In 1987 I was sent off to St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace, the all-boys Christian Brothers school on the edge of Brisbane’s CBD. I’m sure everyone remembers their first day of high school – that shrinking feeling from having been among the biggest kids in primary school to being jostled around the hallways by grown men who towered over you in uniforms that looked too small. Some of the guys in my high school were repeating Year 12, which made them eighteen, so they weren’t boys, they were men. Men in shorts and school ties. Men who drove cars to school and smoked and drank and had girlfriends. They had beard stubble and loud, deep voices. Some of the kids in my class had hit puberty already and were just gigantic. I wasn’t the only fat kid in my year, but I was the only one in my class. On the first day at school not only was I grappling with the terror of all of those strangers, but because it was summer I was going to be naked in front of them as we got changed for swimming class.
On day one of high school we had physical education. This was my greatest fear, for these were the days when a teacher was allowed to call a kid ‘fat’ and yell at him for being so. The class took place at the Olympic-sized pool a short walk from the school. The change rooms were enormous and frightening, just long benches with no cubicles and nowhere to hide.
As soon as I got my shirt off the teasing started: howls of cruel laughter and name calling from the bigger kids, even people pinching my stomach as if they’d never seen someone like me before. I was fucking mortified. I didn’t quite realise that this would happen twice a week until I was in Year 11 and PE was no longer compulsory.
I absolutely dreaded going to school. The nerves I’d get the night before were intense, and always worst on Sunday evenings. As the dusk enveloped our home and the birds finished their last calls of the day, I felt nothing but fear about the day to come. Unfortunately for me, this fear led to more eating, which led to me getting fatter, which led to more teasing.
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It was a vicious circle. And just when I didn’t think it could get any worse, it did. Way worse. As puberty started to hit, my hormones got a bit confused and I began to develop breasts. Little buds started to form under my nipples around the age of thirteen and by the time I was back from summer holidays to start Year 9 I had actual boobs growing on my chest. They were very painful and when I felt them they were about the size of a big squash ball. Because I was so fat, they looked as if they belonged on a woman and not on me. Over the summer I had gone to Adelaide to visit relatives and worn a t-shirt to go swimming because I was so ashamed of them. After a while in the ocean my nipples started to hurt. I looked down to see why I was in pain and saw they were bleeding. The t-shirt was rubbing the delicate skin completely raw. This wasn’t in the pamphlet about puberty we’d been given in Grade 6. I thought I was becoming a woman.
I put on a bunch of weight quickly over the summer break, and when you’re a teenager you can change shape in a matter of weeks. During the first PE session for Year 9 when I took my shirt off one of the big guys screamed, ‘Look! Günsberg’s got tits!’ and ran at me grabbing my chest and squeezing my chest lumps while the whole class howled with laughter.
That night in tears I told Mum what was happening and asked whether there was anything we could do. Mum was an absolute champion and booked me in to see a few doctors. The first specialist we saw diagnosed me with gynecomastia, a hormonal imbalance not uncommon in teenage boys. He told me, while my case was more pronounced, not to worry because it would probably sort itself out by the time I was eighteen. Eighteen? Fuck that. I needed this gone now. I hated my body, I hated what was happening to me.
Mum was kind enough to then take me to a plastic surgeon. He told me he would be able to remove both lumps but he was still reluctant because it’s a condition that corrects itself eventually. I broke down in tears in his office telling him how horrible it was to be at school. He took pity on me and said we’d sort it out. A few weeks later I went in for the surgery and had both lumps removed. The left one grew back a few months later and I had to go in again, but it too was taken out. This surgery had two wonderfully positive results. One, I no longer had boobs that jiggled under my school shirt when I walked. Two, I was able to get out of a whole term of PE while I healed. Having your school notes signed by your mum who’s also a medical doctor definitely has its benefits.
When you’re a fat kid, the teasing is pretty relentless. Like most fat kids I tried to get ahead of it and be self-deprecating. I had seen the film The Goonies, with the fat kid Chunk making his friends laugh by wobbling his tummy around. I started to do this on the pool deck as a way of pre-empting the bullies and trying to have some power over how exposed I felt.
Through my teenage years at St Joseph’s I was relentlessly bullied because of my size, and often responded in anger (fear comes out as anger). This made me an odd kid to be around, I’m sure. My eating was out of control. Mum was flat out working six days a week to earn enough money for us kids to stay at our fancy school so she’d often just cook up a vat – not a large pot, but a vat – of bolognese sauce on a Sunday that we’d just eat throughout the week. She’d showed us how to cook spaghetti, so often I’d just come home and pull some spaghetti from the night before out of the fridge, slop on some of the bolognese sauce and nuke it so I could mindlessly eat something while I watched Degrassi Jnr High and avoid my homework. Then I’d eat another meal at dinner – usually more spaghetti and sauce. When the spag bol ran out we’d order pizza, which always came with a bottle of Coca Cola. I really got the taste for Coke, and because Mum was utterly exhausted and couldn’t argue with us any more she relaxed the ‘no soft drinks in the fridge’ rule and started buying Coke at grocery time. The summer I was sixteen, I was drinking up to three litres of this stuff a day. I was understandably edgy, pimply and blimp-like.
In Year 12 I was so ashamed of my body that I even asked my then-girlfriend if she’d mind me keeping my t-shirt on if we ever had sex. Bless her heart, she didn’t mind and for years I’d wear that t-shirt around, proudly telling everyone that it was the t-shirt I lost my virginity in.
Somewhere around the end of my senior year of high school I weighed myself for the first time in what seemed like years. I was 112 kilograms.
My shame about my body and my eating had reached new lows, so I did what any good food addict would do: I ate. I felt disgusting and worthless and because I felt disgusting and worthless I’d eat, which made me feel more disgusting and more worthless. A nasty cycle.
To try and offset this feeling of worthlessness, I chased down opportunities to perform as often as I could. Having been learning guitar since I was eight, I had now switched to playing bass which meant I was able to be in three separate school bands at once. Add to this our own teenage garage band, and I was managing to get on stage at least a few times a month.
Again, being on stage made everything better. I performed in choirs, barbershop groups and eventually that rite of passage, the high-school musical. We were an all-boys’ school so we paired up with All Hallows girls’ school a few kilometres away to put on a show once a year. On the backstage crew for two years, I auditioned for and got roles in Grade 11 and Grade 12.
I just adored being a part of these productions. As we were a rugby school, some of the other guys in my grade would tease me about being a sissy and not playing footy on the weekends. But I was spending my weekday afternoons pressed up against cute and fun All Hallow’s girls in cramped backstage areas, which were ripe with the whiff of male and female teenage arousal hormones, while theirs were spent with their heads pressed up against another bloke’s arse in a rugby scrum. I know for sure what I was more interested in.
Osher Günsberg Back, After the Break, (HarperCollins Publishers 2018), reproduced with permission of HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Ltd is sude in bookstores on August 20, 2018.