WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO
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.