My interest and involvement in men in relationship with anorexia nervosa is deeply personal in that my eldest son, Andrew, spent seven years dealing with anorexia, during which time he was constantly taking many prescribed drugs, before taking his own life. He committed suicide in his room at home in July 1996, at the age of 26. But, in this story, I need to go back a few years in Andrew’s and my life.
Until the middle of 2002, I was involved in two activities as the main breadwinner in my family. For 18 years I practised as a lawyer, and for the subsequent 15 years I was a professor of finance. In response to my experiences as a father of a son in relationship with anorexia, and soon after Andrew’s death, I decided to start studying psychology and psychotherapy. In 2003, whilst studying and working in Adelaide, Australia, I was introduced to the ideas and ways of narrative therapy, which informed many decisions, attitudes, and ways of approaching the research and writing of my book.
Andrew’s journey with anorexia was a major factor that influenced my writings. During his last years at school Andrew was a fit and competitive swimmer, a provincial surfer and lifesaver. When Andrew completed his schooling, he was conscripted to serve for two years in the South African army, in the fight against ‘terrorists’ (essentially the armed wing of today’s governing party – the ANC). After the first six months undergoing ‘basic training’ – aggressive and dehumanising practices and ways of emotional and physical degradation and indoctrination – he was posted to an active infantry battalion that saw service in the bush war. He was discharged from the army at the end of his conscription period, the last few months of which he was in a psychiatric unit of a military hospital, after being diagnosed with anorexia read more nervosa whilst involved in a combat role.
During this period, I first saw Andrew when he was sent to the military hospital in our home town. He was extremely thin, gaunt, bent over and pale. As Andrew’s father, I desperately wanted to do whatever I could to assist Andrew in dealing with his eating problems (he was now labeled ‘an anorexic’). Also, my desire was to ’protect’ him, as best that I could, both physically and emotionally from any further pain and suffering, and to assist him, as far as I could, towards recovery from the ravages of anorexia. Although these were my wishes, I had no idea how I was to implement them. At that time, I had very little knowledge of eating problems, especially the form termed ‘anorexia nervosa’, and was not aware of the complexity of its possible causes, it’s characteristics, nature and power, and the possibilities of its serious ‘side effects’. I was shocked at seeing my son looking so emaciated, and so physically and emotionally overcome by its devastating onslaught. I did not know where to seek the guidance that would provide me with the ability to support Andrew in the ways that I wanted to. My sense of desperation, fear, worry, and helplessness was overwhelming, and I had a sense that something had to be done immediately to help Andrew. And so, in a state of shock, and with feelings of desperation, inadequacy, guilt and worthlessness, I made my acquaintance with mental health staffs at the psychiatric unit of a large public hospital, and at the psychiatric unit of a large military hospital.
I did not believe that, as a father, my feelings, thoughts, and experiences of the circumstances were considered at all by mental health staff at both hospitals – particularly my overwhelming feelings of desperation, fear, worry, helplessness, hopelessness and guilt. Even if they had been considered by the staff, maybe they were deemed not worth taking into account. I also believed that their attitude towards me reflected a sense of the power imbalance, in a hierarchy where they were deemed to be positioned and invested with the dominant authority through their specific knowledges, which they accepted as universal ‘truths’ in regard to eating disorders.
After his army discharge, Andrew consulted with a number of psychiatrists and was admitted to a private eating-disorder clinic on a few occasions. Over the years my experiences as the father of a son diagnosed with
and treated for anorexia nervosa raised a number of questions, mostly about the impact that various dominant discourses and experiences had on Andrew and his meaning making thereof. Thoughts on these matters, my related readings over the years, and my subsequent work-related experiences have contributed to informing and influencing the nature and focus of my book. In writing my book, it was my hope that it could present a resource for those men in relationship with anorexia, those who loved them, and for therapists interacting with them.
When I was researching for my book, I wanted to speak to as many men in relationship with anorexia as possible. For this purpose, and in my capacity as a psychotherapist, I approach leading eating disorder clinics (units) in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The responses were all the same – many women, yes – but they very seldom had men as patients, they currently had no men, and they could not recall when last a man was an ED patient. This was the status in a country of about 55 million people! When I worked in a psychology clinic in Australia for a year, I consulted with two men in relationship with anorexia. What was the difference?
Most (95%?) of the Australian population is of European descent (not of aboriginal descent) – %5 of the South African population is of European descent. This relatively large population difference could be the cause. A significant portion of the SA population does not recognise Western sourced medical and mental illnesses or disorders – for these persons, western sourced illnesses, ‘abnormal behaviours’, ‘mental disorders’ and so on, are not recognised as such – they are believed to be derived from other sources, and can be taken care of through other means, such as traditional healers – meaning sangomas.
Order ‘No Labels:Men in Relationship With Anorexia’ by Derek Botha on Amazon.