As I’ve written about previously; having survived abuse and poverty in my youth in Apartheid South Africa, you would think a young Italian male would embrace food as, and when, he gets it. Sadly, I was haunted by the distortions of low self-esteem, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and a failure to develop a healthy form of masculinity distinct from my abusive father’s version. The connection between healthy development and fathers is well known, and the possibility for positive forms of masculinity are supported by research. With no father to depend on, an emotionally crippled mother, and nothing but bad male role models, it seems inevitable that I would question developing into a ‘typical man’ as I had witnessed them to be.
So began a long period of orthorexia; the obsessive attention to eating certain types of food, leading to a form of anorexia. Yes, men can develop this too. The subliminal goal was to avoid seeing a man in the mirror; a man that would resemble my abusive father. I believe there are self-validation hurdles in early adulthood that permit -or restrict- someone to purchase and consume food when they have the power to do so at will. You must believe you deserve the food you will purchase, prepare, and consume.
We seem to grasp this more easily when discussing obesity. If you’ve never developed sense of self-worth you won’t do this at all. My choice was to gradually starve myself. I believe this was to punish myself for never being worthy of adult/guardian love and attention, to stall the inevitable eruption of the tyrant toxic male within. After seven years of this type of obsessive consumption limitation I began looking like the victim I believed, deep down, I was – I was emaciated, physically weak, and mentally fragile.
Why am I ruining your day with this grim tale of self-induced erasure? Because although we express these struggles differently; it’s a common path for many. The adult brain seems determined to forget its path, presuming to now retain knowledge seemingly beyond the capacity of adolescents who are grappling with these same difficulties. When I was 19, no one advised me that I was damaging my body by attempting to rid myself of my father’s genetic imprint. People admired my determination to eat so specifically, so diligently, so little. I managed to attract women who envied the sinuous lines of my emaciated body, apparently unaware of the hazard of being twenty per cent under-weight. Many adults also avoid openly discussing the scars they carry from mistakes made reaching this nirvana of adult status; this is why we have counselling therapy. Adults need secrecy and privacy to unwrap these curdled packages they have skilfully stored from adolescence.
Your path to middle-adulthood is littered with the artefacts of your adolescence. You will attain financial freedom and independence; you may produce children, buy property, and create things for others. But that bad habit, that weakness, that wound, that curdled package will resurface when you reach the safety of middle-adulthood. We can un-wrap these packages with therapists, with friends, with family, and even with our children one day. You are always that sixteen year old in the mirror, you just got better at dealing with it. We can help each other by admitting this. We can help adolescents today who are struggling with materialism, social media, and loss of identity, toxic gender expressions, victimhood, and the void of purpose created by the prosperous modern age. Middle adulthood requires us to profess how we got there, so others can find the path.
Vincent Deboni is a registered professional counsellor who is based in Sweden.