“There are several moments that will come to define my life, moments which I can bring to mind at will. But the most pivotal of all, I am certain, will prove to be the moment I was diagnosed with an eating disorder. It was December 2006, it was a Thursday morning, and I was sitting in my doctor’s surgery, telling a GP that I was tired, drained, empty; mentally and physically spent at the age of 26.
This was not the first time I had seen a GP with such a similar complaint. In fact since the age of 5, I’d been a regular visitor to the doctor, with my mother frantically wanting to know why her son was so underweight. Then through my teenage years, with me desperately wanting to know why my legs were so thin and my body so underdeveloped. And then into my twenties, pleading to know why I was constantly dizzy, nauseous and had no appetite.
This day, however, I found that my own GP had been replaced by a visiting doctor. And rather than the casual, unconcerned, eat-more-chicken response I was used to receiving, I sensed that while I reeled off my long list of aggravations, the visiting doctor was actually understanding my situation. Nodding carefully, listening very attentively, and once I had finished talking, she gave me her diagnosis; Anorexia Nervosa.
I remember thinking two things the moment she said those words. The first was “At long last, I finally know what the problem is.” And secondly, I thought; “What is Anorexia Nervosa?” I knew what anorexia was; it was that thing that my best friend at University had, that thing that skinny girls get, that thing that killed the lady out of The Carpenters. I didn’t realise that it was the same disease that I now had, or rather I had for a very long time without knowing.
The doctor printed off a fact sheet, listing common symptoms, and we ticked them off one by one. She told me to keep in touch; I would be placed on a waiting list to see a specialist, and to report in every month to check my weight. And finally, she recommend that I start eating more. I thought that seemed like good advice, although harder than it sounded given I was anorexic and all, but promised I would try my best, and made a appointment for the following month before I left.
I walked out of the surgery that morning the happiest I could ever recall. For as long as I could remember, I had the constant feeling that there was something terribly, terribly wrong; something wasn’t right inside my head, something always so close to me realising, yet not ever being able to fully recognise.
I could see all to well the trail of destruction in my life; the failing of relationships, the drifting between jobs, the withdrawal from friendships. But I was never able to understand why it was occurring. Also, the physically drained feeling that was ever present through my life was so acute; the waking up tired, the gritting of teeth in my sleep, the haziness of afternoons when I could barely function. But I could never tell if it was me, or if everybody felt this way. What I feared most of all was that I would never find the truth, which was terrifying.
Being diagnosed was a moment of great relief. That relief I think helped overcome any notions of embarrassment that I had, being male, and having what is commonly thought of as a “girls” disease. These preconceptions were of course my own, and I had to overcome them. I was rather proud of being anorexic at first, something I later learnt was not a good thing. But I was glad to let my mum know I had found out the problem; she sounded a little taken aback initially, but was a great help from the start.
One of the most interesting aspects of finding out I was anorexic was that I would catch myself pouring over key memories of my life, where certain scenarios or events seemed to be centred around the disorder. Conversations with friends, episodes in restaurants, and notably when I really thought about it, that I had known several people who themselves had developed anorexia.
I intended to overcome the disorder by making a promise that to do so would be my number one priority; I did wait on the list as the doctor advised, but after a year or so of nothing happening, decided to go private with a very nice councillor. I made certain that I would pay for the course of therapy myself; all those years of depending and leaning on friends and family for support, financially and emotionally, had dented my self-esteem. I wanted more than anything to prove that I was on the mend of my own accord.
On reflection, although it was tough financially, I’m glad I did this, and I’m glad that I found a great counsellor, one that could help me be open and honest. We talked over the issues which would have prompted the anorexia to begin; we came to the conclusion that an intolerance to certain foods, developed as a child, had led me to reject eating – explaining my weight issues as a 5 year old. I found that starving can lead to a ‘high’ – a vacant, calming place where one can retreat in stressful situations – and after sub-consciously learning this early on, it would be a place I would turn to throughout various unhappy times in the future.
What I also learnt however, is that starving will soon become addictive, and as I began to lose control of one part of my life, the others were dragged spiralling down as well. Once this had happened, I then turned to starving as the only thing I could control – it became my confidant, the only friend I could rely upon – and thus I found myself in a terrible web of vicious circles.
The key thing that I learnt in therapy, although it took a while to accept, is that I can not necessarily overcome anorexia, but learn to live with it. A big challenge I find is learning to distinguish between my own voice, and that of the eating disorder. In fact, I have found that anorexia has pervaded not only the side of my world where eating is concerned, but every single aspect of my life – from decisions surrounding my career, what clothes to buy, even whether I was ‘worthy’ of things like a CD or a new book. Once I was diagnosed, I looked at my life and my possessions, and realised what little I actually had, and conversely how much I really wanted, but felt I did not deserve.
Now I think my recovery is in a different stage; as I have accepted that I am anorexic, and am much healthier in my weight, I can begin work on other areas of my life. I can clearly remember reading an article in a Sunday supplement in which a woman with anorexia described how, now in her 30s, she was trying to live an ordinary life. The anorexia in me would say that to be ordinary is not enough, that I should achieve more, that unless I excel then I can only be described as a failure. But somehow I think this is not true; what I can hopefully work towards is a life lived full, not empty. A life where friends are present, not withdrawn from and far away. A life where experiences and opportunities are lived out, not rejected or discarded. A life where my mind is switched on and active, not vacant. An ordinary life, not an anorexic life.
What I can feel positive about, where I can draw strength from, is that knowing I have anorexia is not embarrassing, shameful, or something to be proud of; it’s just another challenge that can be managed on a daily basis. Eating helps. Your true friends and family will help. And diagnosis, especially for men, is the starting point.”