There was a time when the tinge of hunger hit me frequently, as much as every other normal teenager. If anything, throughout those teenage years I was the one least likely to develop any aversion to eating. After all, my mum would spend all afternoon slaving over a roast dinner and it wasn’t me whom she would have to nag to eat their vegetables but my sister. My plate was always empty, even sprouts would be non-existent by the time I would be finished. My sisters’ plate told a different story, still decorated with the green and yellows of vegetables. Even to this day, my mum looks back vividly to this as if were merely a dream, and in the conversations we have about a seemingly simple time, she says that not only was it one of the most wonderful sections of our upbringing, but also that perhaps it is down to her own actions throughout this section of my childhood that have led to my hunger dissipating.
“The times your dad was away on ship I would always make you and your sister dinner but none for myself. Maybe you picked it up from me?”
In the many flippant conversations (flippant because that is the only way people seem to know how to approach it) we have about my eating disorder she often brings up this line of rhetorical questioning, but in reality I don’t think she would want me to answer her with the finger of blame in her direction.
I’ve spent the last two years buried in Open University Psychology courses, delving into the nature and nurture debates as much as possible as well as primary and secondary socialising, looking for answers not only to achieve my future career goals, but also to try and gain some understanding of my own behaviour. To some extent I guess there is perhaps something in that theory of hers, although I would never tell her this. Psychological studies have told us to some varying degree that children start learning from those around them from birth. It was psychologist Albert Bandura who said;
“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
My mum was, and still is, a shy retiring person, who always skipped breakfast, and very often skipped tea also. I imagine to a more extreme degree, that is how many would describe me.
So what happened?
When faced with a crisis, physiologist Walter Cannon said we had three animalistic, in-born responses: Fight, flight, or freeze. But I don’t know exactly how you learn what behaviour to submit behind these responses and whether you are born with it, or learn it. The human mind is a brilliant and complex thing, it isn’t something I expect that I will ever completely understand but one week, whilst doing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy we discussed my adolescence and had what was deemed to be a breakthrough. Regardless of the behaviour, it is clear that it was my fifteen year old way of coping with stress at that period of my life, and like all skills you get better at them the more you do them. Being so young meant that as of yet, I wasn’t great at dealing with things as I may have been were it to happen to me right now.
“You can’t be so hard on fifteen year old you, he had a lot to contend with and he wasn’t old enough to have learnt the coping mechanism that us adults have” my therapist said to me in that one session looking rather pleased with herself.
What were these stresses? Well, there were family problems, serious ones that created a tension within the house which was unbearable and impossible to hide away from.
Out of the two parents, there is always the stern one, the one that will tell you off. My dad was always that character, only as we got older, as our common likes grew fewer, and as both my sister and I began to form our own pictures of society around us, he seemed to become more aggressive, more arrogant with it, and increasingly more unpredictable. Throughout our childhoods my dad was away on ship so often that we became accustomed to living as a one parent family. When he did come back it was often with gifts, promises to take us here and there before the inevitable happened, he would go back on ship again and be gone for months once more. I guess as a child I must have thought of him as some form of real life Santa Clause, and things were always fantastic when he came home. But that changed when he left the Navy. He spent months retraining so he could do IT jobs, and when that didn’t happen, months more retraining for Health & Safety jobs. The strain and demasculinizing effect of being unemployed, no longer the chief bread winner, of being utterly broke must have taken a toll on my dad the most – he began lashing out at my mum.
I remember this period of my life not as a stressful one, but as one of musical exploration, spending most of my time in the depths of my room, sitting in the dark, listening to whatever alternative music I could get my hands on. Anything miserable, offensive or angry and I had it. Looking back this was my way of expressing myself, of coping with the turbulent household I was living within. This was my way of saying I need attention, I’m hurting too. That attention, that sense of security and care never came and subconsciously perhaps I changed tact in order to remedy this.
Shortly before Christmas, and my sixteenth birthday, the situation reached a plateau. It was a Sunday just like most Sundays when my dad found out my mum had been having an affair and told her that she had to leave. I was sitting on my bed, listening to Silverchair when my mum came in. She wasn’t full of tears but perhaps more relief that she no longer had a secret to hide, or relief that she had an excuse to leave, I don’t know. She asked me if I would come with her, she didn’t know where but my sister would be with her and she wanted me to be as well. Even to this day this seems like a difficult question. Now I would ask for time to think it over, look for the pros and cons, but time wasn’t offered, so I can’t even begin to imagine how my fifteen year old self felt having to make such a pivotal life changing decision in such a way. I guess over time I’ve just blanked it out, or allowed myself to become numb to it. Either way I chose to stay with my dad. To this day I don’t know exactly why, it just seemed the right thing at the time to do. Maybe I felt betrayed by my mother (Freud’s Oedipus Complex Theory might have said I felt jealousy with her leaving me for another man) or maybe a maternal instinct rose in me knowing that with mum gone my dad would need looking after.
This is where my needs took a back seat. With my mum elsewhere trying to sort out her own life I took up the role of housewife. I began cooking and cleaning for a dad who was too wrapped up in his own self pity and solitude to be appreciative, or caring. Certain things transpired at this point in my life. My dad, with nowhere to vent his anger now my mum was gone, began to aim it at me. I began drinking, taking copious amounts of painkillers, self-harming, and for the first time, without my mum around to ensure my safety and health, I began skipping meals. I don’t know where I picked up this sense of coping, it was never conscious, I just felt in pain – I still do.
From this period of my life I can only really remember two feelings; one of complete numbness, and the second of a God-like invulnerability. You could say that I needed to cope in this way at the time and not eating would be what Cannon would call my freeze mechanism otherwise how would I have got through the turmoil? Regardless of psychological reasoning I guess the trauma of abuse, feeling unimportant and a lack of passion towards your own existence would have that sort of impact on everyone. Even to this day, ten years on, I may not drink, or take pain killers, but I still refuse to eat on a regular basis, slowly destroying my body and any bright future I may have held for myself.
The media tells us a lot about eating disorders but they don’t tend to go into the dark depths of it all. In the last ten years I’ve found myself more and more withdrawn, I’ve lost friends because for an eating disorder to survive I have to generally be alone. I’ve lost partners because it’s too hard a thing to understand or deal with, and when you get with someone you don’t expect to have to physically care for them, and quite frankly you shouldn’t have to. I’ve been unable to attend college, or university, or even do simple things on a day to day basis like going into a shop because it’s created such a heightened anxiety and depression. Not to mention, worst of all, I have weak bones, a continuous bad back, and I feel like I’m sixty years old at the age of twenty six.
And those aren’t even the desperate parts. The desperate parts are the days when you’ve made yourself so hungry that you end up binge eating two or three times more calories than you should in a day. The parts when you eat so much that your stomach physically hurts. The parts when you chuck food in the bin to try and stop yourself eating it, and find yourself an hour later fishing through it to eat what you’ve thrown out. The parts when you’ve eaten so you have to exercise for hours until every part of your body aches and you convince your brain that you no longer have a reason to feel guilty. Then there are the parts when you become so desperate, so fed up with being like this that you think of ways to kill yourself, or you actually attempt to kill yourself. And throughout all of this, because the illness strives on being you being alone, because you have become so insular, you have no-one to turn to and no-one to talk to.
The worst part is the regrets, having feeling like I missed potentially the best part of ten years of my life when I should have been out socialising, getting drunk, having fun, going to university, growing as a person but instead I’ve become an empty shell of the person that I could have been, and in the absence of a hunger, the life I may have had will continue to haunt me every day until I am able to overcome this horrible, life wrecking illness and turn around my life. And that’s why the last year of my life has been so important, to take part in research projects and to undertake tasks to raise awareness for eating disorders, not just in men, but as a whole, so that I can help people like myself, or stop people from suffering like me.