Brian Cuban Recounts Battle With Eating Disorders and Addiction

The author and activist tells GW students “empathy” is the best tool to offer friends who are struggling with body image.

February 27, 2015

Brian Cuban

As part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Brian Cuban spoke to students about struggling with bulimia, a disorder he developed as an undergraduate at Penn State. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)

By Lauren Ingeno

A pair of shiny gold disco pants, and the bullies who pulled them down, haunted Brian Cuban for more than 30 years.

His brother Mark, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, gave them to 13-year-old Brian when they were growing up in Pittsburgh. One day, while walking home from junior high, his classmates taunted Brian Cuban, commenting on how tightly the pants hugged his overweight body. They ripped the pants to shreds and ran away laughing.

“That validated everything my mother had told me growing up—that I was a ‘fat pig’ and a ‘dumb bunny’ who couldn’t stand up for himself,” Mr. Cuban told George Washington University students on Wednesday night at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. “It cemented how I would see myself every time I looked in the mirror: a fat, stupid kid.”

Though Mr. Cuban would not be formally diagnosed until decades later, the event signified the beginning of his lifelong struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. The condition, marked by a preoccupation with imagined or exaggerated defects of physical appearance, eventually spiraled into an eating disorder, alcoholism and a drug addiction.

The lawyer and activist recounts his battle with his distorted self-image in his book, “Shattered Image,” and gives talks around the country about the shame associated with men and eating disorders.

As part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Mr. Cuban spoke to GW students about his journey to recovery at an event hosted by SPEAK GW (Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge).

“Recovery has no age limits. But, I would hope that if you’re struggling now, that you won’t wait until you’re 45 to get help,” he said. “Give it a try now.”

A Cycle of Self-Abuse

As a freshman at Pennsylvania State University, Mr. Cuban said he continued to see that “fat, stupid kid” in the mirror. He started running—10 miles in the morning and 10 in the evening. Some days, he said, he woke up so dehydrated that he could not get out of bed.

But no matter how much weight he lost, he continued to feel ugly and isolated from his peers. He began binge eating and making himself throw up. He also abused alcohol, which made the purging easier.

“I didn’t know what bulimia was. What I knew was, for those few seconds, I felt OK about myself. And I had to feel OK again, and again and again,” he said. “I would stay bulimic until I was 44 years old.”

After graduating from Penn State, Mr. Cuban attended law school at the University of Pittsburgh as an attempt, he said, “to hide.” There, his destructive behaviors intensified. He eventually moved to Dallas to live with his brothers and started using cocaine, which gave him the same gratifying sensation that purging had provided him in college. 

More than 20 years after graduating from Penn State, on April 8, 2007, Mr. Cuban finally opened up to his therapist about his alcoholism and drug addiction. After completing a 12-step program, he has not had a drink or drug since.

However, he was still too ashamed to tell anyone, including his therapist, about his eating disorder.

“I could have researched my eating disorder. But I was afraid to go on the Internet and find out that I was the only guy in the world who was bulimic,” he said.

Eventually, he opened up about his disorders to his mother, with whom he had always had a complicated relationship.

Once he was honest with his mother, she told him that she, too, had struggled from disordered eating. Mr. Cuban realized that the verbal and mental abuse she inflicted on her son were the result of her own insecurities, and Mr. Cuban’s body issues likely stemmed from a genetic predisposition. With the support of his parents and brothers, he was able to move further into recovery.

Mr. Cuban revealed his eating disorder to his therapist in 2008, and he told the public about his struggle with bulimia via a blog post that same year. He feared others’ reactions, but he was met with positive support and gratitude from strangers who had been scared to share their own stories.

“Everyone in this room knows someone who is struggling, even if you don’t know that you know someone, with an eating disorder or depression or drug addition,” Mr. Cuban said. “And it’s OK if you don’t know what to do or what to say.”

He told students that a universal tool everyone possesses is “empathy.”

“We all have the ability to empathize and to let them know, ‘I understand,’ to use that empathy to say, ‘How can I help you?’ And if you can’t help, you educated yourself on the different options,” he said. “Empathy, education. When we do those things, we create awareness.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, confidential support is available at the University Counseling Center, located in the Marvin Center. Call 202-994-5300 to access counseling services. Individual walk-in hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

GW also offers group counseling for undergraduate and graduate students who are struggling or recovering from any aspect of disordered eating. The “Body Image and Eating Concerns” group, led by staff clinician Nancy Cass, meets at 10 a.m. Fridays. This group serves to provide students with a supportive space to discuss struggles as well as develop positive coping skills.