Challenging the stigma: Male anorexia
This week is Mental Health Awareness week and the purpose of the annual event is to educate people and raise awareness about the importance of good mental health. Unlike physical health, mental health is not visible and is not something that people are always willing to talk about.
At RNC (Royal National College for the Blind) we realise the importance of maintaining good mental health and encourage our students to talk about any issues that affect them on a day to day basis. This can be as formal as talking to the College counsellor or can be just informally chatting to other students and staff they feel comfortable with or even sharing their stories online.
19 year old David wanted to speak up about something that he’s been battling with for some time. Male anorexia is not something you hear talked about much and in this open and honest blog David talks about the difficulties that he has encountered with his body image, why he asked for help and how he manages the condition now;
“I was officially diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was 16 or 17, before that I thought it was just a phase, teenage hormones or something. You’re not taught about it in school so I always thought it was something that affected girls. I just thought ‘lads don’t get eating disorders, or have mental health conditions.’ Before I was diagnosed I found it easy to hide what I was (and wasn’t) eating. There were loads of tricks I used – I’d give food to the dog at home or lie to my parents and tell them I’d eaten something on the way home.
I guess the turning point for me was watching Hollyoaks – they had a storyline with a lad who had body dysmorphia and I could really relate to it. Like the character I had been hiding food and exercising in my room. I ended up speaking to a Counsellor at a charity called First Steps and they referred me to CAMHS (Child and adolescent mental health service). After speaking to CAMHS I was diagnosed with anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder. I’ve since learned that most conditions of anorexia and bulimia have underlying body image issues. I covered up the mirrors at home because I didn’t want to look at myself. At that time my confidence could be affected by anything during the day and it could be something someone said that triggered it. I remember that one day I heard people making comments about the clothes I was wearing so when I got home I threw them away. For me, eating is not about counting calories; it’s all about how my body looks.
Body dysmorphia can make the eating disorder worse and vice versa because they can control each other in a vicious circle. There were times when I had no confidence in myself and it affected my social life. I couldn’t go out if I wasn’t eating enough because I didn’t have enough energy and could be fatigued by my VI (visual impairment) too. I have a condition called Nystagmus which means that my eyes move involuntarily and my sight is variable depending on the time of day and how fatigued I am. Everything is like a jigsaw and they all fit together, if one thing is missing then I am not complete.
At diagnosis I was also told that I had compulsive exercise disorder. I didn’t realise there was such thing as over exercise and I was actually doing my body more damage than good. When you’re not working out properly you can be doing things wrong and setting yourself up for injury. With the help from First Steps, I undertook a course of exercise therapy and was assigned a male link worker who would meet up with me a couple of times a week. He had an eating disorder himself when he was a teenager so I knew he understood me and what I was going through. I felt comfortable with him and this made it easier for me to talk to him.
Coming to RNC
I moved to RNC in September 2016, two and a half hours away from home. I’m not going to lie, it’s been difficult moving away from home. I’m doing a lot of regular sport and physical exercise (NVQ in sport, goalball, cricket and gym) and I do still struggle with my body image. The difference now is that I know the signs and symptoms and can manage it better. I don’t want my mental health conditions to affect my studies, I know I’ll sometimes have to miss some of the practical sports classes because of tiredness and fatigue but I am focussing really hard on the theory side of it, as well as my A Level work.
For a long time I’ve battled with anorexia and body dysmorphia, I never told people back home and struggled with putting on weight and stayed at 49kg for 18 months. When I first came to RNC I put on 1kg in 2 weeks and then within 2 months I was up to 52.5kg. It’s a lot of progress for me and it’s because I’m so happy here; I haven’t been this comfortable before.
Once you’re diagnosed with any mental health condition, it can’t be immediately fixed, it takes time. You get to the recovery stage, where I am now, but you will never really come out of it. The worst part for me, is knowing that my eating disorder is like my visual impairment – I’ve got it for life – it’s not something that I can get over and there’s no cure. When I’m feeling stressed I put my earphones in, listen to music and go on a really long walk so I can block out the world and have the time on my own to just think.
I know that I can have a blip at any time and I do worry about my safety. I know that I need to seek help but sometimes I can’t because I’m not in control, that’s when the eating disorder is controlling me. At these times I know I need help, but I can’t ask for it. At College the staff are trained to pick up on the signs. I understand when people are trying to help and I need to be able to let them.
My advice to you
The reason that I’m writing this blog is that I want to get it out there that lads get eating disorders too – I don’t think support should just focus on targeting girls. I almost think that lads with eating disorders can struggle more with it because it’s not socially acceptable for lads to get it. When I was at First Steps I was the only lad in a group with 15 other girls. I was told that there were more lads who were using the one to one service but I was the only one going to the self-help group.
It was a massive step for me to admit what I had but I knew I needed as much help as possible. I’m opening up now is because I don’t want the stereotype to stick. I know that talking about it helps more than keeping all your problems to yourself.
My advice to anyone suffering now would be to seek help straight away – there are resources to help you. Even if you’re a male, drop that male bravado because it won’t get you anywhere. You’re entitled to the help so don’t just brush it off.
For more information about mental health, there are some useful web links below;
If you would like to find out more about RNC, please call us on 01432 376 621 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Article written by Bik Lee, Digital Media Officer at RNC