Story of Survival, Story of Loss

On July 12, 1998, Mike and Ann Flood woke up to a nightmare. Their 19-year-old son Jamie had killed himself outside their front door.

Jamie, a 1997 Gibraltar High School graduate, was a member of the track team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an excellent student. But he suffered from an eating disorder, brought on by his self-imposed drive for perfection.

Gary Grahl at 20 years old and 106 pounds.

He worked out religiously, recording results of all his workouts and reps in a notebook, and keeping to a strict schedule. He monitored his calories and fat intake rigorously and worked to drop weight to become the toned high jumper his coaches desired. When he committed suicide, he carried just 151 pounds on his 6’4” frame.

Years earlier, another young man grappled with many of the same demons as Jamie. Gary Grahl was a budding young athlete in Eden, WI, living just a few hundred feet down the street from Mike Flood’s childhood home. Like Jamie, he was driven. He saw the toned, rippling athletes on the cover of Sports Illustrated and worked to emulate them. By age 15, he lost his way.

Grahl began to lose weight, gaining a sense of accomplishment by getting thinner and retreating from friends and family. Eventually, he quit sports so he didn’t have to deal with rejection. He was by himself, and he liked it that way.

At 5’8” inches tall, he plummeted to a weight of 102 ¾ pounds. To cut fat and calories, he used tomato soup as salad dressing. Jamie used barbecue sauce as dressing, trying to keep his fat intake below 18 grams per day.

They were similar in so many ways. Each was a perfectionist. Each impressed those around them with their focus and dedication. But Grahl survived his ordeal, and now works to create awareness of male eating disorders and try to prevent others from going down his path, or worse, Jamie’s. He wrote Skinny Boy, a memoir recounting his long journey dealing with his disorder and the depression it brought on.

Gary Grahl wrote “Skinny Boy,” a memoir about his battle with anorexia, in hopes of helping others.

This winter the Floods decided to help spread his message, using funds in the Jamie Flood Fund to purchase a copy of Grahl’s book for every public library in the state. Community members donated the money to the fund after Jamie’s death, and Mike Flood said he had been looking for the best way to distribute the money for some time.

“I saw Gary on TV and decided to read the book,” Flood said. “As I’m reading it, I thought to myself, this sounds really familiar.”

Flood, a nurse practitioner with Aurora Medical Clinic in Sister Bay, said over 20 percent of anorexics are male, often influenced by the ripped abs and big biceps in fitness magazines.

“I hope educators and athletic trainers pick this book up, read it, and hopefully they can help someone who’s struggling with this,” Flood said.

Grahl, now a counselor at Sturgeon Bay High School, has appeared as a guest commentator on the topic on numerous national television programs and in Men’s Health, Women’s World, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is a national resource person for the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

“I think this is a great way to get the message out about male anorexia,” Grahl said. “With the book, I wanted to assist others and help people with eating disorders. Traditionally these are associated with females, but more and more males are speaking up.”

Grahl said readers have told him that his book gave them a voice, even permission to struggle and deal with their disorder.

“It’s such a private illness,” he said. “People will hide it to the nth degree; it’s almost like their teddy bear. It’s something they feel they can control, even though it’s controlling them.”

Grahl said those with eating disorders tend to be people-pleasers who don’t feel they can meet their expectations or live up to the expectations of others.

“They feel ‘If I can’t be the best, then I’m nothing.’ They can control their disorder, but not how others think of them,” he said. “It’s a slow suicide.”

Grahl was in and out of the hospital six times and spent over 300 days total in care from 1984 – 1989, but he said it was necessary to get better. There is no quick fix.

“The wisest person, the person they trust the most, will tell them to move on and it won’t work,” Grahl said. “If you’re dealing with someone with the disorder, they have to know that it’s okay to struggle. You do have to allow them to make certain choices where they are hurting, as long as they’re getting professional help, allow them to make decisions. It’s an experience they have to get through.”

Grahl and Jamie’s stories serve as one part inspiration and one part cautionary tale.

“It’s a story about one person who struggled with this disorder and survived,” Flood said, “and another about someone who didn’t.”

Flood and Grahl hope that together, their experiences with the disease help more people fight through the struggle.

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