I’ve got to talk fast if I’m going to get through this, through enough of the history behind all of this so that maybe you’ll understand what it’s about. I am doing the plank—a yoga position recently co-opted by the exercise world. I’m stretched out almost parallel to the ground, my elbows and toes the only points of contact. I’m holding my body rigid, flat—as if I were a plank.
Hence the name: The Plank.
I am in minute one now.
By minute six sweat will drip down my triceps. My arms and shoulders will start to quiver. My legs will start trembling around minute seven, maybe eight. I am already feeling a slight burn in my abdominals, and if I’m in tune enough, by raising or lowering my hips slightly, I can move this burn along these muscles, which I feel tightening beneath my skin with every breath. I am going to hold myself in this position for ten minutes, which I have never done before. The longest I’ve held the plank thus far is nine minutes, and here, it’s that one extra minute that counts. The goal of that tenth minute is simple: the goal is pain—a very particular pain that I used to feel after four minutes of holding this position, and then after five, six, seven minutes, and so on. It’s all about achieving this very particular pain. A part of me loves this particular sort of pain—and doing the plank is the second best way I’ve found to achieve it.
I grew up wearing Husky-brand jeans. I once cried to my mom that I was the fattest kid in the third grade. That isn’t true, she told me, saying that this other boy was heftier than me. Sitting on the edge of my bed I held my stomach in my hands. My mom told me everyone’s stomach looks like that when they’re slouched over. If I was so worried about it I should just suck it in.
When I was in the fifth grade I had a twenty-pound barbell and a workout routine that I plowed through three days a week. I stuck to pretzels when snacking and lost ten pounds. My mother and I also started going to the park to play tennis in the morning. And maybe it’s worth noting, these days my mother does the plank for a minute and a half every morning.
I think I must be in minute three of the plank now. As you can see, it’s not so bad. My abs are burning slightly but the strain is invigorating, and at this point I feel so strong and steady that I want to push things a little further. The trick is to do this on a semi-slippery surface, like tile, or linoleum, or finished wood. That way it’s more difficult to hold your body in position and your muscles will work harder. And keep your heels pushed back. And, like I’m doing now, edge your elbows forward an inch—or two inches for the full effect.
Now I can really feel it—we must be coming up on the fourth minute.
I admit, about now the doubt kicks in and I wonder if I’ll make it, if I’ll be able to finish what I’ve started.
At some point I realized that if I didn’t eat anything after, say, eight at night, I would wake up in the morning with that great empty, thin feeling that made my pants seem to fit better, and made me walk taller. Sometime in high school I stopped going to lunch, except, occasionally, for some candy. I was a fan of those big chewy Sweet Tarts in particular. And I did a lot of calisthenics, and ran most days after school. Somewhere in there I grew into a model’s body, densely muscled but lean. And maybe you think I’m arrogant for saying that, but I’ll say it anyway, because it’s important to the story: I had a real model of a body.
My girlfriend told me again and again that I would always have that body, because I would never let myself go. My lack of charm had never gotten me anywhere with the girls before, and around this time, occasionally, at parties and concerts, girls would walk up from nowhere and start making out with me. I was shy enough that the only thing this ever led to was my thinking of this body as my single greatest asset.
In college, I found hunger to be a great pain. I’ve never fasted, as such, but skip a few meals and sit through a fifty-minute lecture on the Philosophy of Community and inevitably the hunger comes at you, and all you can do is embrace it because you won’t be able to focus on anything else until that fireball pain passes. Your vision might blur; sounds might fade. A great white light hits your face but you can’t look away, it’s so intense, it holds you. And then suddenly the world reappears, the professor’s voice fades back in, fuzzy, then clear, and you remember where you are and recognize those around you, and wonder if they noticed you’d left and only just returned. And just like that the hunger pain is gone, replaced by an extraordinary, hollow, empty feeling, as if the black hole at the center of the universe is somehow in you, holding everything precariously together. It feels so good. You truly feel great.
So I wasn’t eating breakfast or lunch, but I was playing rugby then and I worked out a lot, and after practices, when I was totally spent, feeling so righteously tough and tired, I would eat four-thousand calorie dinners. I also limited my caffeine consumption, rarely smoked, and only boozed on the weekends—I was so wary of forming any sort of addiction.
I tend to hyper-focus on things. For instance, I’m completely focused right now on thinking this aloud as I enter minute five of the plank.
And sometimes I hyper-focus on a bag of chips, and all I’ll be able to think about is eating those chips. No matter what else I’m doing.
I’ve gotten better at redirecting this focus onto other things, but there was a time when I would deny myself the pleasure of eating something, like chips, and then my craving for them would grow so intense that I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else until I’d finally broken down and eaten enough of them to make me feel sick. Only then could I get on with things, except that then I would hyper-focus on the effect of those chips on that Calvin Klein physique.
Of course, I realize so much of this could be a metaphor for writing, or maybe a reason for it, or maybe, simply, a way into it, into art, one’s art, which is only an alternate channeling of obsessiveness really—a bridle and bit to steer these tendencies towards something that won’t ruin you so much, into something that won’t make you so crazy. Harnessed, this is the obsession that good art seems to ask for, that underpins so much that is made to be beautiful.
Look at me, here, baring myself like this: “Such an exhibitionist!” you might be thinking, and that’s probably true (and there you have another metaphor for writing, or for any art). But it’s not as simple as that. I just want you to see. I want you to see these muscles rippling. I want you to stare and think, “Oh, God, there he is, showing off,” and then I want you to look deeper, to grasp what goes into a physique like this, the obsessiveness it requires. I want you to think about where else this all might lead. If not the plank—or a Ph.D., a sixth language, the Olympics, or a follow-up to a novel like Infinite Jest—where might this obsessiveness drive us?
The roots of our vices are in our genes. We learn to live with them or they do us in. We all know someone, don’t we?
Would I have rather had a smack habit? Maybe. No, not really. That’s just not in my nature. It was never about escape for me. It was about digging in. Minute six.
Over the summer I was at home, and my mother bought a giant coconut-frosted bunny-shaped cake, which she left on the kitchen counter. Nothing I tried could take my mind off it. That fucking cake was all I thought about until everyone else finally left, and by then I was on such an edge that I only ate a couple forkfuls and flipped out. I went out to the backyard and stuck my fingers down my throat and heaved. And that was that. That was all it took. It was like finding a key to a locked room I’d been trying to pound my way into. I felt relief, but more than that, I felt free. Obviously, a few days later, I did it again.
I was a resident assistant in college and living in my own dorm room with my own bathroom and a free meal plan. I’d really hit my stride. Started eating lunch, and every day after lunch, I would sink to the toilet bowl, do my thing, brush my teeth, shower up. I did this every day, sometimes twice a day, for four months. I was fit, was a fine rugby player, and I got good grades, and once, at a picnic with friends, I ate five hamburgers and felt so sick that I went back to my room and went through the motions and suddenly I felt so good, so normal, so self-possessed once again. And no one ever noticed, or said, anything.
Half a year later—at a point when I’d managed to hold off for two weeks and I thought maybe I was done with it all, that maybe I’d really beaten it—I came clean to my girlfriend. It was embarrassing as hell but there was some love there, so she went with me to a counselor and while she waited in the hallway I told the counselor I was fine, I’d dealt with it, it was over. The counselor believed this, too, and that was that. But of course I was a real mess, and I gave into it again and again, once a week for the next year and a half. And no one knew about this. When that girlfriend left me, I told the next one; she never mentioned it again. Later I asked my mother not to buy so much fucking junk food, or bake so many cookies and cakes and leave them around the house. I begged her not to, at least not while I was staying there that summer, and she told me if I didn’t want to eat them, then just don’t eat them. Practice some self-control, is what she told me.
By this point I’d been doing two hundred pushups a day for two years, I could do twenty pull-ups and sprint a mile—I had that discipline. But I couldn’t stop myself from obsessing about a quart of Mint Chocolate Chip until I’d eaten every fucking spoonful.
You reach a point in a bag of chips when you realize you’ve eaten too many and there’s no turning back. You’ll have to do it, and so you figure, well, I may as well go all in.
It’s actually kind of painful, but you do it because it’ll feel so good—like you’ve been bowled over, but are then set straight, standing tall once more—when you’re done.
Finish the chips, maybe a candy bar, some ice cream, maybe cook yourself a bratwurst or pound down a cake or eat a dozen Cadbury Eggs. There’s no turning back, you know you’re going to do it, so you maximize. Take it to the limit. Then head to the toilet bowl, get it done. Brush your teeth. Shower up. You feel so good when it’s over.
And eventually you reach a point when half a slice of pizza, a bite of a doughnut, or even a single Dorito is one too many, and you may as well have eaten everything in the fridge. And it all ends the same way. And you always feel so good when it’s over.
Except that it’s never really over, not for long. Minute six seems to be lasting forever—On to minute seven.
I’m kind of hurting here!
Three Wednesdays in a row I drove to a hospital whose website advertised a support group for afflictions like this. The second Wednesday, I made it into the lobby before leaving. The third week I actually approached the room where the group met, and that’s when I saw a real skin-and-bones girl—probably fifteen-years-old—walk through the door with her dad, and there I was, a twenty-year-old tough guy, healthy, it seemed, with that sculpted physique, and there was no way I could go in there and talk about what I was going through as if it was anything. So I fled. I would torture myself until Saturday, when I would eat whatever, then spend an hour over the toilet bowl with the shower on to hide the noise. I’d brush my teeth and feel my stomach empty again, my abs tight, and I would wake up Sunday morning feeling so refreshed, so clean of it all, I would swear to myself I’d never do it again.
People say ridiculous things, like, “The gag reflex goes away over time, so bulimics need to go to extremes, like shoving rolled-up newspapers down their throats,” or, “Their hair gets really thin and after a while starts to fall out”—and I always want to say something, to speak up and let those idiots know those facts are fables, that they don’t know shit.
Ice cream is a staple: goes down so delicious, comes up so easily. That said, plain old chips were my favorite—though if you eat a family-size bag of Lays, after a while they do cut the crap out of the roof of your mouth. Chips come out in clumps. Sausages, ground chuck, not the best, but doable. Chocolate is the worst—comes up a dribbly liquid, and I could never be sure I’d gotten it all out. I could never eat enough of it to really feel full anyway.
We’re in minute eight now.
It’s so hard to read while doing this! And that works as a metaphor, too: it’s so hard to talk about a thing like this while you’re enduring it. But I’m trying here.
Oh, it hurts now! But it’s okay, I can survive anything now. See me slide my elbows forward another inch, like it’s nothing. It’s nothing. It feels so good! Though I suspect I don’t really know what good is anymore—at least it feels like something.
These toilet bowl escapades lasted three years. Note how difficult it is for me to say vomiting; I say difficult, but mean yet a different kind of pain, shame. I’ve been doing the plank twice a week for five. And the plank isn’t exactly the same thing, but it feels good in much the same way. The thing about the vomiting is that it was never just about zeroing in on that empty-stomach-totally-purged, light-and-spry-and-thin feeling. Heaving your stomach up for half an hour is like cranking out a thousand sit-ups. When I finished, I would stand, legs shaking a little maybe, and I would feel like a winning gladiator when the contest is over, drained, but strong and powerful.
(It is all about control, they tell you—clamoring for control.)
Bile would string from my chin, and snot would drip from my nose. My eyes would water, and sometimes my whole body would shake. The bankrupt muscles around my stomach and in my chest and diaphragm would spasm and ache. It got to be quite painful, and not in such a pleasant way–with the bile and the spasms, and the shame and loneliness of it. Such a chunk of life spent down there, in the toilet bowl. I don’t know what else to say about it. Whatever I might say couldn’t touch how terrible it got.
I was at the mercy of it. It just got to be too much. Like with this here, the plank, you can really push it hard but you can’t keep it up forever. And so I stopped. But the thing is, like this planking, it felt so good. So good! With the endorphins and the adrenaline, it was a real high, felt like some kind of enlightenment, maybe.
At least for a while.
The only thing that comes close is the feeling you get from doing something like this, from holding the plank.
Are you still with me? Here it is! We’re in the final minute!
It’s important to me that you see this particular suffering, suffering like this. And I hope you are uncomfortable watching this, looking at me like this. You should be uncomfortable.
We hide our scars and embarrassing hairs and stretch marks and wrinkles. We hide our bodies beneath so many clothes, and we hide so much of ourselves beneath veneers of calm, coolness and composure. We keep so much concealed. The ways we interact are so often a performance. This performance is about the reveal.
And it’s almost over now.
And I want to hit home.
I went through all of this, as a man, alone. I am sure there are other men out there, a few at least, who bear similar stories, but I have never met them. I am putting myself on display here, for them, for you.
Thirty seconds— Twenty-five—
There can’t be much left now.
This essay was originally published in Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature & Fine Arts
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Marla Teresa Ambrosi