Gary A. Grahl - biography

(Brief - 90 words)

Gary A. Grahl is a licensed school and professional counselor in Wisconsin. He is a resource person for ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) of Highland Park, Illinois, the nation’s oldest non-profit organization dedicated to serving those with eating disorders and their families. He has been featured on television programs like Jenny Jones, Les Brown and Extra; and in Men’s Health, Woman’s World, New York Newsday, Chicago Sun Times, Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel.  Gary and his wife, Jeanna, have three children.

Gary A. Grahl
M.S.E., L.P.C., N.C.C.

(Extended - 1850 words)

I was born in 1968 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to two loving, full-blooded German parents. When my parents retired from making children (an older brother, Greg, an older sister, Gina, and a younger brother, Rick), my mom was fond of saying how I was such a “happy, chubby baby,” sort of like a cherub with a thumb stuck in his mouth.

I had earned the reputation of being a friendly but shy kid who despised doing anything that would lead to getting in trouble. I found solace in making people happy. It wasn’t until two decades later that I finally accepted the fact that pleasing everyone is humanly impossible. I also quickly discovered my love of sports and exploring in the back woods behind our country home in Eden. My brother and our friends spent countless Saturday afternoons playing on, around, and underneath a train bridge, where we built numerous forts and captured dozens of garter snakes. We did this because it was fun, and once in a while to impress girls, which never worked. Our hands and clothes were always dirty and we despised bath night. Come to think of it, it probably correlated somehow with why girls kept their distance. 

By the middle school years, I had graduated to taking showers and expanded my God-given ability to do any sport involving a ball or a puck. As a warm up, my brother Rick and I loved to play tackle football in our basement with a couch pillow, complete with field goal kicking between lampshades. Mom would yell, “Gaa-ry! Rii-ck! Would you knock it off, please!” We’d counter this with, “Okaaaaaaay, Mom,” but continued playing right where we left off—until something inevitably broke. Along with our neighborhood pals, Rick and I used to construct elaborate stick ball games using a tennis ball and whittled-down scrap wood I pulled out of the garage to use for a bat. Sometimes it was my father’s “good” wood he used for household projects, and it was the first time I can remember where I actually did something conniving and rebellious.

By eighth grade year, a slow change began to materialize emotionally for me. Puberty was approaching, and so was high school. I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to childhood. One of the symptoms was my intense fear of expressing “heavy” emotions. If I shared my true feelings, particularly anger, with someone else, I felt they wouldn’t be able to handle it, and get upset with me. Conflict to me was like kryptonite to Superman, and I slowly began avoiding social activities. I even purposely stayed home from an eighth grade graduation party hosted by one of my classmates. I feared there would be alcohol and wild foolery, which, I found out later, never happened. Turns out I was the only one in my entire class that didn’t go, and the only one who missed a grand time.

In high school, my athletic talent invited increasing attention. Coaches soon caught wind of this “Gary kid” from the Catholic grade school in Eden. By the fall of my freshman year, I found myself as the starting quarterback, kicker, punter, running back, and defensive back on the freshman football team and the starting point guard on the basketball team. When summer weather rolled around, I wound up as the only freshman on the varsity baseball team—a third baseman—scared, but acting “all put together.” Cheerleaders suddenly began showing up at my locker to flirt and my friendship circle increased. So did my anxiety. In order to cope, I was a master people pleaser, hiding deep behind a charming, all-American boy mask.

Then it began to happen. Slowly, without anyone noticing (at least they didn’t tell me), my weight began to drop. I wasn’t hanging out at the bowling alley with my friends after football practice. I turned down (politely, of course) the many offers from girls to go on dates. Instead, I isolated myself at home. My exercise time increased dramatically, as did my weird, compulsive dieting habits. By the close of my junior year, I went from 160 pounds at five foot nine inches tall to 115 pounds.

While doing dishes one evening, my mother heard an advertisement over the radio about an eating disorders program at a local hospital. “That’s Gary,” she proclaimed, after hearing a list of symptoms. Only days later, I was evaluated by a psychiatric nurse who quickly recommended I go inpatient for anorexia nervosa and depression. And over the next five years, spanning numerous “tours of duty” for over 300 days, Unit 13 became my second home, and the staff became my second family. I didn’t want to leave. I was absent from so much school that I needed to take my senior year over. When I eventually got to college, I ended up quitting half way through a semester at UW-Milwaukee in order to retreat back to Unit 13. I called my psychiatrist from my dorm room on Halloween night and admitted I was falling back into old patterns. Once on the unit (my sixth time) the staff had taken a dramatic change in mood toward my recovery. I was no longer an ignorant, helpless sixteen year-old boy but an experienced, twenty-one year-old man. Their attitude went something like this: “Gary, what are you doing here? You’ve had all the counseling you need to overcome this illness. You know what to do. We believe in you. You’re not sixteen anymore; you’re an adult. However, it’s your nickel; you admitted yourself. Therefore, we’re going to let you chart your course. Of course, we’re not going to let you harm yourself, but there will be no specific 2000-calorie-a-day diet or restrictions in exercise. You can do whatever you want.”

I was shocked. I didn’t want to hear this. Wasn’t anyone going to coddle me under their wing and take care of me? What’s wrong with you people? This woke me up and got me thinking. For seven weeks I followed this protocol, until I realized it didn’t have the “feel” as before. They weren’t feeling sorry for me. They weren’t going to give me what I wanted. It was time to say good-bye to the insecure, teenage boy inside and welcome in a new person. I was sick of being sick.

On December 15th, 1989, I said good-bye to Unit 13 for the last time. I spent about a year in outpatient counseling to wean off three different medications, but after that I got down and dirty with adjusting to a new me. I returned to college and finished my degree in Allied Health. Months later, I became a fitness instructor with a local YMCA and later started my first professional job as a physical therapy exercise assistant. I also began volunteering for ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) speaking out about my recovery. It was a way to not only hold  me personably accountable for my journey to health, but also provided a way for me to give back in honor of all those wonderful professionals who stood side-by-side with me in the trenches of misery during my hospitalizations. My volunteering included organizing and facilitating three eating disorder support groups at a hospital, technical college, and church, which I enjoyed very much.

I also began taking a risk and playing the dating field. But after refusing to date in high school for fear of scaring away girls, I wasn’t exactly a Casanova—more like an ignorant Orangutan. I decided to give up and let God decide for me, which was the best thing I could do. Not more than a few days later, a friend told me she knew this one woman who would be perfect for me. Oh, brother! Here we go. But she proved to be a secret agent for God. To make a long courtship short, she introduced me to Jeanna Lefeber after an aerobics class I completed instructing, and we were happily married about a year and half later. Both of us decided to start graduate school full-time to become counselors and—oh, start a family, too! Our first child, Abby, was born to test our skill at time management. Juggling the newlywed thing, full-time work, full-time graduate school, and a child almost did us in from sleep deprivation, so we decided it was time to enter the “real” world; taking out college loans had lost its appeal anyway. I entered the jungles of Algoma Elementary and Middle School on an internship as a counselor. I soaked up the fun of counseling kids, and also took my share of lumps by being spit at, kicked in the groin, slapped, punched, and my favorite—pooped on! I couldn’t get enough of children. So, Jeanna and I added two more to our collection in the form of Moriah and Brant.

Then one day, a fifth grade teacher gave me a book to read (Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson) in order to preview for our library. I reluctantly agreed, but being that we weren’t a big reading family growing up, I wasn’t planning on getting to it any time soon. I had taken a part-time job as a third-shift night clerk in a local resort, so I figured I’d read it then. I initially starting reading it to stay awake but ended up being socked with adrenaline! Then came the Harry Potter books I saw the kids gobbling up like Halloween candy, books I was forever curious about but never understanding about the true wonder of reading.

My wife saw a flame flickering inside me one day, and said, “You know, you should write a book about your hospital experiences and recovery.” I said, “Okay.” Six months later, I had the first draft finished, calling it Wasting Away. For the next two years, I changed titles and versions while feverishly attempting to find a literary agent and/or publisher. The stack of rejection (literally hundreds of times!) letters and illegitimate agents were nearly knee high, and tested my patience and character. I decided to throw in the towel on the book and give it to God, just as I did with dating. And God once again said, “It’s about time, young man. Now, will you please move over and let me handle this?” I was visiting my parents for the weekend and checking my e-mail when what did my wondering eyes did appear but an invitation for publication by American Legacy Media. Skinny Boy was born. I don’t care what you’ve been told; prayer works.

Also, after seven enlightening years in Algoma, I moved on to Luxemburg-Casco High School to try my hand with counseling older adolescents. At least I knew they wouldn’t poop on me! A year later, a position opened up at the high school where I was living in Sturgeon Bay, where I presently reside. Tack on a professional counselor license to do psychotherapy (I do it part-time) and I’ve officially come full circle. Now I carry the torch left by Unit 13. The legacy of those wonderful professionals who championed my recovery lives on in me today in how I counsel others.