Our supporter James shares his brave journey: from 'healthy eating' to denial, rock bottom and finally admitting he needed help.
For two years, now 29, I myself lived with anorexia but convinced myself that I was fine. Only when my weight dropped did I finally agree to get the help that I needed. I now raise awareness of the illness to help others.
I was a relatively big child and, as I’m sure you know, kids can be mean. I was bullied at school for the way I looked and at one point was even called names because of my weight.
But looking back, it didn’t make me desperately unhappy. Not at the time. It wasn’t like those unkind words made me want to change myself or fit in, triggering an eating disorder. Although, I suppose in some way that’s what did happen. It just crept up, surprising me years later when I was 22.
After leaving school I was happy. As I got older, I did want to look good and feel better in my skin, so I signed up to the local gym and found that I actually really enjoyed it. I fell into a good routine; making my own lunch in the morning, going to work and then the gym after that. I lost weight, felt good and my life as an 18-year-old seemed very normal. Until I got offered a secondment in London which meant being away from home and the familiarity of that entire routine. And that’s when things began to change.
I began eating all of my meals alone and doing nothing but work and going to the gym, isolating myself from other people. I didn’t feel comfortable being around anyone else – having people watch what I was (or wasn’t) eating – so I cut myself off. My work colleagues didn’t really know me, so they didn’t notice much difference, but when I went home after my secondment ended, my family saw that my behaviour had changed.
I kept telling them I was fine. I thought I was.
I just wanted to be left alone and the more they told me to eat, the less I wanted to. But I guess that deep, deep down I knew things weren’t fine. I remember at the same time thinking that I just wanted to fade away, to not exist.
However, I pushed those thoughts and feelings down and carried on. There were moments during those months, before my diagnosis, where there was a lot of tension. When you’re malnourished, it plays havoc with your emotions. I was angry, snappy and volatile. My parents didn’t understand what was happening to me or how to help, how could they when I didn’t know what was happening myself?
When I was at the doctor’s they told me that I was severely underweight. You might think that at this point things would start to look up. But for me, this is where my mental health actually hit rock bottom.
The first thing that happened was that I was signed off work for eight weeks and had to declare my licence to the DVLA as I was considered a risk on the roads. It felt like being punished. In fact, worse, it felt like people had taken away my control and were trying to control me.
I was told that I was entitled to 30 weeks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Something that I really didn’t want. It’s hard to explain, but with anorexia you can only start to accept help and get better when you hold your hands up and say, ‘I need help’. But I still couldn’t do that; I was in complete denial.
My aim then was just to be healthy and for it all to be over; to be left alone. So, I went from being extremely anorexic, to binge eating. People started saying that I looked good and how much ‘healthier’ I must be now that I was gaining weight. What they couldn’t see was the way I was crumbling inside.
It’s hard to explain or pinpoint when, why or how the therapy started to help… it just did.
I think when you start to feed yourself physically with food, and mentally with therapy, you get a better perspective and understanding.
I learned to recognise the voice in my head – the one telling me that my weight needed to be as low as possible for me to be happy – and change it. When the therapy ended, the hard work on myself really began. But the treatment had given me the tools to do that: and what’s more, I wanted to.
I show myself compassion and I can give myself a ‘talking to’ when I have thoughts that might not be healthy. Of course, I’ve had setbacks but over the last eight years I’ve really managed to get myself back on track.
Therapy helped me see things differently, admit that I did need help and recognise that I never want to be back in that painful place again. It’s why I’m now extremely passionate about raising awareness of male eating disorders and talking about how to recognise it in friends and colleagues - and in yourself.
Luckily, CBT helped me, and I’ve turned things around. But I’m very aware that there are so many people convincing their friends, family – and themselves – that they’re fine. I hope that by talking about my experience, it might help them.
-Contributed by James
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in James' story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website. And to find out more about how we're here to #HelpMenGetHelp, including our new Online Men's Support Group, visit our Eating Disorders Awareness Week site.
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