What it feels like to … be a man with anorexia
IT’S very lonely, essentially. Loneliness is not a sensation exclusively experienced by male sufferers of anorexia nervosa but it is one amplified by our being in the minority of national statistics relating to the illness.
BEAT, the UK’s charity for eating disorders, estimates that just 11 per cent of those officially diagnosed are male. I only met one other male sufferer during my eight-month in-patient treatment. That compares to the 30 women – at least – with whom I lived on the ward during the same period. I was, and felt, anomalous.
Learning you have anorexia usually begins with denial and so it was with me. Even when I had been rushed to hospital with unanimously low blood pressure, sugar levels and heart rate, I could still not come close to comprehending that I was ill. The scales, doctors, my family and friends would tell me I was severely underweight, but my illness would assure me of the opposite.
The enduring gender stereotype of eating disorders is on the wane. New statistics have exploded the myth of the illness being exclusively suffered by adolescent females, with the NHS revealing a rise of 70 per cent in the number of men being admitted to hospital with an eating disorder.
My diagnosis came in December 2015. I was halfway through my third year at the University of St Andrews, studying art history, and had been participating in the charity fundraiser Movember. It is rare for me to express warmth in regard to my appearance but I do admit a certain pride in my ability to grow a beard. It was, however, this beard that would disguise the increasingly dramatic decline that was occurring in my weight. Only when I came to shave come December 1 did those around me notice a gauntness to my features.
I was persuaded to seek help on the basis that my weight loss must have been caused by some hitherto unknown illness. My mum is a lifelong sufferer of coeliac disease, so that seemed a likely culprit. When the tests drew blanks, an examination of my eating exploited the inadequacies of my diet. As a dietitian would later point out, it is no less unhealthy to consume only vegetables than it is to solely live on chocolate bars.
My weight was low but not enough for me to qualify for help from specialist services. I returned to St Andrews in a state of fear, exhaustion and ill health, lifted only by antidepressants prescribed by my GP. A month later, I was forced to accept defeat and take a leave of absence from my studies to return home for recovery.
Being a man with anorexia isn’t, I imagine, all that dissimilar to being a woman with anorexia. Your weight and appearance dominate your mind, inexorably linked to concepts of self-value, significance and, often, likeability. The illness consumes your mind to the extent that it is hard to imagine who, or how, you could possibly be without it. Generally speaking, eating disorders are a coping mechanism to deal with more deep-rooted issues.
I have thought long and hard about why anorexia took over my life and now see it as a dissatisfaction with my own sense of who I am. Social anxiety, childhood bullying and self-enforced isolation left me feeling like I was inadequate, unlikeable and talentless. Add to that the stress that infects the lives of so many young people today and my fate was inevitable.
We live in a world where image is everything and, more so than ever, both women and men are under immense pressure to look like the models in the media and live like the gurus online. Key to my recovery has been my ability to learn how I can exist in this world and where I can find my niche.
It feels lonely, but I’m not alone.