One of our clients shares his experience of being a man with an eating disorder for Men’s Health Week. We hope that this brave and honest account helps those who may be feeling ambivalent about reaching out for specialist help and support.
I’ve struggled with an Eating Disorder (ED) for over 20 years and it was always something that I kept to myself, trying to manage on my own because of feelings of deep shame, the perceived stigma of being a male with an ED, fear of emasculation and a distorted belief that it was an illness that only affected women.
In my late teens, it was my Mum who first noticed something was up as I began to withdraw and lose a lot of weight. She took me to see the GP and after explaining my symptoms to him, he diagnosed depression, prescribed Prozac, and told me that “men don’t get eating disorders.” This diagnosis added to my believe that I’d developed through online research where the vast majority of material was focused towards women; written by females for females. My conclusions left me feeling deeply ashamed, scared, isolated and confused like I didn’t know where to turn. For the next 20 years I internalised my suffering and “lived with” my ED using restriction, binging and purging, drinking to excess, chain smoking, over exercising – anything that would take me out of my own head and quieten the increasingly loud negative voice. Over time, I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t unwell and in the main was able to hide my anguish from the outside world pretty well but deep down I was miserable.
Living in denial is exhausting and last year, after reaching breaking point l finally admitted my struggles to my wife. Having suppressed my illness for so long, it was pretty tough to get it out there but it also felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. My wife, who had clearly suspected I was struggling, treated my admission with only love, support and kindness – as a result I no longer felt alone which gave me the strength to confront my illness at last. Together we looked into treatment options and reached out for support.
I’ve found that the biggest step forward in my recovery has been to open up, let others in and ask for help. Yes it was tough but also such a relief to accept some support. When I look back on all the years I’d suffered in silence I feel sad that I wasn’t able to reach out sooner and often wonder what might have been had my GP treated me differently all those years ago. That being said, I’m now focusing energy on my recovery rather than things that can’t be changed.
What’s it like being a man in treatment for an eating disorder?
There were so many questions going around in my head before I started treatment which made me feel anxious but on reflection, were totally normal concerns to hold. How would I feel being a guy amongst a group of women? Would I be accepted? Would I be treated differently? Am I really ill enough to be going into therapy? Looking back, a lot of my anxiety was centred around the shame I’d held for so long of being a man with an ED and this is an area I’ve worked hard on trying to overcome.
As I entered and progressed through treatment, I began to understand and accept that my struggles were as legitimate as any of my peers – gender is irrelevant. I found it so liberating to be able to listen to and empathise with others who were experiencing the same issues I’d been going through. It gave me the strength to be able to share my own story and it felt empowering to be listened to and understood in return. I came to realise that as I began to show my vulnerability my mask came off, the barriers came down and it was just me left which actually wasn’t so bad! The connections I’ve made with people in therapy are amazing and I feel fortunate to have met such great new friends. Looking back, it was completely normal to have pre treatment anxiety around being a guy but as easy as it is to say, I needn’t have worried.
How have you managed your recovery whilst socialising and going about “normal” life?
Sharing my struggles in a group treatment setting, being listened to and supported by my peers gave me confidence to open up about my struggles to my family and friends. Taking this openness outside of the treatment setting really helped me to manage my recovery as my loved ones could understand some of the things I’d been grappling with. At Christmas with my wider family, I didn’t feel guilty or that I needed to explain myself for wanting to take some time out when I needed to. Equally, by sharing some of my vulnerabilities with my mates over a pint, my relationships have grown stronger and I don’t feel like I need to make excuses anymore. I really enjoy the fact we’re to able have a laugh and a joke rather than ignore, what at times felt like an enormous elephant in the room.
What are some of the myths you’d want busted around being a man in recovery?
Men get eating disorders too yet there is still such a stigma that exists around admitting we’re struggling and asking for help. Before entering treatment, I was researching therapy options on the internet – a basic google search for “male ED” returned 10 pages about erectile dysfunction which really speaks to how far there is to go with this. As guys, we should feel able to open up about our struggles without fear of emasculation, guilt or shame because we don’t fit into an archaic male stereotype. The whole British stiff upper lip thing is outdated, flawed and actually quite dangerous.
My journey through treatment has given me the confidence that it’s ok to show vulnerability as a guy and share my emotions. My experience of opening up about my mental health has been the catalyst to my recovery. Opening up to friends and family was received with such love and kindness it felt overwhelming. I constantly draw strength from this support and no longer feel so isolated. The feelings of shame have gone. Instead, for as long as I can remember, I feel like I’ve got this.
What would you like people to know going into treatment?
It’s perfectly normal to hold anxiety about going into treatment but by taking that crucial first step, I no longer feel like I’m fighting my ED on my own. As I progress through my recovery journey, my support network has grown, I feel part of an amazing community and I’ve gained such kind and supportive friends with real experience of the things I’ve endured. I finally feel understood.
Treatment is not a walk in the park, my recovery journey is not linear and I still have bad days. Yet therapy is one of the most rewarding, life changing steps I’ve taken and I’ve worked incredibly hard to make the most of my time there. I have learnt so much about myself; I’ve started to accept me for who I am (sans mask) and I’m no longer afraid to share that person with others. It turns out I actually quite like the real me as does my wife, my family and my friends 🙂