“I grew up in a house where it was made very clear that being gay wasn’t an option. I was raised Catholic. I was told not to hold my hands a certain way and forced into sports. I knew being gay wasn’t going to be accepted. I thought I was the only gay person in my town. It was a very, very scary time for me.”
Although Jon Derek Croteau, EdD, grew up in the ’80s and ’90s without any gay role models, his opening statements over the phone are reminiscent of countless stories of youth today. He continued:
“I was praying to God to help it not be so. I started realizing I had feelings for my best friend and I felt shame and guilt and despair—it wasn’t a happy occasion. It wasn’t something I thought was normal. You have to remember, I thought it was a sin in my church. It was intense and scary.”
Growing up, Croteau said he never truly felt he could express himself, mostly due to his oppressive father, who he describes as the “oil to his water.” Croteau recounted that his earliest memories of his father were “entangled with fear and anxiety,” as Croteau struggled to fit the mold that his father tried to force him into: that of a macho athlete. While Croteau gravitated towards theater, his father’s rules prevented him from auditioning in any play.
At the time, Croteau had just discovered Whitney Houston and Tracy Chapman and was lip-synching in his bedroom so his dad couldn’t hear him. When he would have much rather been doing theater and choir, his father was a volunteer coach for three sports and pushed him into playing. “I absolutely hated it. When I was playing football, I was always getting caught watching the girls cheerleading rather than playing the sport. I was never allowed to fully explore those things. My sister says I would have made an excellent dancer or ice skater.”
“My dad thought that a contact sport would make me ‘tougher’ and would get me into better shape,” Croteau said. “‘It’s good for you,’ he’d say. ‘It’ll make you a real man.’”
These microaggressions aimed at invalidating Croteau’s sexuality were common utterances from his father. Each year, countless men and women struggle with their own sexual identities. The decision to keep this knowledge private, burying one’s true self underneath feelings of inadequacy or fear of rejection from society, family, and friends, can trigger an internal war for the individual with potentially dangerous results. Quite often, suicide and self-abuse become the only escape from the emotional stress he or she carries. This toll was all too common for Croteau who took his suffering to the ultimate level.
In his teenage years Jon started realizing the truth about himself: “I was petrified that everyone would know what was ‘wrong’ with me, as if some sort of plague was marked on my head or they would be able to somehow see it in my eyes that I was gay.”
The confusion of his thoughts and feelings drove Jon mad, eventually pushed him to the edge. He could not handle “the thought of being gay,” and his self-hatred caused him to attempt suicide, only to be saved by a family member. Like many homosexuals in denial, Croteau attempted to suppress the urge to be his true self but was unable to do so. He said, “I would have rather died than be gay at the time. I’m happily married and I love who I am now, but at the time when I realized I couldn’t change myself, I definitely had a plan that was foiled by my sister.”
“I didn’t prepare a note—I wanted to disappear for good,” Croteau said. He prepared to asphyxiate himself by running his Bronco in his family’s garage, but was saved by his sister before he suffered any physical effects.
But it wasn’t long before his self-hatred manifested itself in other ways. Croteau’s father was obsessed with his vision of perfection, according to Croteau. Constantly telling Croteau and his two siblings that they were chubby and out of shape, his father often forced his children to do pushups and situps.
“Food was an enemy for us,” said Croteau, who developed an array of eating disorders throughout his adolescent years that he described as a “symptom of his own self-hatred.” Croteau’s eating disorder began not long after high school. He went off to attend college, terrified that everyone would discover his secret: his sexuality. “I didn’t want anyone to know,” he said. “That’s when I left college and took a year off and moved back in with my parents. I think that was a subconscious way to get back at the criticisms of my father to attempt to make me straight.”
When Croteau left college and came home, he ended up starting to cut fat out of his diet. He said, “What I saw in my reflection, and what was forever imprinted in my mind, was a pear-shaped chubby person. I loathed my Humpty Dumpty figure, the one I’d inherited from my dad—skinny legs and an oversized, flabby torso.” He soon developed a deadly routine of starvation, exercise, and running to the point of withering away. Yet his anorexia had another disturbing purpose—to starve the “gayness” out. Jon was so disgusted and ashamed of who he is that he felt compelled to punish himself and force the thoughts and feelings out by physical exertion. He tortured himself because he believed he deserved it—and had no intention of stopping.
“When I was at my worst I was down to 0 g of fat consumption and I was running from 12 to 14 miles a day. It was pretty intense and I basically cut everything else out of my life to devote to the eating disorder. I didn’t know that consciously at the time, but I think it brought me asexuality in some ways. I didn’t deal with anyone, I stayed pure and chaste. I think I used anorexia as a way to ensure that no one else could really love me. While running, I didn’t have to describe my feelings of despair to anyone there. I didn’t have to think about being different.”
When he began running in the late winter of 1995, Croteau had no idea that he was launching a war on himself and his body. At first he couldn’t even run a mile. His first time was during a late-March wintery mix of rain and sleet and snow, he could barely run for extended periods of time, having never run long distances before. At first a mile took 20 minutes, then 15, and then 12. He said, “I ran every day with determination, and when it hurt, I knew it was working. Eventually one mile became two, then five, then eight, and then 10. When I noticed that my suit pants for work were becoming looser around my waist, I made the connection that it was the result of running and controlling what I was eating. It’s working!”
“The inner dialogue began in my head. I wondered how many miles I could run without stopping. I wondered how few fat grams I could consume and still run six miles. Half-hours extended to 50 minutes. Fifty minutes grew to an hour. An hour became 75 minutes. I’d run in the rain, during thunderstorms, at 5 in the morning, and at 11 at night, oftentimes both. It didn’t matter; nothing could stop me. I never missed a day.”
As it got warmer with the changing seasons, he began running in the middle of the day, during the midday heat in attempts to burn as much fat as possible. Stride after stride, he made his way through the winding roads of his hometown of Andover. The inner dialogue about fat grams and running became more obsessive and possessive.
He said, “Once I began a run and set a goal of 10 miles, I felt free; no one could stop me or tell me no. Simultaneously I felt like I had to finish or else I was a failure. In essence, I was a slave to the road, to the sun burning my back like a whip. By reducing my fat intake to zero and running for an hour at a time, I knew that I’d destroy every fat cell that existed in my body. I had commenced an all-out attack on the demon inside me that made me feel that way: my homosexuality. With the strategy that combined running and starving, I was sure to waste away and starve the gay within.”
He kept running, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes endlessly, away from what was going on inside. If he missed a day, Croteau felt incomplete. According to him, he felt as if he were doomed and God was going to punish him even more. “All the while, as I obsessed about the running, I became more intent on eating nothing more than just soup for lunch. ‘I am a sinner, and this is my penance,’ I told myself. ‘Keep running, you faggot!’”
Croteau became very strict about sticking to his new way of eating, not wanting to be in situations where it would be difficult to adhere to it, and not wanting people to notice and remark on it. Eventually, he began scheduling long runs at times that would ensure avoidance of all social occasions and interactions. By the end of the summer, he was running at least two times a day. On the rare occasions that he saw friends (rarely, if ever, in situations that involved a meal) they would issue statements of concern. “Jon, you’re losing too much weight!” they’d say. “Are you eating enough?” He would attribute weight loss to simply eating healthy foods and suggest that they should, too.
“An insatiable demonic persistence took over my mind. It was never enough to lose another inch or two. I set more goals than I could keep track of—about my waist size, the amount of squeezable fat in my belly, the degree to which my cheeks sunk,” he said. “None of the goals were attainable, because nothing was ever enough. I just had to keep going. I no longer recalled why I had launched the war in the first place, nor for which cause I was raging. There were too many battles going on at once and too many voices in my head launching new attacks: against my father, against my body, against my sexuality. It was a full-time assault that required 100 percent of my mind, body, and soul to execute. I would retire each night around seven or eight, long before the sun set, praying to fall asleep. At least during sleep the demands and the orders quieted, until the morning.”
Croteau’s journey from those obsessive thoughts to self-acceptance was a long one. After initially leaving college and moving back in with his parents, he received a call from a close friend at Emerson College. This friend expressed knowledge of what was going on and suggested he visit the Emerson campus. Croteau relented and, after visiting and seeing so many people who are open and comfortable with their orientation, he described the experience as cathartic. After fighting with his father (with the assistance of his mother and sister), he was able to apply to and attend Emerson. Slowly, he began telling others around him of his sexuality, and he credits some amazing therapists with helping him along his path to self-acceptance and recovering from his eating disorder and running addiction.
“I feel like I’ve been so lucky,” he said. “So many people have it way worse than I ever did; I have this amazing group of friends. And my sister and brother are so supportive and my husband’s family is so supportive as well. I feel sad that my dad isn’t part of my life, but it feels right. It feels like the way it should have been the whole time.”
As the media has increasingly shone light on the staggering amount of suicides in the GLBT community, Croteau said he felt he needed to share his story. “Throughout my adolescence I was so silent about my sexual orientation,” he said. “I felt like it was my turn to speak up.”
Croteau’s story, published by Minnesota-based Hazelden Publishing, is told through his memoir, My Thinning Years: Starving the Gay Within. Having debuted September 9, the memoir is already receiving rave reviews. “The only reason why I’m sharing so much of my intimate truth is to help others,” Croteau said. “Maybe they have to hide the book under their pillow, but I hope to let them know that there is a better day.”