuming. I felt worthy for the first time. She helped me see in myself what she saw in me. I was her garçon américain. At the same time, the warehouse became an important place for local young musicians…I could hardly believe what was happening to me. My cup ran over. The world felt so pliable.
She ran out of work in Montreal, and went back to France. My heart broke in earnest, and so did my model of the world. I felt alone even among my closest friends. My principles and values changed beyond comprehension. The first six months were a blur of distraction and agony. I hardly recognized myself.
I’m broken still. But there has been a change in the texture of my pain: it no longer feels inevitable. I have lived long enough to see the cycle I live within. The days get brighter, then the nights get colder. Through each night, I learn enough to find a new kind of day. All I can do is learn to trust this cycle will continue.
I no longer hate my body. Eating is not so fraught with hardship. I still have days where it’s hard to look in the mirror, but I haven’t had a hard month in a long time. I never weigh myself. I found the right physical therapist, and after 7 years I can run and climb again. I barely care about money anymore: as the warehouse takes more and more of my time, I work as a programmer less and less, even though the warehouse only loses money. But I don’t care. I will not go hungry. The worst case scenario is not so bad.
I know that I will someday feel pain worse than I have ever felt, and joy of a sort that I can’t hope to imagine. I will keep going.
This piece paints a very dark portrait of my life, and in that way it’s deceiving. I wrote this to connect the dots between the difficult parts of my life, but I left out many (almost all) of my happy experiences. So think of this as a picture taken from one angle – truthful, but not the only picture that could be taken. Maybe someday I’ll take a picture facing the other way.