If there’s such a thing as a typical anorexic patient, then I’m not that person. I’m a man with an illness broadly estimated to be 80-90% female. I’ve recently entered my 40s, whereas sufferers are typically in their teenage years or early 20s. Unlike a significant proportion of men with anorexia, I’m not gay. I don’t think I’m unhealthily overweight and I don’t spend excessive hours at the gym. I just don’t want to eat.
There’s been much talk in the media recently about eating disorders in males, spearheaded by the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Men, Boys & Eating Disorders’ broadcast back in July. The charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too (MGEDT) has been established for ten years now. Its ambassador, comedian Dave Chawner, has done some great work raising awareness, including an entertaining TEDx talk.
I’m not bringing any medical expertise to this blog post. I’m merely speaking out for a minority, albeit one on the rise: in May 2017, BBC News reported that the number of males being treated as outpatients for eating disorders in England has increased by 27% – double the rate for females (13%) – over the past three years.
I’m writing this from my hospital bed, over two weeks into treatment for anorexia. In hindsight, I’ve had an undiagnosed problem for the past year or more. Around a month ago, I went to see my GP concerned that I might have an eating disorder. Since then my condition worsened considerably. An impromptu call to the Beat helplines urged me to go back to the doctor for an emergency appointment.
That was when my GP told me I was a borderline case for hospitalisation. I remember closing my eyes in shock – I had no idea things were that serious. I was admitted for treatment less than a week later. By that stage I had accepted that I couldn’t get better without professional medical help. I’ve been fed ever since through a nasogastric tube. For all I know, that one phone call to Beat might have saved my life.
As a male in my early 40s, I’ve felt I had to work just that little bit harder for my suspicions that I had an eating disorder to be taken seriously. It may just be my imagination, but I have had to be quite assertive both in getting the referral process started and in ensuring that it kept moving – not with my GP (whose first reaction was that the problem was at least partly an eating disorder), but more generally with the many professionals I’ve encountered in my journey since.
I speak from prior experience. 15 years ago, while still at university, a close friend and I entered unhappy episodes in our lives at more or less the same time. My response – but not hers – was to start restricting my food intake. I went to a counsellor concerned that I was developing anorexia, a suggestion swiftly dismissed with the comment ‘let a doctor decide that’. My friend went to a nurse who looked at her naturally petite figure and asked, unsolicited, if she was eating properly.
So the slim girl in her early 20s prompted questions about her eating, even though she was eating healthily; a skinnier man of around the same age did not, even though he wasn’t. I was left to figure out my eating problems for myself. To this day, I’ve never spoken about what was really going on with me that summer (although I think some of my friends had their suspicions).
I doubt whether that would have happened in quite the same way today. But challenges do remain where gender and eating disorders are concerned. For example, BMI, taken as a proxy measurement, is an absolute figure that does not take into account variations for factors such as gender (men have a higher average BMI range) and race.
I’ve lost a lot of weight in recent months and I’ve eaten less and less. Honestly, I thought that my illness would have been obvious to people, and that sooner or later I would have been taken aside by somebody for a discreet word. But eating disorder sufferers can be alarmingly good at hiding in plain sight. In this respect, those that don’t fit the stereotype of the white, middle-class, teenage girl are naturally at a greater risk of non-detection.
Friends and family have typically reacted to news of my illness either by trying to fetch me some food, or asking me why it is that I don’t want to eat. The simple truth is that I don’t know. Nobody does. To the best of my knowledge, a definitive cause for eating disorders has yet to be established. I know I’m too thin, I know need to put on weight. That doesn’t mean I actually want to put on weight. I’ve been in tears – repeatedly – because I just don’t understand it myself.
What do you say to somebody with an eating disorder? There are certainly some things you should avoid saying, but also plenty of positive and encouraging things you can do. So many people have remarked to me, ‘I wish I could help’. But just by being there for me and not sitting in judgement, they are helping much more than they probably realise.
What’s most heartening for me is that not a single one of my friends has responded disbelievingly along the lines of ‘really, anorexia – in a man?!’. I hope that in time, this acceptance of the diversity of eating disorders becomes reflected across the entire community.
I’m very, very lucky to have such a strong ‘real life’ support network. But that’s just the start – many other comforting avenues of support are out there, too. Here are some of the ones I have found particularly useful:
In time, I hope to join a local self-help support group located via Beat’s Helpfinder. I’m also planning to read some self-help texts, starting with Glenn Waller’s Beating Your Eating Disorder, Janet Treasure’s Anorexia Nervosa: A Recovery Guide for Sufferers, Families and Friends, and Nicola Davies’s I Can Beat Anorexia!. There’s even an Eating Disorders for Dummies, by Susan Schulherr.
In my day job, I’m a researcher; my response to a problem is to find out as much as I can about it. What’s crucial to emphasise is that it’s just as easy for me to look at a website, or join an online chat, or download a leaflet, or read a book, as for a teenage female sufferer.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate on grounds of gender, age, race, or class – so neither should the support available to those affected.
Since writing this blog in mid-September 2017 as a hospital inpatient, Chris has been discharged into full-time day care, where he is responding well to treatment for anorexia nervosa. He continues to read self-help literature and has joined a local support group found using Beat’s website. In time he hopes to work to promote greater awareness of the diversity of eating disorders.