I always had the impression eating disorders were something only young or teenage women would get. Truthfully I never had much sympathy for them; I always thought how stupid it was not to eat! Well, it’s fair to say my previous opinions have changed somewhat. I’m a man with an eating disorder, and it’s a horrible thing to have to admit and a horrible place to be. I now have complete sympathy for anyone who has had to go through anything similar to myself.
Unfortunately eating disorders surround me, as a number of my friends have either been bulimic or anorexic and one is currently trying to recover from anorexia. That friend is the one who made me realise I also had a problem, although I refused to accept it for some time. In fact, I was angry at her for a while for even suggesting it, even though I now realise I’ve had this for over five years. My problem revolves around compulsive exercise and many of the traits of anorexia. I should also highlight something – I am attempting to recover without any formal professional help (so far successfully). This decision not to get professional help was down to the stigma involved with having an eating disorder. I have to notify work about any mental health conditions and yet in reality the work side of my life has been manageable it’s my personal life that was a mess. Furthermore, once I accepted my condition, I made sure I tried to understand why I was like this and understand eating disorders as best as possible by seeking the help of my closest friends who probably have more knowledge of eating disorders due to their own experience than any professional.
It all started innocently enough by me trying to get a bit fitter while I was in university by swimming a few times a week (which I enjoyed). I started losing weight, quite liked that feeling, so continued to increase the exercise without really increasing what I ate (if I exercised I would have three meals a day) and changed my eating habits to something I felt was more healthy, cutting out anything I considered unhealthy and punishing myself if I ate any of these foods. In terms of my weight for many years technically I didn’t lose that much weight (although I’ve always been quite thin). However, because I was still developing and growing when it started I should have been putting on weight naturally as I grew- that never happened. As for the exercise it got to the stage where I would run or swim every morning for about half an hour. If I swam I would also cycle to the pool, a round trip of four miles (not flat). In addition to this, while I was in university I would walk everywhere, cycle to campus and play football a couple of times a week without eating any more. This would be done seven days a week, regardless of the weather and regardless of any injury or illness. This continued to be the case until very recently, where now in the world of work, I have on occasions got up at 3am to go for a run because I knew I would be working a long shift but HAD to exercise. Not only that but my work was very active, and once again I cycled to and from work with the return journey including a long and steep climb. There were times I’ve been for a run in agony due to an injury, but ignored it because I HAD to exercise to be able to eat. There were other occasions where I was so tired I was barely capable of running any further due to no energy and feeling faint. If I went away for the weekend and ate something I thought I shouldn’t or knew that I would be unable to exercise that day I would cut out a meal, or reduce my portion size, simply because I thought I had to punish myself for eating something unhealthy or for not exercising.
As for the affect on me, it’s fair to say third year of university was the worst, although somehow I still graduated. I think for most of that year I also had many signs of depression, where I had thoughts of suicide for a period and felt worthless throughout, ashamed to be who I was. Therefore, I withdrew from all of my friends, and tried to keep myself to myself. This meant I lost some friends and hurt others because they couldn’t understand what I was doing. If I did socialise I tried to go to the cinema around the corner because then I wouldn’t have to talk to the people I went with. Alternatively I would socialise with people I didn’t really know or didn’t particularly want to socialise with!
Since university I have been able to successfully hold down a job. However, I still withdrew from people and was very reluctant for people to get to know me. I wouldn’t socialise if it affected my ability to exercise, as exercise always came first, regardless (which meant lying about why I wasn’t going). As for girlfriends I wouldn’t give them long enough for them to get to know me because in my mind I knew I was worthless and that they’d soon find that out! So as soon as I felt they were getting to know too much about me, I would completely withdraw with no explanation.
Since accepting it I have been determined to understand why I’m like this and unfortunately I believe a lot if it comes down to my upbringing. As a child I moved house a number of times, something I found very difficult as I am quite shy and can find it difficult to make friends. Therefore, by the time I felt comfortable with people it seemed we would always move. I never felt my mother paid a great deal of attention to me, or showed any interest in me and emotions were a definite no no. As a child I knew no better, saw my friends’ mothers showing affection to them and therefore firmly believed the lack of affection from my mum was my fault. My answer was to try harder in school, when this failed I would continue to try harder just to be praised by my mum. Unfortunately this never came and hence my belief I was a disappointment and worthless. This all created a perfectionist side of me, where no matter what I had to be the perfect son, friend, boyfriend, student, worker etc. Since then I don’t take praise very well simply because I believed without my mother’s praise I was worthless so if friends or others praised me I told myself they were lying/drunk when they said it or wanted something out of me! Furthermore, I also believed it was wrong to have emotions, so for years I would either be myself or quiet and those were the only emotions I would allow myself. Meanwhile I would encourage other people to talk to me about all of their issues, so I’d be keeping all this locked away as well. Eating and exercise initially became a way of controlling how I felt about myself (the only thing in my life I could control), making me believe I was a little better than I thought, although this soon lost its impact and took control of me.
It got to the point where I realised I would get absolutely nowhere in my life if I carried on like this and yet still I wasn’t prepared to change because I was successful in my job. There were a number of times when it finally began to sink in. For example on holiday last year, where I was away from my usual routine of being able to swim, run and eat the exact portions that I was used to. Instead I was unsure how much exercise I would be doing and so I reduced dramatically what I ate. However, this almost left me incapable of actually being able to complete what I was hoping to do on my once in a lifetime holiday, due to problems with energy levels and faintness. After that holiday I started losing considerably more weight than I had for a while and so finally I began to accept the problem. Although of course this was the scariest part because you are admitting to yourself what you’re doing isn’t right and that you have to change the habits and routines you thought were all OK, the rational side of me was finally fighting back.
Accepting to my friend I had a problem was the start of what has been a very difficult and often frustrating (for myself, friends and family) recovery process, however I would now say I am back in control. My rational voice generally overpowers the irrational voice. This takes time however and at first I probably tried to do too much too soon, probably a typical perfectionist! There have been steps back as well as forward. My approach however has been to be completely open with my closest friends, this means they can then spot anything untoward, so I don’t get away with lying to them. By me being open with them I was also ready to listen to them talking about me and their opinions of me and finally accept I am a better person than I saw myself. I also recognise that the perfectionist side of me can be a good thing and that it is OK to make mistakes and be upset occasionally. I have attempted to change things slowly, I will never cut out the exercise, because I have now gone back to enjoying it, however when I push myself I make sure I eat something extra. Although it is difficult to stick to at times I am also trying to set a day of the week where I don’t exercise but still eat the same amount. At some point I will try to increase this further. I have also been a little better when I have a muscle strain by taking it easy to avoiding that area when exercising.
At the moment I have a long way to go and have accepted I will always be vulnerable at times of anxiety and stress with regards to exercise and food as they have been my control mechanisms for some time. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t go and live the life I want to live or begin to see myself as my friends and family have always seen me. Most important of all though is I’ve learnt not to keep things bottled up, everyone has insecurities, and having someone to share mine with, who I trust and know, has helped massively in my recovery.”