Dealing with an eating disorder (ED) is exhausting. For three years, I woke almost every morning and compulsively knocked on my hipbones to ensure they were prominent enough. I agonised over the visibility of the veins on my stomach and my clavicle poking through my chest. If I couldn’t see them, it was a major problem.
Thankfully, I’m now in treatment for my ED, but a lot of men with similar experiences aren’t. According to Beat Eating Disorders and The International Journal of Men’s Health, up to 25% of the 1.25 million people with EDs in the UK are men, but only 10% are in treatment for their illness.
I was diagnosed with atypical anorexia in October 2020. Atypical anorexia is a form of the illness where patients practise restrictive behaviours and fear gaining weight but are often within the ‘healthy’ weight range for their age. Studies suggest it’s more common among men than the more well-known anorexia nervosa.
It’s believed that more men suffer from the illness because while women tend to be judged on how thin they are, society celebrates men with rippling muscles, so it’s socially acceptable for men with atypical anorexia to hide their illness behind excessive exercise. That was me.
“Compulsive exercise in men is more frequent than in women. This is related to the stigma experienced by men with EDs, which makes them feel isolated and prevents them from seeking other ways of dealing with their illness, such as talking to friends and family.” explains Dr Anastasios Dimopoulos, consultant psychiatrist at Harley Therapy London.
At the height of my illness, I would spend hours at the gym, and I never took a rest day. When lockdowns rolled around, I bought an exercise bike, a skipping rope and some weights. Exercise and fasting took over my life.
As my weight fell, I promised myself that I would rest once I reached what I thought was the ‘perfect’ weight. But when I reached my goal, it was no longer good enough.
I warped my brain into thinking I was a paragon of health and fitness, but in reality I was self-harming with exercise. Before I recognised my own illness my mother could see it; her sister died of complications from anorexia nervosa in the 90s. I was suffering from several repetitive strain injuries, but instead of rehabilitating these I punished my body further by continuing to exercise. I distinctly remember tears of frustration and pain rolling down my cheeks as I limped along on one of my ill-advised lockdown walks.
I knew I had a problem, so I took to Google and drew up a list of therapists in my area. It was through speaking to someone that I learned how I was better off in classes rather than working out alone. Classes ensure I don’t spend hours on the gym floor, and exercising in a group has shifted my perspective from fitness being about punishment to seeing working out as a social event. The gym classes and weekly therapy sessions have literally saved my life.
A psychiatric assessment is necessary for diagnosis of an ED like atypical anorexia. When you go through one, the psychiatrist asks a series of questions, writes their notes, and at the end of the session, they give their diagnosis. However, I've learnt that seeing a therapist is more about understanding my behaviour than ‘fixing’ it.
What would help is if society could gain more insight into the experiences of men with EDs, because as Dimopoulos says,“Only in recent years has it been acknowledged that men do suffer from EDs."
While it’s now acknowledged that men suffer from eating disorders, they’re still classed as women’s illnesses, but while anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, we need to recognise that we’re all at risk.
If you're affected by the issues in this story, help and support is available via the charity Beat Eating Disorders.
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