The Doc Project·Personal Essay

My brother and I were total opposites, except for one thing: We almost starved ourselves to death

When Bob Kerr’s anorexia was on the verge of killing him, his parents called the police. And the thing is, they’ve been down this road before with John, Bob’s younger brother.

When Bob Kerr’s anorexia took hold, his parents panicked. They had already watched another son waste away

John and Bob Kerr share a glider swing, 1983. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)
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Growing up, my younger brother and I could not have been more different. John was athletic, a straight-A student, an overachiever. I was a chubby kid who lounged around the house, snacking on junk food and watching TV.

However, as different as we were, we both nearly starved ourselves to death — my brother when he was in grade six, myself when I was in college. 

Until now, we've never really talked about it.

The funny fat guy

My weight started to really affect my life in high school, when I went from a chubby kid to a fat teen. To protect myself from the bullies, I started making fun of myself, beating them to the punch. I would flaunt my gut, imitating Chris Farley's Matt Foley character from Saturday Night Live.

In my senior year, I got a role in the musical South Pacific, where I played a comic relief sailor. I dressed in a grass skirt and coconut bra with a sailboat drawn on my stomach. I danced around, doing belly waves, and the audience whooped in laughter. 

I loved it. But there was a small voice in the back of my head: "They're not laughing with you." 

Bob Kerr in his high school performance of South Pacific, using his weight for jokes. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)

In college, I developed my first real serious crush on a girl, and I couldn't eat. I had a pit in my stomach that only got worse when she was around. I became incredibly anxious and fixated. And it went on for weeks. 

After awhile, a friend told me that it appeared that I had lost weight and I looked good. That was the first time in my whole life that I was told I looked good. It felt great

So I just kept not eating; but now, with intention. 

The crush fizzled out, but meanwhile, my life started to take off. I was enrolled in a comedy program, living in Toronto. For the first time, I felt that I had found my people, my place. 

And as my weight plummeted, I revelled in my new body. But my mom, Lorain, didn't feel the same way. When I went home to visit my parents, I asked her if she would cut my hair. She nodded and told me to remove my shirt.

"I just about fainted," Mom recalls, her voice breaking. "Because I could see every bone in your body." 

Bob and John Kerr posing in the kitchen, 2002. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)

My parents were beside themselves with worry. They were watching their son waste away.  And the thing is, this wasn't their first time.

The overachiever

So, remember John? My athletic, hard-working brother? Long before I was starving myself, my brother also did the same. 

But he has a very different story.

When John was five, we visited our grandparents in Kitchener, where John drank some water. Soon after, he got diarrhea. "That terrified me," John says. To most people, diarrhea just happens and you move on. To John, it became a fear — one that lodged somewhere in his brain.

John and Bob Kerr, 1983. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)

In Grade Six, the fear came back with a vengeance. John became obsessed with the worry that anything he ate would give him diarrhea. 

Not only did he begin to eat less and less, but he also started going to the bathroom immediately after eating, sitting on the toilet, trying to rid himself of what he had just consumed. Soon, John spent most of his free time there. "I think I'd wake up early, six in the morning, and I'd be on the toilet right until… before I went to school." 

Mom had taken John to several doctors, trying to figure out what was going on with him. One said they found nothing wrong, another diagnosed him with anorexia, but that didn't seem to fit the whole picture. 

Then one night, Mom found a note from John, saying he was going to kill himself. He was 12 years old.

John Kerr, Christmas 1994. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)

Mom quickly took John to the Sick Kids Hospital in London, Ontario, where he was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He was given medication for the OCD, which helped. Gradually, he stopped obsessing about what he ate. He stopped sitting on the toilet.

During his time at the hospital, John met another person who had overcome OCD. It changed his life. "After hearing this, someone with a success story," John says, "that was my turning point."

My parents' ultimatum

A decade later, in the throes of my anorexia, I also reached a turning point. 

My family and I were at a family function. During dinner, I took a couple of bites and went to the bathroom. Mom clocked this and had my brother follow me in. 

I was just peeing, but when my brother stepped inside, I was immediately suspicious. I asked him if Mom sent him in and he admitted that she did. I was furious. I stormed out of the bathroom and confronted Mom, yelling at her. Relatives stared. 

My parents and I went out to the parking lot and Mom laid it all out: "Next time you come home and you've put on weight, we'll consider leaving you alone. But if you don't, then you're not going back to school. You'll be going to the hospital." 

The idea horrified me. I wouldn't just lose a year, I would lose the whole new life I had built for myself.

At this point, the compliments that triggered the anorexia were long gone, replaced by less flattering comments — like I was addicted to heroin or I had contracted a terminal illness. It was beginning to sink in that I had gone too far. It was time to turn it around. 

I made myself start to eat. It was excruciating. But in time, eating became okay again.

Family photo, 1986. From left, clockwise: Lorain, Chad, Bob and John Kerr. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)

Coming to terms  

Have the two of us carried our demons with us? My brother admits that sometimes he still needs to tell himself to get off the toilet, but it's manageable. As for me, my anorexia is like a small voice, easy to ignore.

But the person hit the hardest by all of this was our mom. When she saw John and I starving ourselves, she couldn't help but to blame herself. 

"I had my two younger sons doing this to themselves," Mom says. "So I'm trying to figure out what I did." 

But I don't think it's anything Mom did. It was something John and I didn't do. We didn't talk. 

Growing up, my brother and I didn't really connect at all. Neither of us looked to the other for any kind of comfort or advice. Actually, I didn't seek comfort or advice from anyone. I didn't talk about how I felt or what was going on in school. I created an island for myself and found some stubborn pride in the belief that I didn't need anyone's help. 

But on the flipside, I didn't know how to help anyone else, either. 

Now, 20 years later, John and I have finally opened up. Yes, we're still different in a lot of ways, but we also learned a lot more about each other than either of us intended. I just can't believe that it took so long to get there. 

But better late than never, right?

Bob, Lorain and John Kerr, Thanksgiving 2019. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page. 



Need help?

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) provides resources and support. They offer live chat on their website, nedic.ca, or are available toll-free at 1-866-633-4220.

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Crisis Services Canada website is a good resource. You can also call them toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645.

For young people, Kids Help Phone has live chat services on their website, kidshelpphone.ca. Their toll-free number is 1-800-668-6868, and you can also text them at 686868.

 

About the Producer

Bob Kerr has written and performed for hit television comedy shows such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Comedy Inc., The Nikki Payne Funtime Show, Hotbox, and Satisfaction to name a few. The web series he co-created, "But I'm Chris Jericho," won a Canadian Comedy Award for Best Writing In A Web Series. Bob has also won a Canadian Screen Award and a Canadian Comedy Award for Best Writing in a Variety or Sketch Comedy Program or Series for his work on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Bob is the only one in his friend circle that still watches Survivor.  

This documentary was co-produced by Jennifer Warren. It was edited by Acey Rowe.

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