Brian Cuban: Proud Penn State Alum and Eating Disorder Prevention Advocate
At Penn State, Brian Cuban was a runner.
He ran and he ran. He ran at 5 a.m., he ran after the sun had set, he ran during football games, he ran when he should have been in class. He ran from the insults, he ran from the guilt, he ran from the memory of the gold pants, he ran from the people who had “talked to his mother.”
Running defined his Penn State existence.
Now, he’s a recovered anorexic, bulimic, alcoholic, and drug addict — he’s told his story to thousands to raise awareness and prevent future incidents.
Looking back, years later, Cuban can’t believe he survived.
Cuban’s story begins in Pittsburgh, where he grew up with brothers Jeff and Mark (yes, that Mark). A shy boy, he had a poor relationship with his mother Shirley, who often criticized his weight. Shirley warned Brian that eating more beefaroni would make him a “fat pig.”
It was part of a vicious cycle: When Shirley was a girl, her mother treated her the same way.
By junior high, Brian weighed 275 pounds. The bullying began. At Mt. Lebanon High School, it got worse.
“When you’re shy and you put up a wall of self-deprecating sense of humor, you just take it,” Brian said. “You try to hang around the group of the popular kids, hoping you could become one of them, to go to the prom or hold a girl’s hand.”
Mark had given Brian a pair of shiny gold fever pants that he wore all the time, but the pants didn’t fit him because Mark was smaller. Brian was walking the mile home from school one day with that group of “popular” kids when they figured it would be fun to remove Brian of his favorite pair of pants. They assaulted him between fits of laughter, stole the pants, and left them in a crumple in the middle of the street. Still laughing, they left Brian in his underwear.
“I was ashamed that I couldn’t stand up to the bullies, and ashamed they had validated what my mom said to me,” Brian said.
Brian, 53, can still remember the exact spot where it happened.
“That set the tone for how I’d see myself throughout college: A fat kid who wasn’t loved.”
At the time, Brian saw Penn State as a new beginning.
He attended Penn State’s Behrend campus in Erie for his freshman year before moving to University Park the following year. He settled into Behrend’s Niagara Hall on a picturesque autumn day, excited for what lay ahead.
“I make contact with this brown-haired, beautiful girl and she looks at me and I start sweating,” Brain said. “I had never even kissed a girl at this point. And she turns to her friend, points at me, and says, ‘ugly, ugly!’ It was like someone stabbed me in the gut. It was like she had talked to my mom, too. And that’s when the eating disorder switch flipped.”
Brian cried himself to sleep. He struggled mightily to make friends. He needed a way to control it, and one stood out: food.
He became an anorexic in 1979, his first year in college. After four months of constantly being hungry, he dropped from about 270 pounds to less than 170. He received affirmation from acquaintances who noticed such an extreme weight loss and then felt in control of his world. But when he looked in the mirror, he still saw a “fat, stupid kid.” It was a case of body dysmorphic disorder, in which one becomes obsessed with one thing he or she deems wrong about their apperance.
To make matters worse, male anorexia was an unheard-of concept at the time — never mind that millions of males suffer from eating disorders.
“There’s still a stigma today,” Brian said. “Back then? Forget it.”
Brian knew he had gotten thinner when he moved to University Park in 1980, but he could not stop. He discovered bulimia, the act of binging on food and purging it out of one’s system before it can cause weight gain. He’d purge himself after eating and felt the same sensation drug abuse would cause him later in life. He left his Hartranft Hall dorm to take 10-20 mile runs twice a day before buying pizza and M&Ms, binging, and purging.
“That defined my existence at Penn State,” he said. “Running, binging, purging, bulimia.”
By this time, Brian couldn’t go to football games because everyone in the stadium had also “talked to his mother.” Football games became his favorite times to go on his runs. During one game, he tried to make the 41-mile run to Altoona before giving up at the 16-mile mark. He had associated football games with dread.
Brian recalled when he, a young alcoholic at age 22, stood near the Shandygaff, alone and drinking tequila, wanting to enter, but thinking everyone inside would think of him as a “fat pig.” His eating disorder having gone untreated, he continued having trouble with alcohol throughout his days at Pitt Law School.
After Pitt, he moved to Dallas where his brothers lived. Family was always a huge part of Brian’s life. But covering up his problems to them, he said, was like “throwing gasoline on a fire.” He discovered cocaine there in 1987. Steroids followed.
“By then, people knew I had a problem,” Brian said. “But no one knew anything about the eating disorder. You become an expert at camouflaging these things.”
He had seen a psychiatrist, but knew what to say to not get “imposed” because of his training as a lawyer. His problems continued through three failed marriages. He became suicidal.
After a particularly bad 2.5-day binge in Dallas, Brian realized the breaking point had been reached. Standing in the parking lot of a psychiatric facility, he knew it was his last chance to get the help he needed.
“I just remember thinking that if I had to come back there, I’d be dead,” Brian said. “Even more scary was how close I was to losing my family.
“That is what scared me shitless standing in that parking lot.”
Twenty-four years after graduating Penn State, April 8, 2007, Brian finally got honest with his therapist to whom he’d been lying for years about his addictions. He thought about his father, Norton, who had always advised him, Mark and Jeff, to remember that they’d always have each other no matter how bad things got.
The eating disorder remained a secret, his reckoning of the stigma still too much for him to bear.
It wasn’t until he worked up the courage to meet with his father and have the conversation he never had as a child that he opened up about it.
“Having my father’s love and revealing my deepest, darkest secrets was like having the weight of the world off my shoulders,” Brian said.
Norton moved in with Brian to help see him through. His brothers assisted him when needed along the way. It’s no coincidence, he says, that they still live within a mile of one another in Dallas.
Brian revealed all to his therapist in 2008, and after doing a 12-step program has not had a drink nor a drug since. The binging and purging is now a thing of the past.
Brian has forgiven his mother, who was instrumental in his recovery by sharing how she was emotionally abused growing up.
“It’s never about blame, it’s about understanding,” Brian said. “Forgiveness is a huge part of recovery.”
He realized the shame he had created for himself was all inside his head — when he came out about it, he was greeted with love and support.
Now, he has dedicated his life to saving others’.
“I realized I had to give back,” Brian said. “You have to let other men and women know there is help out there. We become our own worst enemies with our thoughts.”
He encourages parents to recognize and help diffuse problems in their children before they go to college, where they could escalate if gone untreated. He’s written a book chronicling his addictions, actively updates his blog, travels the country giving speeches and maintains an active Twitter presence. He also helps out the “family business” by providing legal work for his beloved Dallas Mavericks and the Mark Cuban Foundation.
He’s recently gotten involved in the Penn State alumni community, as well, being vocal about his desire for Penn State to move forward from the Freeh Report and Sandusky scandal. He consistently tweets support for Board of Trustees candidates who have the desire to move forward without reassessing past decisions, endorsing Dan Cocco and Seth Williams. Certainly, that’s not a uniform stance among Penn State alumni.
“Alumni are divided. I have no ill feelings toward any alumni but I don’t agree with their stance,” Brian said. “I believe what I believe.”
He’s maintained that concentrating on the past will do nothing good for Penn State. He mentioned that Penn State recently collected a major increase in applications, and is one of the best schools in the nation even with the recent negative attention.
“I’m part of the move along crowd. Dealing with the Freeh Report doesn’t help us move along,” Brian said.
Brian has run a long way since his Penn State days.
“My mission is to save lives, one at a time, to let people know the recovery is possible,” Brian said. “If you drop that wall, for one second, there are people who love you and want to help you.”