Episode 3 - Drag Queen Wisdom
Life for someone like Eric Dorsa can look pretty fabulous. He’s one of Chicago's hottest drag queens, his TED talk has been viewed over 240,000 times, and he has a host of people who love and support him daily.
Yet, getting to this place proved far from easy. Along the way he had to grapple with a life-threatening eating disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, and an underlying self-hatred that continually thwarted the life he longed to live.
Eric: [unintelligible 00:00:00] [applause] [unintelligible 00:00:04] [applause] Are there [unintelligible 00:00:06] tonight? [applause] Thank you so much to Squeezebox for letting us-- [crosstalk] Drag and female impersonation has basically allowed me to look at identity from a more loving, forgiving and graceful way. In October, we have National coming our way. I know when I was growing up as a kid, I felt like there was really no place for me in this world. There weren't many-- [00:00:30] [crosstalk] There very much is an appeal and a draw to play other people to forget yourself. In the beginning, being this drag queen and experiencing all of these things on the outside that I had always wanted to feel on the inside, it was very empty.
Ellie Pike: What were those?
Eric: Feeling like there was something we're celebrating about myself. It also exposed the emptiness I was feeling on the inside. [00:01:00] When I became strong enough to look at that truth, all of a sudden, there were so many people around me there to hold me up.
Ellie: Yes, so like believing that you could be proud of who you were.
Eric: That the drag queen wasn't somebody else, the drag queen wasn't a false reality. What was motivating and creating the drag persona was actually already within me. It was very freeing and very liberating and very healing.
Ellie: You're listening to Mental Note podcast where we tell stories of recovery. I'm your host, Ellie Pike. Life for someone as unique as Eric Dorsa can look pretty fabulous. He's one of San Antonio's hottest drag queens. His TED Talk has been viewed over 240,000 times. We'll link to it on our website, by the way. He has a host of people who love and support him daily. Getting to this [00:02:00] place proved far from easy. Along the way, he had to grapple with a life-threatening eating disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, and an underlying self-hatred that continually thwarted the life he longed to live.
Today on the podcast, we invite you to walk with Eric to face these overwhelming obstacles and to ultimately discover why his journey inspires thousands to embrace their identity and love themselves. There's one point in this episode where there's some colorful language. It's not [00:02:30] gratuitous, and we chose to leave it in just because it's part of Eric's authentic story. Here's Eric.
Eric: Growing up, I was unapologetically myself. I never thought that there was anything wrong with like, with being yourself, and I'm talking like from three to six years old when you're first getting socialized with other kids. You like what you like. When I look at kids [00:03:00] nowadays, when I look at young ones because I'm 28, so I see them everywhere. All my friends are having kids. There's just such an innocence. Kids don't know how to be any other way other than themselves.
Ellie: They haven't been formed yet.
Eric: But, I remember growing up, always feeling embarrassed, because what I liked was not what boys were to like. I remember specific instances like walking into a toy store, back then it was Toys "R" Us. I think that's [00:03:30] still a thing today. I always wanted to go to the dolls and stuffed animals and I liked things that were pink. I liked jewels, and I liked princesses and I liked dolls. To this day, I still meet people who are so judgmental of that. My family, it was just like, "What do we do with this kid."
As a kid, you don't want to see your family angry. [00:04:00] You want to survive, and so, I just learned to quiet down and to not be so expressive.
Ellie: One of Eric's biggest barriers to living a full life was the shame he adopted at an early age.
Eric: The crazy part about my family is on one hand, they're very smothering Latino, like love, but on the other hand, they're very religious. [00:04:30] They will love you and they will tell you everything that they think is wrong with you at the same time. It's so weird.
Ellie: It's very confusing.
Eric: Yes. They're never going to be the kind of like, "You're not welcome here, you're out the door, blah, blah, blah, blah. But if you come into my house, you will hear everything that I have to say and hopefully, you'll stay for dinner." I remember growing up, always these mixed messages. I love you, but I won't touch you. I won't show you affection and so, because I was [00:05:00] the child that would never do the boy things or like the things, I was always kind of teased and made fun of publicly and in my family. When I got the eating disorder, I just kind of fell back and quietly removed myself from the family and the teasing stopped and the ridicule stopped.
Ellie: Would you say it was a way of coping with your family?
Eric: Definitely, it was a way of coping. It was a way of not garnering so much attention by simply being who I was.
Ellie: [00:05:30] Let's back up a second, I'm curious what message you may have internalized by being shamed or ostracized or just confused by all the messages around you?
Eric: The biggest message that I remember internalizing first has to do with religion, my experience with God. [music] We were very Catholic. We went to church every Sunday. What's really interesting is the first message that I internalized was, you have to pretend. You have to [00:06:00] look a certain way. We were that family that is screaming and yelling in the car, but as soon as you pull up to church, we were like the perfect church family.
Mom taught Sunday school. Dad was the head of the house. I just remember this feeling of, we have to pretend because God is watching, and let me preface, I do not think all religion is like that. This is just my religious experience. When I heard bad when, I heard negative, [00:06:30] when I heard that man was flawed and sinful and condemned, I internalized all of that about myself. I grew up feeling condemned. I grew up feeling unwanted, not just by my family but by God.
Ellie: It seems if you weren't able to express those emotions as a kid, you had to find an outlet for those emotions or something had to happen? Is that where the eating disorder crept in?
Eric: Yes. I remember, how can you build a life worth living? How can you have hope? How can you have [00:07:00] dreams? How can you have relationships if fundamentally you feel dammed? There's no point.
Ellie: At the core, believing that you were flawed.
Eric: Everything in my life became artificial. It became a substitute for what I really wanted.
Ellie: That makes a lot of sense when you say like that, because you say when the eating disorder came or when the eating disorder began, but it really just started with one behavior at a time, not consciously, but over time, it seems like this group of thoughts, a group of behaviors. [00:07:30] You seem to have the genetics and the temperament that made you more susceptible to that developing into an eating disorder.
Eric: Yes. At a young age, I would say like around eight or nine, I quieted down. I stopped vocalizing my likes, I stopped vocalizing my desires. I stopped being my authentic self and I started consciously trying to change what I [00:08:00] liked and how I behaved to fit what was acceptable by my family.
Ellie: Sadly, Eric's desire to subdue what made him special opened him up to more vicious forms of self-sabotage.
Eric: The need to tease and make fun of didn't stop, so now, my family found another way to isolate me, which was that I was the shorter, chubbier version [00:08:30] of my older brother, and so Eric needed to be in sports. All of a sudden, there was all of this attention on my body and how different it was from my siblings and how I need to be more like my brother and be physically active and being like little league and whatever, whatever, gross. When that shift happened, I remember consciously thinking that like if I could change [00:09:00] my body, I could change the way I looked, then maybe this would stop, but you can't tell your family to stop. In my mind, my family wasn't wrong. That's what's so crazy. In my mind, they weren't wrong. I was wrong.
Ellie: But you were so young. It makes sense. That's all you knew.
Eric: That's when I started blaming my body and that's the first eating disorder behavior that, it became bearable.
Ellie: [00:09:30] The attention was put on your body.
Eric: Because you can change your body, you can't change your identity.
Ellie: That makes a lot of sense.
Eric: We were at the beach, it was summer. My family always hopped into a suburban and we all went to the beach. At this point, I was the heaviest I'd ever been because food was a sense of comfort and we get to the beach and all of a sudden everybody is just making fun of how fat I am. Even my overweight cousins were [00:10:00] making fun of my weight and we went to dinner and my mom said, "I've had it. You're not getting a burger. You're getting a salad. You need to be on a diet." Like, this is ridiculous, and I was 11.
Ellie: That sounds painful.
Eric: I just remember every thought in my head, it was like the rest of the world just quiet it down, I hated my family, and that's when I was like, "You know what? I'm just not going [00:10:30] to eat."
Ellie: Is that a way of taking back control?
Eric: Yes. I see that now, but I was also so mad at myself.
Ellie: This humiliating family trip happened at age nine, and the next few years continue to unravel his sense of control, a process that bridged the gap between both his complicated relationship with food and also his confusing gender identity.
Eric: I always heard [00:11:00] messages that part of body dysmorphic disorder is that you think you're way bigger than what you actually are. That was never true in my eating disorder, I knew exactly how thin I was. It was just not thin enough. It was never thin enough
Ellie: What does thinness mean to you? What does it mean to lose weight?
Eric: Well, now I realize that it meant safety. It meant [00:11:30] numbness. It meant, not having to feel, it meant not having to own my sacred space in my life and not having to deal with everyone else's spiderwebs that were just invading my internal reality.
Ellie: It created a safe sense of isolation?
Eric: It did.
Ellie: We find this common thread in disorders. Whether they're eating disorders, substance [00:12:00] abuse or what have you, the behavior arrives as a friend and ally at first, but it only stays that way for a short time.
Eric: I first began anorexia and bulimia at the age of 11, and it worked and it worked well.
Ellie: By worked you mean it numbed.
Eric: It numbed and I liked sports just as the next boy. My dad drove me to 5:00 AM basketball practice. [00:12:30]
Ellie: It gave you a different feeling about yourself?
Eric: It did. It was like that magical way of fitting in that I had always wanted. It was like the eating disorder offered that. All of a sudden it was like, I was the perfect child and my family left me alone and I was a straight A student. I had friends.
Ellie: You were extremely high achieving with that perfectionism, that fit in with the eating disorder as well?
Eric: The cost [00:13:00] was giving more and more of myself to the eating disorder from-- I started my eating disorder behaviors seventh grade year, by the summer of my 8th grade or the summer of my seventh grade year, excuse me. By the summer of my eighth grade year, I was being hospitalized for heart failure.
Ellie: Wow. Which is the negative effect and medical consequences of eating disorder.
Eric: Of an eating disorder, and because I had lost so much of my body weight so fast. [00:13:30]
Ellie: Yes, Eric was suffering physical setbacks, but his disordered eating gave him distance from the emotional dissonance that surrounded him.
Eric: The reality was, I came from a deeply troubled family. There was a lot of abuse, a lot of emotional abuse, a lot of physical abuse in my family and my eating disorder offered me an escape from that as well.
Ellie: Even when there was a consequence, it didn't feel like enough to let go off the eating disorder because you had stopped a phase as-- [crosstalk]
Eric: What's heart failure to a 12 year [00:14:00] old, the hospital's going to fix it and then I got out and I just did it all over again.
Ellie: Wow. Eric's journey back to health came from a surprising source. His high school painting class introduced him to emotional literacy, and it shocked him.
Eric: I was always very moved by the impressionists because it was real stuff but in a fantastic way, there was no lines, color was exaggerated. Oftentimes, it was about [00:14:30] catching people in movement. I remember seeing that, I'm like, "God, if life could be this way," and that was, I guess, my first insight into truth with myself, was understanding that I don't have to play by the rules on a canvas. I feel like that was my first step into my authentic self and had it not been for that, I think I would not have reached outside of the [00:15:00] eating disorder.
I think I would have died in high school, and so-- because, by the time I was a senior, I was bingeing and purging up to 20 times a day. I was waking up at like three or four in the morning, stealing my parents' car. I didn't have a license. I would drive to the gym. I'd work out for hours, go home, pretend like I was asleep the whole time, wake up, binge and purge before anybody else woke up, get to school, binge and purge. Like it was just [00:15:30] constantly bingeing and purging, leaving class, bingeing, purging, like skipping school, bingeing purging.
Like, getting home from school. By the time I was senior in high school, I was baking whole cakes from scratch and then bingeing on them all. [music] One day I woke up and I was-- all my friends were filling out applications and going off to-- were excited to go [00:16:00] off to college and graduate and I was terrified. Absolutely terrified of the idea of being alone with my eating disorder. I just remember my nutritionist was like, "Can you just get through one meal without purging?" I tried so hard, so, so hard, and I couldn't, and I felt like such a failure and that's when my nutritionist was like, "Eric needs real help. He needs treatment." [00:16:30]
Ellie: Even though Eric was ready for recovery, recover it seems was not ready for him.
Eric: I had to call the insurance. My parents weren't even calling the insurance companies. I had to call my insurance company and hospitals and find a hospital that would take an adolescent male and it was like trying to find water in the desert, especially in 2006, it just didn't exist. The closest hospital I found that would take me within Wisconsin, and they didn't take my insurance. It was $45,000 [00:17:00] for a month of treatment upfront and I was like, "I'm just going to die."
Finally, I found a hospital in Dallas that would take me when I was 18, and I turned 18 in two months. I did everything I could to hang on for two months. I had athletic scholarships and academic scholarships and I just turned down and went to treatment [00:17:30] and stayed.
Ellie: Oh, you had to give up a lot.
Eric: I guess when my parents saw what was really going on, they became willing, like they refinanced our house to help pay for treatment.
Ellie: Wow. That is a huge shift.
Eric: It was $20,000 for treatment. Insurance would cover the medical aspect of my eating disorder. Insurance would not cover the mental health aspect of my eating disorder. I was able to get admitted because of my heart. That's what honestly saved my life. Because I was the only male, I wasn't able to stay [00:18:00] on the floor with the women. I had to go to the adult mental ward basically, with like people who were being treated for meth withdrawal and schizophrenia and manic depressive disorders.
Ellie: You didn't feel like you belonged.
Eric: Oh my God. I was so terrified. Like, the first conversation I had with my roommate, my roommate was actually admitted because he attempted to kill his girlfriend in a psychosis. Of course, they thought, "Let's put the gay 18-year-old in there with him. He'll be fine." He looked at me and he goes, "See that chocolate cake, that's my chocolate [00:18:30] cake. If you eat it, I'm going to fucking kick your ass." I was like, "Oh, I'm going to die." I was, "Thank God I'm anorexic because I don't want your cake now," but that was my six weeks, and what I learned
Ellie: That is not like eating disorder treatment now, is it.
Eric: It's not, but I am so grateful because, that was like the Hilton for me. I wanted recovery so bad. [00:19:00] It was like, nothing was going to keep me away from recovery.
Eric: Wow. Eric's first round of treatment may have stopped the external symptoms of his inner turmoil, but those root issues were never truly addressed. Self-hatred continued to fester and only became worse six months later when he came out to his family as gay.
Eric: Looking at it now, of course, I relapsed.
Ellie: Eric began jumping from coping mechanism to coping mechanism, like hopping from one sinking life raft [00:19:30] to the next.
Eric: When the eating disorder stopped working, I started dabbling with drugs and alcohol because, that's what brings the gay community together, is the big old party.
Ellie: There's a parallel or even an exchange when your eating disorder behaviors decrease, substance abuse increased, and it was eyeopening in that way that there were underlying pieces that needed to be addressed.
Eric: By that point, drag, being a drag queen, like we had talked about earlier with my form of coping [00:20:00] and escaping, but also you know the truth sets you free, it's like you can't unknow the truth, that's what makes it so powerful. Each and every time I would take the costume off, the truth of my own internalized fear and homophobia and self ridicule and hatred was just exposed.
Ellie: Eric was finally forced to make peace with his sexual identity in order to heal.
Eric: The eating disorder wasn't an option and drugs and alcohol stopped working [00:20:30] and that craziness in my mind and the craziness in my life just became so loud, I couldn't ignore it anymore. I had this moment of clarity at this party where I looked around and I was like, "I am not who I think I am. I don't tell the truth, I don't know what the truth is. I don't know how to love myself. I don't love myself." That's when I recognized this like [00:21:00] feeling of demoralization. I don't know what's authentic about me. I don't know what I like, I don't know what I don't like.
I don't know what my favorite color is. I don't know how to eat. I don't know how to nurse my body. I don't know how to look in the mirror and see something with life in it. That was my truth, but my first step into recovery was being able to own exactly where I was, which was that I didn't love myself. I didn't feel like [00:21:30] there was a God that loved me. I didn't feel like there was a place for me in this world. I had a therapist who was like, "Yes, that's where you are and I love you. People love you."
Ellie: One thing that strikes me about your story is how much you referenced authenticity and finding that truth of who you are and really claiming it, but I'm curious in your words how you would define authenticity?
Eric: I define authenticity as the willingness to show up. The willingness to let things outside of yourself be as they are, because then you give yourself that same grace and that same permission. Again, my truth was, "Okay, I'm gay." I can't change that, and that was really painful in the beginning to say those words out [00:22:30] loud because, to come out and say I was gay meant that I was damned, that I was sinful, that I was unwanted, that I was sick. I was telling someone the other day, it's like, "I can't envision a husband and children and the joy of that experience without also opening up to the fear and the isolation and the pain that I had to come from to make such a moment possible." [00:23:00]
Ellie: In recovery and you finding your own truth and your own authenticity, what do you bring into this world? Who is Eric?
Eric: I make space for people to be themselves and to figure it out. I hope that space for people as a creator, as a designer, as a storyteller, as a child of God, as a child of the universe, as a human being on this planet, I feel [00:23:30] my authentic self when I give you permission to just show up as you are.
Ellie: The best example of how Eric makes this space is his role as the drag queen.
Eric: When you're n the stage as a drag queen or when you're-- That's such a powerful symbol for the gay community. You're the mother of the community. You're the gesture if you will. You're that--
Ellie: Like an outright expression.
Eric: -balancing act between what the world says you will never be and what you know [00:24:00] you are.
Ellie: One of the people who held that space for Eric is the author and speaker, Jenni Schaefer.
Jenni Schaefer: I feel like a proud mom to Eric because I was so honored to be a part of helping him learn to share his story. Then we did that event last year in San Antonio and he essentially opened for me. He nailed it and blew it away.
Ellie: Eric first met her 10 years earlier [00:24:30] while in the throes of his eating disorder. It's actually meaningful that you get to have her as your mentor and friend.
Eric: Yes, that's so crazy. She even asked me when we were speaking in New York. She asked, "Did you ever think that when you started your recovery journey, that one day you'll be on a panel speaking about recovery?" I was like, "No, not only that, I met you 10 years ago and I never thought in a million years that you and I would actually be speaking together about recovery."
Ellie: Her transparency in sharing her story inspired Eric to do the same. Today, [00:25:00] they enjoy a close relationship.
Jenni: Eric is heart. He's just a big heart. His passion, he's funny, he's one of those people, again, when I hear from him, when he calls me, when I see his name on my phone, I just light up because I know I'm going to hear something that's really exciting and awesome. That's what I love about Eric. He just always makes me excited and a grateful. He's a very grateful person.
Ellie: Together, they've been able to talk about what recovery and reclaiming their lives [00:25:30] looks like.
Jenni: One of the coolest quotes I've actually ever seen happens to be on the wall in Eating Recovery Center in Austin. It says, "I'm grateful for my struggles because through them, I have stumbled upon my strengths." That I think really just sums up recovery. What it's like to have an eating disorder and pull through it. We end up recovering our lives. We get so much more back.
Our eating disorder takes so much from us. In the beginning of recovery, we think it's [00:26:00] just about food and weight and exercise or all the symptoms, but what we realized in recovery is that it's about everything. It's about life. You recover from your eating disorder and you recover your life. You discover things you didn't even know about yourself. I just heard this story, I got it as a Christmas card this year. It was the story of bamboo. Have you guys heard that?
With bamboo, when you first plant bamboo, the first year, you water it, you fertilize it, nothing happens. Second year, water, fertilize, nothing happens. [00:26:30] Same thing third year. Fourth year, water, fertilize, nothing happens. Fifth year, all of the sudden at some point, it grows about 80 feet in six weeks. That to me is recovery. It takes a while, all these going in and out of treatment, seeing different therapists, I did all of that too.
I thought for a while, "I'm not getting better. I've been doing this five years and I'm not getting better." But the truth is, in order for that bamboo to shoot up so fast in six weeks, they had to have a lot of roots planted. The bamboo had a lot going on under the ground, [00:27:00] I'll say. I know in my recovery, even when I thought I was failing or going in and out of treatment and wasn't getting better, the truth is, I was building my foundation just like the bamboo does so that all of a sudden, it could click and I would shoot up. For me, my recovery did happen like that.
Ellie: What has Eric's bamboo shoot turned into after all these years?
Eric: I remember praying to God being like, "I just want to make sense." Like, "If I'm supposed to be a girl, please make me a girl." [00:27:30] I'd wake up all excited and I'm like, "No, I'm still a boy." But it was never about wanting to be anything other than myself. I just wanted--
Jenni: It felt confusing because you didn't it in to the world around you.
Eric: Yes, and to tie that back into recovery, there was a moment where I was driving down the highway and I was just full of so much anger because, that, I call it beach ball of emotion, all of that childhood crap as I call it, started coming up. [00:28:00] I remembered, I had completely forgotten that I used to pray that and then I remember that I used to pray that. There was just this voice in me that was like, "I did something better. I didn't have to change you. I changed the world around you so you could just be here."
Ellie: Oh, wow.
Eric: I just lost it. I had to pull over, I was crying. This sense of peace just like flooded through my body.
Jenni: I'm grateful that world gets to see the real [00:28:30] Eric now.
Eric: Oh, thank you. Me too. I'm grateful that I get to. [chuckles]
Jenni: Yes, that it feels amazing.
Ellie: Eric first got in trouble for trying on girl's shoes in pre-school. He was made fun of for his weight at age 11. By eighth grade, he was hospitalized for heart failure from starving himself. His first artistic experience gave him hope at age 17 and empowered him to check in to his first treatment program on his 18th birthday. He first performed drag at 23,[00:29:00] went sober at 24, began college at 26. Started sharing his story at 28, and now has a future brighter than he ever could have imagined. This is Eric, this is his story.
[00:29:30] If you or someone you know can relate to Eric's story, there's no need to wait until the situation gets worse. You can speak to someone for free. To do so, just call ERC and Insight for more information. 877-411-9578 or visit www.eatingrecovery.com. Our show is sponsored by Eating Recovery Center, Insight Behavioral Health and Eating Recovery Foundation. You can find out more about our podcast [00:30:00] and sign up for our E-news letter on our website, Mental note podcast.com. Also, please subscribe in iTunes and give us a rating and review. Those help more people hear our stories.
Today's episode was produced and edited by Sam Pike, music by C3NC Music, Appearing, Maxime Herve, Begin Again and Ruth Martino. I'm your host, Ellie Pike. Till next time.
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