I can’t say I ever aspired to be a competitive eater. Inhaling massive quantities of food at a breakneck pace wasn’t something I dreamed of doing as a little kid. Then again, I never expected I’d be battling anorexia, either.
In high school, I was misdiagnosed with lymphoma at the same time that my father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and my mother was hospitalized for issues relating to her multiple sclerosis. I was completely uprooted, and I felt like I'd lost all control over my life.
Desperate for an escape and eager to take a break from the overwhelming events at home, I set out to sports camp for the summer. But I still felt completely out of sorts, even there, so I sought out ways to take some control back. One way I could do that was by controlling what I put into my body.
I’d sneak into the back of the camp kitchen and scrounge up some bare-bones lettuce. That’s it. I used cayenne pepper and lemon to add spice, just so my "meal" had some semblance of flavor.
When I got home from camp, I didn’t just return with fun memories from the summer — I brought back my eating restrictions, too. Once school started, the sense of control that I had found at camp started to slip away. An overloaded class schedule and the added stress of applying to college eroded the grip I had on my life. So I kept up my restricted eating and added extreme exercise on top of it. I started with daily 5-mile runs and quickly ramped them up to 10 miles on a consistent basis... all on a tiny amount of food.
My eating disorder was getting so bad that I was having a hard time keeping myself warm, and my friends and family were beginning to notice. I was able to explain their concerns away with excuses and convenient timing, but it all came to a head on my 18th birthday.
That night, my mom invited my aunt, uncle, and cousin over for a dinner party with food and dessert: an angel food birthday cake she'd made using the lightest possible ingredients.
When I informed everyone that I had already eaten dinner on my way home from school and was no longer hungry, the disappointment on my mom's face was obvious.
“But I told you yesterday and this morning not to eat ahead of time because I was inviting everyone over,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, Mom. I forgot,” I replied.
She shook her head as I put the plate she had set on the table for me back into the cupboard. When dinner was over, she told me it was time for cake.
“Just a small piece,” she said as she lit the candles.
The last thing I wanted to do was hurt her feelings, but the voice in my head wouldn’t stop. I was holding on to so much fear at that point. Every calorie was a battle, and even though I knew I was breaking my mom's heart, I gave in to the voice.
“I’m still full from eating dinner. I’ll have a slice later.”
I glanced around the table, and I could tell by the look on their faces that my family could tell exactly how bad my illness was.
I had a sit-down with my mom shortly after that night and promised to change. But I couldn’t keep my promise.
Not too long after that birthday celebration, I woke up in the hospital after my mom had pleaded with me to see a doctor. My eyes were bleary at first, taking in the bare walls and the white coat on the doctor standing to my right. I looked down to see an IV in my arm and a heart monitor beeping out a slow rhythm beside me. I saw a nurse set down a tray of food within my reach.
“Try to eat this, Peter, if you can,” she said. I noticed my mom standing behind her with the slick of tears creeping into her eyes.
I stayed in the hospital for six weeks. During that time, I had to eat six supervised meals a day. My body was so frail that I was only able to take in liquid food at first. After that excruciating month and a half, I thought I was ready to check myself out. But of course, I wasn't ready.
For six months after leaving, I was caught up in what felt like a roller coaster of results and failed progress. I'd gain a pound, lose a pound, gain a pound, lose 4 pounds. I would go to the hospital every two weeks for weigh-ins. There would be times I knew that I hadn’t eaten enough that week, so I'd drink a bunch of water right before the visit to get my weight up.
But then I decided to start sharing what was going on in my life — I signed on to my first fitness forum. I posted my story, my diet, and my training onto a supportive online community. I found that encouragement and advice from objective outsiders carried far more weight than any other strategy I'd tried up to that point. And in that way, the online forums were huge factors in my recovery.
Before I joined them, once I'd make an improvement of some kind, like clockwork, a voice inside of my head would return to try to hinder me. It felt like my brain was getting hijacked — sometimes it got so intense that I would scream at the voice to get the hell out and leave me alone.
But the more I talked to other people on the forums, the more this voice started fading away. As I progressed with my fitness, improved my relationship with food, and became more comfortable with my body image, it got quieter and quieter. Over time, I stopped hearing it altogether.
The most important lesson that I took away from my eating disorder and recovery is that everything comes down to what's going on mentally; If you’re thinking negatively all the time, you can’t live life happily.
It wasn’t about my weight or physique. It was about what was going on inside my own head. My mentality became a crucial component of my journey to health — something I valued, prioritized, and protected.
Changing my outlook led me to eventually find myself sitting in a greasy diner in 2007, ready to take down the biggest breakfast of my life. In the years to follow, I'd become a professional fitness model, travel around the world and break Guinness world records in eating. But that’s a story for another time.
To learn more about my journey from anorexia to professional eating, check out my new book, Stay Hungry.
Photo credit: Instagram/ Furious Pete