National Eating Disorders Association

Fighting Against Self: A Queer Transman’s Journey Away from ED

Ryan Sallans

People who know memay consider me to be a “healthy person” but in reality, most of my adult life I’ve teetered near the point of death, both literally and figuratively. Some might argue that what pushed me to this point was my battle with anorexia. In the past I would have agreed with them, but the more years I put between me and my disorder, the more I realize that my poor health was the result of a larger battle with myself – the eating disorder just served as the mask. 

To prepare for this year’s NEDAwareness Week, NEDA filmed testimonials at their annual conference last year asking people to share their experiences related to the theme of “I Had No Idea.” I was one of the people chosen to do a testimonial. They sat me down in a chair, set a tiny camera in front of me, and then asked me to start my film by finishing the statement, “I had no idea . . .” Before I even thought about what would come out of my mouth, the red light on the camera began to blink and I said, “I had no idea . . . that I was a boy . . .”

I was born assigned female, and have now transitioned to male. I find myself writing about this topic because when we hear about eating disorders, it is rare for us to hear the stories of males who have, or are, suffering. To add the “trans” label on top of this minority causes it to be almost unspoken, both in person and in research.

I sometimes wonder if I would have struggled with an eating disorder if I had known I was transgender as a kid, or even as a teenager. What if I had been placed on puberty blockers to keep my body from changing into that of an adult woman? What if I had started on hormones and had surgery to remove my breasts at an earlier age? Would I still have become sick? The answer to that question is most likely “yes.” No external physical change can fix the internal self. We have to heal from the inside out. What needs healing on the inside, is unique for us all.

With the turn of the calendar page to a new year, I’m moving closer to nine years of recovery from anorexia. With the time away from the pain that I (and my family) experienced, I am able to look at my life through a new lens. Looking through my old journals and artwork, I understand that my suffering was caused by the fear of not being loved and accepted, both by my family and society at large. Other factors also contributed to my eating disorder (family dynamics, peer influence, genetics, sexuality, etc . . .) but the one that kept me in my disorder was that I wasn’t allowing myself to grow into an independent being. I was basing my self-worth entirely on my skewed interpretations of other people’s approval.

My recovery from this darkness first required me to establish a baseline physical health so that I could stay alive and so my brain could start functioning properly again. Although it was difficult, establishing physical health was easy compared to accepting that I had to walk away from a life and identity that was not safe, healthy or healing and then sit in a place of discomfort where I couldn’t use my old behaviors to escape. I just had to sit there, and let myself feel that anxiety, fear, frustration and sadness. I had to sit there and ask myself, “What is it that I’m scared of?”

For me, that answer came through a moment of looking in the mirror and knowing that I was scared of my sexual self, who I would be, and how I would be seen if sexuality was allowed into my life. To begin to explore this, I had to set out on another journey that was full of fear, but also exhilaration and excitement: coming out into the lesbian community, and then coming out as transgender. Today I am a queer transman and also a son, brother, uncle, husband and dad (to four-legged furry children). Through my exploration of my sexual self, I was able to find my full self.

As I have mentioned previously, I am now nine years into recovery. Not everything is perfect. I still live with fear. I still have insecurities. I still struggle with body image issues. But I’m learning that if I face what it is that I’m scared of, I’m able to take care of myself. It is a constant battle, but one worth fighting. I had no idea . . . life could be so hard, but also so rewarding when we honor our truths.

Ryan Sallans is the author of Second Son: Transitioning Toward My Destiny, Love and Life

See Ryan's "I Had No Idea..." Video