WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - T O B Y SY MONDS , U N D E R G R A D U AT E

IT’S very lonely. 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 statis­tics re­lat­ing to the ill­ness.

Beat, the char­ity for eat­ing dis­or­ders, es­ti­mates just 11 per cent of those di­ag­nosed are male. I only met one other male suf­ferer dur­ing my eight-month in-pa­tient treat­ment, com­pared to the 30 women I lived with on the ward.

Even when I had been rushed to hos­pi­tal with low blood pres­sure, sugar lev­els and heart rate, I could not com­pre­hend I was ill. The scales, doc­tors, family and friends would tell me I was se­verely un­der­weight, but my ill­ness would tell me the op­po­site.

My di­ag­no­sis came in De­cem­ber 2015. I was half­way through third year at the St Andrews Univer­sity, study­ing art his­tory, and had been par­tic­i­pat­ing in Movem­ber. It is rare for me to ex­press warmth in re­gard to my ap­pear­ance but I ad­mit a cer­tain pride in my abil­ity to grow a beard. It was, how­ever, this beard that dis­guised the dra­matic de­cline in my weight. Only when I came to shave 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 a hith­erto un­known ill­ness. My mum is a life­long suf­ferer of coeliac disease, so that seemed a likely cul­prit. When the tests drew a blank, an ex­am­i­na­tion of my eat­ing iden­ti­fied the in­ad­e­qua­cies of my diet. As a di­eti­tian later pointed out, it is no less un­healthy to con­sume only veg than it is to live solely on choco­late.

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 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. It is hard to imag­ine who, or how, you could be without it. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, eat­ing dis­or­ders are a cop­ing mech­a­nism to deal with more deep-rooted is­sues.

I have thought about why anorexia took over my life and now see it as a

dis­sat­is­fac­tion with who I am. So­cial anx­i­ety, child­hood bul­ly­ing and self-en­forced iso­la­tion left me feel­ing in­ad­e­quate, un­like­able and tal­ent­less. Add to that the stress that in­fects the lives of so many young peo­ple and my fate was in­evitable.

We live in a world where im­age is ev­ery­thing and, more so than ever, 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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: KIRSTY AN­DER­SON

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