Right now I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.
Have I just won the pools?
Did my lottery numbers come up in Saturday’s draw?
I have just closed the most successful chapter in my 41 year life and I keen to get started on the next.
So what’s all this got to do with Men Get Eating Disorders Too? Well, just three and a half years ago I was lying in a hospital bed in isolation suffering with pneumonia and a collapsed right lung. I had just received a blood transfusion and I was terrified of what might happen next. To explain how I ended up in this position I have to take you back twenty five years to when I was about to leave secondary school. At that time it appeared that the world was my oyster. I was a grade A student, I represented the school and county in athletics, rugby and cricket, I was Midlands 400m champion and I was tipped to be the next Head Boy.
What could go wrong?
My grandmother (or Nana as I knew her) died.
This was the first time I had lost anyone close to me and Nana was close. When we were younger my brother and I had spent many mornings during the school holidays at Nana and Granddad’s whilst Mum (part time) & Dad (full time) were at work. I would accompany Nana to the shops most days to pick up meat from the butchers, bread from the bakers and cheese from the local market. Back in those days the ‘weekly supermarket shop’ was unheard of.
When Nana died I was obviously devastated but, what I couldn’t accept was that the rest of the world was just continuing as if nothing had happened. The papers were delivered, TV programmes broadcast as usual and the shops opened their doors to customers just like any other day. Didn’t anyone realise that my Nana had just died? Maybe I should have raised my problems with the family but when a close relative dies everyone is grieving and as such we all try to ‘be strong’ for each other. How could I burden my Mum with the problem when she had just lost her Mum. And my Granddad had just lost his wife of almost 50 years so clearly he was clearly suffering too.
My reaction, however irrational it might seem was to punish myself. I felt that somehow I simply couldn’t go on living life to the full and enjoying myself when someone had just died. What right did I have to be happy? I could only justify my existence if I was suffering. So, quite simply I began to starve myself, slowly at first, whilst maintaining the same level of sporting activity. Sure it began to hurt but, I was determined. I was bloody minded. No one was going to stop me.
And so the pattern began.
Once you begin to starve yourself you manage to exist on smaller and smaller amounts. Before you know it you have learnt the calorific content of every foodstuff and you know exactly what to avoid, how much is ‘too much’ and indeed how much smaller the ‘too much’ can be reduced by.
Clearly my running (the sport at which I had excelled) started to suffer. I no longer had the energy to perform at the same level which made me angry. I was no longer as good as I used to be. When I ran it hurt. I had a constant gnawing pain in my gut and occasionally I even felt light headed.
By the time I came to take my A levels I was on the hamster wheel of self punishment, driving myself harder and harder whilst existing on fewer and fewer calories. I was no longer any fun to be with. Watching every morsel I ate meant that I withdrew from company. It was easier that way as you didn’t have to cover up in front of others. Whilst friends stay friends as long as they are able, when you are in you are 17-18 yrs old most young adults are discovering life and enjoying new freedoms and exciting experiences so they aren’t going to hang around waiting for ‘the miserable git who no longer joins in’.
A levels gave me the excuse to shut myself away in a room studying – too busy to eat at regular mealtimes. This was of course another excuse. At the same time two of my tutors suggested that I should try for Oxford and Cambridge respectively. Oxford? Me? No way, surely? I’m just Ian Sockett from the local secondary school in rural Herefordshire. Despite my lack of belief somehow I passed the Oxford entrance exam and was invited to interview. To be honest I didn’t even want to leave for university. By now my life had imploded and I only had my parents to fall back on. The combination of my mental state along with some very prejudice questioning; “Why weren’t you educated at private school?” “Why does your mother find it necessary to work?” meant that I stood little chance. I was also the only candidate from a state educated background. When the rejection letter followed it just reaffirmed what I already knew – I was no good.
And so the years ebbed away.
I became an apprentice in Sales & Marketing at a local firm and this is all that held me together. This and the amazing support of my parents. If ever any two people deserve a VC it’s them! Despite everything I had put them through and continued to put them through, they never gave up on me. To this day that played a crucial part in my eventual recovery. In the early days at the pleas of Mum and Dad I did seek professional help. I would ask you to remember that we are talking 20 odd years ago and thinking was hardly well advanced at that stage. Despite that, my experience still felt horrific. I was referred to what most people would call a physcologist who, during the first session asked me whether my parents had sexually abused me in the past. What? He was talking about the only two people who has not given up on me, He was talking about the two people that had cried rivers of tears as they saw their son disappear before their eyes. I was devastated to think that anyone could conceive such a thing and I felt sickened. Needless to say, I didn’t return.
And so the years went on.
I got used to the staring people even though it hurt every time.
I heard people talking in whispers but never to my face.
It was assumed that I was gay; after all I didn’t have a girlfriend.
It was also assumed that I either had Aids or Cancer – maybe both?
The truth was I had anorexia and had now been suffering for over 10 years. I wasn’t gay. I didn’t have Aids – or Cancer. The reason I didn’t have a girlfriend was simple – I looked hideous, even frightening.
Let’s just dispel a few myths here. I knew exactly what I looked like when I saw my reflection. There was no body image deception. I hated what I saw, each and every time. I also didn’t think it was attractive in any to look emancipated, as I did. I never even considered the fashion industry messages of size zero. For me anorexia was a way of self harm, of punishing myself.
Things finally took a different course when following the New Year chimes of Big Ben welcoming in 2008, I fell ill with a chest infection. An initial course and then a second stronger course of antibiotics failed to stem the worsening cough. I vividly remember coughing one night for what seemed hours upon end. When I got up the following morning I ached terribly.
Finally the doctor admitted that they didn’t know what else they could do but admit me to hospital.
Following some initial tests it was confirmed that I had pneumonia. My right lung had also collapsed. The consultant advised that he would like to keep me in hospital and ‘hit me hard’ with intravenous drugs to try and control the infection. After all, at that stage I had very little strength to fight the illness.
My next shock came when it was announced that the hospital was closing its doors to visitors in an attempt to control a bout of the Norovirus or winter vomiting bug as it was more commonly described. Great! My only friends, Mum & Dad weren’t going to be able to visit. Next, following the first dose of antibiotics (and this always happens when I first take antibiotics) I got ‘the runs’! The drugs went in went in one end and quickly out the other! As a result, fearing that I may have contracted the Norovirus, I was placed in isolation. Just 24 hours after being admitted I now found myself imprisoned in a room and unable to receive any visitors. Added to this I felt pretty weak and soon very, very afraid. It’s amazing where the mind goes at times like this. It’s not until things are threatened from being taken away from you that you realise just how precious they are. In my case this was life itself.
Thank goodness, it was around about now that I had something of a light bulb moment. Scared into thinking that I might not get out of hospital again and that I might never see my parents, brother or beloved niece and nephew, I decided that I was going to somehow dig myself out of this deep, deep hole into which I had dug myself. More than that I had already started to formulate my goal. I would fulfil a lifelong ambition and I would run a marathon. And I would run for Macmillan Cancer Support. Cancer sufferers can’t do anything about the fact that they have been diagnosed with cancer and yet here I was having perpetuated my illness for so many years. Those same traits of bloody mindedness, determination and relentless guts which had caused me to waste away to a five and a half stone shadow of my former-self were going to ensure that I took on and won the greatest battle of my life. I was going to make those two people who had stood by me and never given up, proud to be my parents. I was going to repay the debt that I felt I owed to society for wasting 25 years. I was going to help others less fortunate than myself.
The journey back to health and eventually marathon fitness was long, frustrating and difficult. You don’t change a 25 year way of thinking overnight. Putting weight on was going to be a slow process. Too much, too soon could cause the heart to overload and internal organs to fail. Lots more tears were cried too. “I’m never going to make it” often crept in to my thinking. Yet, at the same time I wasn’t going to let anyone down. Perhaps some will say that I should have been doing this for myself and myself alone and whilst I won’t argue with the logic, my greatest motivator was the thought of completing a marathon, hanging that meddle around mum’s neck and saying “thanks for being there”. That and the fact that I was proud to have been accepted to run for team Macmillan. I owed them a debt of gratitude for believing in me.
I read and re-read all the guidance that Macmillan offered in their newsletters. The training plans, the fund raising guides and the inspirational stories. I started fund raising by packing bags in local supermarkets. It was only a team of two, Mum and me but, suddenly it was as if we could move mountains. £400-500 in a day was the reality and soon I had surpassed my initial target fund raising amount. More than that however, the bag-packs allowed me to enjoy a great rapport with the public. Whilst I was packing I would be interrogated by old ladies, kids, mums and even the odd bloke who had obviously been despatched with orders to attend to the weekly shop. When I explained what I was doing and for whom the result was always the same. A pound, two and sometimes a fiver were thrown into my collection bucket along with messages of good luck and some incredible words of encouragement. I also got to hear a number of very personal stories; relatives who had died of cancer but who had received amazing support from Macmillan, wives who had just had their 5 year all clear and even some current cancer sufferers who were receiving support ‘as we packed’. I felt honoured to be a part of this.
The Paris marathon, my first marathon was something else. Being a marathon virgin I didn’t know what to expect and to this day it’s not the beautiful weather that I can remember or the amazing sights along the Seine. No, the two residing memories are the pain in my quads over the last 3-4 miles and the words “Go Soko go” yelled by one of the Macmillan support team who was balanced precariously half way up a French lamp post! And do you know what? That’s part of what makes running for a cause like Macmillan special. I guarantee that the support team shouted just as loud for every Macmillan runner but, when I heard those words I felt really special.
Paris 2009 -job done but, now I was hungry for London, the world’s most famous marathon. The summer of 2009 brought with it my first stress fracture (to the right tibia) and for 3 weeks I was the proud owner of a red plaster cast. When the plaster was removed I was mortified to find that my leg had disappeared! The nurse was quite non-plussed. “It’s always the same” he said “the men worry about the muscle wastage and the women about the hair growth”! Banned from any weight bearing exercise one consultant all but told me that the fracture might be a sign that my bones weren’t built for marathon running and that I might have to give this up. “Are you kidding?”
By the time that I had secured my place for London 2010 (again running for Macmillan) I had started to open up about my past and eventually took the decision to speak with the local press in order to both raise awareness of eating disorders and to promote the charity for whom I was running. Despite some anxious nights prior to the article being published I received an overwhelming amount of support. People appreciated my honesty and somehow they enjoyed reading about someone facing up to their demons. I honestly think that many people empathised with my story and that is why they reacted so positively. Most people can associate with having made a wrong decision, following the wrong path or even beating themselves up mentally because of something that has happened to them at some point. When someone publicly talks about their experiences suddenly others don’t feel quite so uncomfortable about theirs.
In early Mar 2010, just weeks before the race it was suspected that fate had repeated itself and that I had another stress fracture – the left femur this time. The medical guys advised against attempting the race but, when you have already banked £2,500 for your charity pulling out wasn’t an option. When (not if) the leg gave out I was determined that I would try and hobble around the rest of the course. In reality, thanks to some good advice from my GP physio, no running in the weeks leading up to the race but most especially to the crowds in London, I actually felt like I floated around the 26.2 mile course. Don’t ask me how but I trimmed 29 minutes off my previous best, finishing in 3h 35m 47s. I was walking on air. The energy boost and mental hit that the supporters give you is indescribable. The only downside of the race was that Mum, presuming that I was somewhere walking the course and despite several tube journeys across the capital trying to locate me, never actually got to see me. The raw emotion of completing the race, the appreciation of the support you have received and the exhilaration that you get from knowing that you have done something positive with your life is something else.
Because of my success in 2010 I was nervous that things couldn’t possibly go so well in 2011 as I lined up for my third marathon – my second London.
On the morning of the race I just felt sick, sick, sick with nerves. I somehow felt a great responsibility to do myself justice. I couldn’t say to everyone how amazing life was post recovery and convince others to beat their demons if I then went and failed. I somehow owed it to everyone who had supported me to rise to the challenge.
The race started off quite overcast but warm enough. By midday the sun had come out and it was warming up. I will take the heat any day compared to cold wet weather so I didn’t mind but, lots of runners started to suffer once the sun came out.
I was monitoring my time every mile. I secretly wanted to get just inside 3hours 30minutes, which meant I had to run 8minute miles. I was actually slightly behind after the first couple of miles but this was due to the delay in crossing the start line. As time went on I knew that I was actually inside my time but I also knew that I would probably have to ‘bank’ a few minutes as I would probably suffer in the last few miles and slow down considerably.
As I ran over Tower Bridge the crowds were simply awesome. I don’t honestly know if anyone in the world can do such an event like we can in GB. Despite all the negatives you hear about people, I would sing the praises of our people every minute of every day. Even though they had never seen or heard of you someone would regularly shout “go on SOKO” by way of encouragement.
The really memorable bit was at mile 22 when I veered towards the Macmillan cheer point and glanced Mum. At the same moment she saw me and shouted “Go on Eeeeeee” Well – have you ever tried to keep running and breathing normally when you are desperately choking back tears? It’s not easy. I must have looked quite a sight with glassy eyes!
Unlike last year, I met up with mum in Horse guards within 10-15 minutes. I had just about finished mopping up the first lot of tears when we met and the next lot started! I must have looked like an emotional wreck! As you can imagine, Mum started doing the same as I gave her the biggest hug.
Finally, we entered the Commonwealth Office, where Macmillan had it’s recovery centre. This is where everyone meets up post race. As I came down the grand steps in to the hall (not easy after 26.2 miles!), four cheerleaders started chanting “we are proud you, we are proud of you”. This was repeated for every Macmillan runner as they entered. Guess what? Yep- more tears!
I was the 6th Macmillan runner home out of an 818 strong team, which meant I had the luxury of an extra long massage (from a very attractive physio student!).
Well that’s about it really. Oh! My time. 3hours 13minutes 55seconds, which for me was totally UNBELIEVABLE. 3hours 15minutes is considered Good For Age and anyone achieving a Good For Age time is entitled to automatic qualification for next year’s race meaning that you don’t have to go through the ballot system. Whilst I was delighted at the time I am not sure that automatic qualification is something I need!
I cannot tell you what the day meant to me. It was the culmination of a very eventful but so so worthwhile journey. I have an enormous amount to be grateful for. Just over 3yrs ago I was on a road to nowhere, other than an early grave and yet here I am after having run marathon no.3 and hoping to have banked £10,000+ for Macmillan over those three marathons.
I cannot say enough thank-you’s. To everyone who has interviewed me, to colleagues who have sponsored me and willed me on, to strangers who have wished me all the best – I owe everyone so much gratitude. And of course my parents. And possibly No.1 – Mum.
I have certainly got more self confidence and I really would like to continue to promote the whole awareness campaign amongst guys and ‘conquering eating disorders’ message. It’s amazing what the mind will let the body do. I’ve seen this through both sides of the mirror and I kind of like where I am now.
Of course I wish I could the clock back 25 years and start again but, unfortunately that’s just not possible. I could mourn the ‘lost years’ but they are like spilled milk. What I can do is look forward, spread the story of my recovery and hope that someone, anyone, can gain the inspiration to take on their eating disorder and conquer it. For me, having a reason to recover (well, several reasons really) was pivotal; completing a marathon, making a difference to the lives of people affected by cancer and possibly the most significant driving force – repaying my parents for their incredible support. I strongly believe that when sufferers speak out and share their experiences it helps others in so many ways. Suddenly the barriers of guilt, shame, and loneliness are broken down and it’s easier to share your own problems. Show me the person who hasn’t done something they regret, who hasn’t made a wrong decision in their life or who doesn’t wish they could have taken a different direction at some point. That person simply doesn’t exist. We all make mistakes. Things go wrong for all of us. We all have at least one skeleton in the cupboard. None of this makes you a bad person. No matter how deep the hole you have dug yourself into, there is a way out. I am living proof.
Onwards and upwards – where to? I have no idea but it certainly beats being where I once was!
Now you’ll understand why I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.