Someone asked me recently why I was anorexic, and I didn’t know how to answer the question. It might seem like a strange question but sometimes teenagers ask questions which those of us who are adults don’t think to ask. As a child I never cared about what I looked like and food was just something I ate when it was put in front of me. Like the rest of my family I was skinny and I was very active. Even when I started putting on weight as a teenager, I was never called fat. In fact more people have commented on my weight as an anorexic, than when I was obese. I steadily put on weight during my teens and into my college years, but I was tall and I could carry it, and weight was never something that I paid any attention to. I went to the gym and pushed myself, but not in the desperate hope of loosing weight, rather the gym was just something I did for fun. I never weighted myself but my waist size continually got larger; it grew over the course of ten years from thirty inches to a forty-four inches and I still wasn’t worried. My clothes went an size small to a size extra-extra-large. I enjoyed food, and I enjoyed life and I was happy. I avoided going to the beach and places where I would have to take my T-shirt off, but being a man I never felt under any pressure to be skinnier. After college, my New Years resolution every year was to loose a bit of weight. When I finished college I got a good job and my weight continued to rise until I reached twenty stone. Looking back I suppose I developed traits associated with an over-eater, but lets face it one cannot reach a weight of twenty stone without eating a lot of food, and not exercising, and most of the weight could be attributed to my lifestyle and the hours I worked.
When people talk about eating disorders, some say that there is always a reason or a point of crisis that makes the person spiral into an eating disorder. Alternatively, some people talk about a growing obsession with body image. For me it had nothing to do with food, weight, body image, depression or low self-esteem – it was simply a sense of lack of control. I changed jobs; moving from one I loved, to one with more career prospects and more responsibility, but also one that was a lot more difficult and without the support I had grown to count on in my previous job. I lost my sense of control, and I lost my sense of stability. I have always been incredibly independent and self-determined and asking for help or even admitting to myself that I had “bitten off more than I could chew” was like admitting failure and I was not going to ever admit that. I felt that the only thing I could control was my body. One New Years Eve I just decided that I was going to lose weight and I did. By the following year I had lost ten stone. I drastically reduced my daily intake of food. I was gorging myself on calories, with no exercise. When I starting loosing weight I never sought advice (that would be like admitting I needed help) and instead creating my own diet, which basically consisted of salad, wraps, soup and fruit. In the first three months of the year I some weight by dieting alone. Loosing weight when you are obese really makes little difference to those who see you every day, and in fact it wasn’t until I lost substantial weight, that anyone really noticed much of a difference. As achieved my weight loss goals, I could or should have stopped pushing myself, but by then I was already suffering from an eating disorder, and if I am honest the thought never entered my head to stop dieting. The spiral continued and in order to loose more weight I had to restrict my diet further and I had to start exercising more. The weighting scales became a fixed feature of my daily routine. I weighted myself at least twice a day, sometimes after every “meal”. I embarked on a quest to find “diet tips” on the internet, and tried most of them, but most of the time I just starved myself, eating nothing more than I needed to function. I look back on that year now and I cannot remember much about it – it is almost like I was in a state of hibernation; I was functioning but only on auto-pilot.By the time a year had passed I reached my target weight, and everyone around me marveled at the amazing transformation. Again instead of just enjoying my success my mind saw the praise as encouragement to continue and I became increasingly paranoid about gaining weight – no matter how ridiculous it sounds it seemed that every piece of food I ate might make me wake up the next morning back where I started. I felt incredible guilt when I ate something that wasn’t part of my diet plan and I began intermittently purging myself. I avoiding any kind of plan with friends that might even vaguely have the potential of involving food. Over the next six months I lost more weight by eating even less, but added to that my new trick was exercising the intensity and frequency of my time spent in the gym to three or four times a week. I’m an intelligent person; I’m capable of rationale thought and never at any point did I have a goal for what I wanted from the diet. I didn’t even know what my BMI should be. I had no destination or stopping point. I remember when I got to sixteen stone, I looked at the scales, and remember saying to myself “I want to be so many stone”, and that was my next goal. By the time I reached my target weight I said to myself “I want my weight to be single digits”, this is in spite of the fact that I am over six-feet tall. Eventually my weight became even lower, and people were making more and more comments on how unhealthy my weight was and how unhealthy I looked.
Having achieved so much, I took their remarks not as concern but as criticism and petty jealousy. It took eighteen months for me to acknowledge that I had a problem and that I was unable to help myself. During that time my health began to suffer, I had dizzy spells,and fainted on a number of occasions. Initially, I fainted at home, and would wake up feeling shame and guilt, and thankful that no-one had been around to witness it. I fainted twice in public, once with friends and once when I was alone, both times resulting in injures from the falls to the ground. On both occasions given the nature of the injuries, and the fact they were impossible to cover I had to visit the doctor, but lied as to why I had fainted, blaming alcohol or the fact I was rushing that morning and had failed to have time to eat breakfast. I started getting various infections that I was unable to kick, and was constantly at the doctors being prescribed antibiotics. I was unable to donate blood because I failed the iron testing continually. Every time I had a blood work up there were consistently low white blood cells. Eventually I came to a realization that I needed to stop what I was doing. I tried over the course of a number of months to stop weighting myself,stop going to the gym, and to eat more, and I was somewhat successful but that I just had no control over what I was doing and I realized that I desperately needed help. I finally admitted to my doctor the truth and begged for a referral to someone who could help me.Strangely when I first met my consultant psychiatrist I was relieved when he told me I was chronically anorexic – and then I immediately felt shame for feeling this way – but I was glad to have a diagnosis and I was glad to finally hand over control to someone else. It has been eighteen months since my diagnosis and I am nowhere near recovered but I feel I have an understanding and knowledge now of my anorexia that I failed to have for so long,and this has allowed me to stay on top of my condition. I know that I am chronically anorexic. I know that my brains pathways are altered to the extent that I don’t feel hunger anymore; even when I’m starving I feel nothing. I know that I have developed an anxiety disorder which I never had before the anorexia. I know I have developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and that this in conjunction with the anxiety and the altered brain pathways feeds the anorexia in my brain. I have never been hospitalized for my condition but I have been medicated and it has played a part in making me more stable, less anxious, and less obsessive. Talking to my psychiatrist has helped immensely. He has scolded me when I needed it, but also been a source of consolation and support when I needed it. He has treated me like the rationale, independent, mature adult that I am in every other aspect of my life other than my anorexia, and for that I am truly grateful.
There are many myths about anorexia. Many people say that one of the signs of anorexia is depression. I have to say what while I certainly have been under a lot of stress, I have never been depressed. People say it is caused by vanity, and that is certainly not the case either. Some say that it is just about being self-obsessed and selfish; while there are times that I feel that way but the truth is that anorexia is an illness and it not about wallowing in a state of self-obsession. I recently read a quote which said “anorexics may not look the way they want to look, but they always look the way they feel” – certainly I can concur with this.What I failed to acknowledge was that other people say my anorexia in the way I looked before I ever say it. Even today I have difficulty in seeing my body as it truly is. Probably the most difficult aspects of anorexia for me as a man were accepting that I needed help,asking for help, and telling those around me. My eating disorder was already incredibly well progressed before others could see it, and it was even longer before I could see it.Telling other people was an agonizing step. I felt the huge burden of the stigma of mental illness added to my own self of worthlessness because I couldn’t manage my illness on my own, but strangely when I handed over control to my consultant at our first meeting it was like the burden had lifted. I am not ashamed to be anorexic, nor am I ashamed to admit I have a mental health illness. The first people I told were my friends, and their response was extraordinary. I sat in my apartment talking about my anorexia with a mate of mine who is almost like a brother to me. He asked me questions and I explained as best I could and talking about it (even the most embarrassing parts) was like slowly releasing a fist that has been gripped for a long time time; there was a sense of relief and his encouragement that I would get through has been a huge support. Hearing myself talking about the behaviors I was engaged in made them real to me for the first time. Telling management in work was another hurdle which I felt obliged to do because of the nature of my job, but again the result was more positive support and encouragement. Nowadays, I don’t hide my anorexia, I admit to it if asked by people whom I know. Given my personality the hardest people to tell were my family, and I have not told any of my family the full facts; I think you would have to understand the dynamics of the relationships involved to fully appreciate my decision, but my aim is not to protect my own image as an independent stable adult, but to shield them from unnecessary worry, and my primary support system has always been my friends.
I do not know what the future holds but I have never been someone who lives in the past,or who lives with regrets; I always try to live as positively as possible. I know that my condition has resulted in damage to my body that I am still seeing today and that I will continue to live with, but my life is a happy one. I feel that being anorexic has changed my life in a positive way because of the self-awareness that I now have. One of the positive aspects of my self-awareness, since I started in recovery, is that I have challenged myself to be healthy enough to experience things that I never have before. My life is richer and more fulfilled than it was even before my anorexia. I feel like to eyes have been opened to all the possibilities that are surrounding me. I feel that I have become my open to listening and understanding those around me. I feel that I am more caring, compassionate,empathetic than I was before I was anorexic. While I have told my story here, I haven’t really explained what anorexia is to me, and that’s because I can’t. I understand what anorexia is in terms of the behaviors that I have, how I got to this point, and the effects it has had on my life etc. but if you were to ask me what it feels like to be anorexic or why I am anorexic, I really can’t put those into words. Ironically the strange thing about my anorexia is that it started because I felt I had a lack of control of my life, and that quickly turned into anorexia controlling my life, and in order to free myself of it I had to give over control and trust to someone else, namely my consultant. I know that there are rising figures for men living with eating disorders, and I wish that there were more resources out there for men who have eating disorders. I particularly wish that there were more opportunities to talk and share our experiences, and that one day the wider public would be more informed about eating disorders and mental health illness so that interventions could be made as early as possible.