Eating Disorders Column : Honesty Hurts, Hiding Hurts More

“I am fine. I am fine. I promise.” 

I tell my parents this a lot, but it’s not always true. The motto of Concrete is ‘striving for truth’, so let me tell you the truth.  

This is hard. Very hard. I am a creative writer yet this must be my hardest piece of writing. I am sharing this because I feel that I must, and I hope it motivates other students to open up, to be honest about struggling. There is no shame in fighting something. None. 

I am a heterosexual male recovering from Anorexia Nervosa. I have never had problems with my body image, been anxious about consuming ‘too many’ calories, nor have I ever purged or endured strenuous exercise in order to influence my shape or weight. 

So does all of this crack your perception of eating disorders? You may think girls get eating disorders, but men? Really? Only straight girls or gay men get eating disorders. Don’t they?

There is some truth in this. More women suffer than men, and whilst heteresexual men suffer too, much research has been dedicated to proving that gay men are more likely to develop anorexia compared to their heterosexual equals. According to the the American Addiction Centers, gay men “tend to weigh significantly less….and they tend to idealize an underweight body type.”

Fair enough maybe. But this type of research still infuriates me. What does it prove? Homophopic discrimnation clearly adds heavy stress to the gay community, which could then lead to the onset of anorexia. Yet being gay does not increase the likelihood of diognosis. Any research conducted like this must avoid accidentally discouraging men – crucially of any sexual orientation – from coming forward with issues.  

After all, 1 in 3 sufferers of eating disorders are male, with ten million diagnosed in the US last year. Who cares if sufferers tend to be gay? Who cares if sufferers tend to speak with a lisp? And who cares if sufferers tend to have green eyes, or a spot on their left cheek? Surely all that truly matters is that we’re all human beings struggling with the same condition. 

We must not ignore the simple reality that there are many men who take much longer to come forward. Who could blame them? Eating disorders are unmanly, aren’t they? You scared of butter? You scared of mayonnaise? You scared of chocolate cake? Really? Seriously? I mean are you for real?!

Unmanly. Girlish. Pathetic. These disgusting words ignore the simple reality that eating disorders vary on a case-by-case basis. They occur when one’s relationship with food changes, and when such a change has a negative impact on physical and mental well being. Anorexia Nervosa is a particular type of eating disorder, and a kind generally characterised by food restriction, low weight, and fear of the ‘F’ word: ‘fat’. 

This is why I feel uncomfortable naming my eating disorder because I fear being misunderstood. Do people think I am scared of apple pie? If so, then surely Anorexia makes me look weak and fragile? How could anyone ever be attracted to me? How could anyone take me seriously? The world will reject me. And I will become – by my own admission – the ‘mentally unstable’ child of the family. Friendless, shy and lonely. 

But the truth is entirely different. Or at least it was for me. There is absolutely no shame in struggling with an eating disorder, including struggling with body dysmorphia. However, it remains important to understand that not all eating disorders relate to an uneasy relationship with the shape or size. 

We all struggle, not always with the same issues, but often with issues of a similar magnitude. My experiences have taught me that we all face challenges, but it is from, not despite, these challenges that we’re able to find satisfaction in our lives. 

My disorder began in Summer 2016. I played rugby after school, but I wanted to achieve academic success. I needed to get A*’s, and I couldn’t afford to drop any marks. If I did then I would be ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated. During this time my body was changing, and my Type One Diabetes became much harder to manage. It was a confusing time mostly defined by rapid change, but very little time to dwell on these changes.

Cue, my eating disorder. I was eating breakfast in my garden. Dad asked me a question: “I thought you liked Nutella?”. I did like Nutella. I do like Nutella. And we had 1 kilogram of Nutella! So then, why didn’t I have any? And why was I leaving the crusts of my toast? And why did it take me 15 minutes to finish my meal? And why was I thinking about it? 

I began skipping breakfast, eating a spoonful of yogurt for lunch, then a few crumbs for dinner. I would spend more time chewing on the ice cubes in my glass then chewing on the crumbs. I lost 15 pounds in 1 month. My blood sugar was low for most of the day, and often I would need my parents to pour juice down my throat to prevent me from losing consciousness. I couldn’t look after myself, and my reliance on others tears my conscience apart even today. I became a burden on my parents, and yet no one could stop me. 

I developed an obsession with food. I would scroll the internet for pictures of buttermilk pancakes dripping in maple syrup, peanut butter melting on hot oatmeal, poached eggs being sliced in half, and the yolks spilling onto buttered bread. I was still starving myself. I did eventually receive specialist treatment, restored some weight, and I was fully satisfied with my GCSE results given the circumstances. My family sensed a full recovery. 

The term ‘déjà vu’ springs to mind because I relapsed. I took a gap year, not to find myself, but to re-find myself. I was losing my mind, and if things kept going as they were, then I would inevitably lose my life. 

But my disorder kept telling me that I was fine, that all I needed to do was get a good paying internship at a big London firm, make some dosh, and then use the money for travelling in the new year. Things would eventually pick up. And the best bit? I didn’t need to do any of the picking up. I would dream of becoming a published author. I would sign up for summer writing courses in New York and LA, adrenaline kicking through my veins, excitement pulsing through my bones, but if anyone asked me to eat a single mouthful of food, then I would freeze in a cold panic.

I worked at a big PR company in London for a while, and was asked to devise draft advertising campaigns on behalf of the government of Kazakhstan. Weird, I know. And hard. Especially hard, as my daily diet consisted of a few espressos, an apple, or maybe, just maybe, two apples. 

I could only concentrate on the sound of crunching crisps in the mouth of a fellow intern. I felt useless, isolated, and above all, lost in a world moving too fast for me. I terminated my contract early to avoid dying on the company’s desks. 

Three whole months passed before I finally received specialist treatment. My plans to go travelling were dashed by the fact I was dangerously thin, my body shutting down, and my mind utterly devoid of its ability to think rationally. 

I had weekly check ups with my diabetes care team, but the advice given seemed to presume my weight loss was some big mistake. I was lazy, forgetful, slightly stressed, but no more than that. Maybe I could set a reminder on my phone: Remember to eat dinner. Drink full fat milk. And eat more cake. And smelly cheese. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. 

Or not. I needed specialist treatment, and in March I was finally admitted to a specialist eating disorders ward. My inpatient experience included 6 dedicated meal times, with emotional and occupational therapy sessions happening in between. I was given a meal plan and asked to fill out my food choices for each new week. ‘Hot pudding night’ was every Tuesday, and ‘jacket potato night’ every Thursday. I was mildly excited, motivated to restore my health. 

I didn’t tell my friends and I avoided the topic with family members. I was embarrassed – ashamed of being treated as a psychiatric patient. I was the only bloke on the ward, which came as no surprise, and yet such a reality only extended my loneliness. I soon began to engage with patients on the ward, meeting some wonderfully brave people whom I still regard as friends. 

The NHS nearly killed me, though strangely enough, it also saved my life. Or rather still, my dietician saved my life. She was a brilliant professional who rebooted my desire to eat well and eat freely. 

This is the NHS in a nutshell, the whole organisation being disturbingly indisposed, but with small fractions still able to provide world class and life saving treatment for those who need it.

However the needless bureaucracy still astounds me. So does the idea of not being ‘thin enough’ for treatment, a fundamental assault on the basic right to the provision of healthcare. 

It also ‘feeds’ a wide variety of eating disorders, with many linking to a desire to actually look thin – or as thin as possible. Therefore, being told you might not be ‘thin enough’ is rather like being told you have failed yourself, and so your disorder continues. It probably worsens, reducing your chances of recovering, or even surviving.

The Norwich Council Eating Disorder Service only treats patients with a body mass index of below 15, leaving many with a disturbing choice, either to manage without specialist support, or to ‘lose enough weight’ in order to be considered for inpatient treatment. Both options could prove fatal, and yet this is the choice given. 

Fortunately, I am supported by kind hearted friends and family. I am greatly enjoying my life at UEA academically and socially, making new friends and engaging in the vast array of creative opportunities. I stick to a meal plan to ensure that I make sensible decisions about food. 

I would like to develop greater flexibility in terms of what and when I eat, but frankly, I am still relearning this skill after years of disordered habits. Meal plans form a vital part of any recovery journey. Mine saved my life. More of that next time..

On my Instagram recovery account, @samrecoverytips, I will attempt to show as honestly as possible, the ways I manage my recovery on top of certain academic and social commitments. I plan on sharing what I eat and the feelings I get afterwards. 

I will be writing columns in Concrete, providing tips, strategies, and ways of challenging your eating disorder. I want to answer your questions, and I would greatly appreciate your advice. We can all learn from each other. Life must go on. I live with Type One Diabetes, so each day presents new challenges. But that’s life, and with the right support, I will overcome these challenges. 

I want to dispel the stigma away from eating disorders, giving men the confidence to speak up as victims of this deadly condition. I am tired of hiding the truth from my closest pals. I am tired of excusing my weight loss on anything other than what it truly is: Anorexia. No excuses. There is nothing to hide. There’s no point in hiding. Not anymore.   

Last year, my parents saved my life. I don’t take their love for granted, and it was the people I love who encouraged me to take on this journey. I am so glad I did. My dreams? Author. Film director. Entrepreneur. Not all dreams come true, but my motivation to reach for these goals has never been greater. I cannot control my destiny, so my body will do that. I always live in hope. I want to be alive, and feel alive too. 

I showed my strongest powers in my weakest moments. Ironic? Yep. I am proud of my journey. Still, Anorexia lingers in the peripheries, but not like before. Speaking up is the first step – the first of many steps towards making a full recovery. 

It’s hard, I am not always fine, but I am always fighting. And that’s the truth. Trust me. 

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About Author

Sam Gordon Webb

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July 2021
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