Let me begin my dispelling a myth immediately. Anorexia and bulimia are not women's problems. I think that is a very important point to make. Clearly, I am a man and yet I have suffered from these afflictions. I regard both of them as a form of mental illness, and as such, both can equally affect men and women. Anorexia and bulimia are usually associated with women because of the pressure that women are under to conform to an image, a certain way of looking, so that they may be thought of as being attractive. To be considered as slim, thin, or even skinny, is in today's ever more fashion and look conscious culture, an absolute must. For women, this now begins at the worryingly early age of childhood. It is perpetuated by the media, in particular fashion magazines, television, cinema, billboards and advertising, by the fashion industry, and by the slimming and health/well-being industries. More recently, it has been perpetuated by the ever increasing obsession with celebrities and celebrity. For men, this is not so much a factor, we are not under the same pressures to conform to a certain image that society holds as necessary for attractiveness, although this pressure has been ever increasing over the last couple of decades, especially in recent years with the 'six pack' phenomenon. In my own situation and my own experiences of these mental illnesses, they were not brought on by any pressure to conform to any image, but it does not matter what is the cause, since the affects are equally the same.
For me, it was anorexia that came first. As a child, I was overweight, I was fat, I was obese. It started some time around the age of seven. I cannot remember exactly when, since I do not know why it began, but around that age, I started to over eat. There are two significant events that happened back then. Firstly, I developed a hernia that kept me inactive for six months and unable to participate in physical activities. Secondly, my sister was born. Perhaps, out of a need to seek sympathy, attention, and love from my parents, I began to eat and to gain weight. It was not a conscious decision, so I cannot be sure about it, but what I am sure of, is that there must be a correlation between these events. At school lunch breaks, I began to go back to have 'seconds', some days, I would even have 'thirds'. That meant taking a second or third serving of dessert. Slowly but surely, the weight went on and I became fat.
I was overweight from the age of seven until the age of eighteen. I was fat. I was obese. What exacerbated the situation was my stature, as I was never tall for my age, actually, I was always short, and so my weight was not able to be spread over a larger frame. At the age of twelve, I was given my nickname, Bombur. For those of you unfamiliar with Bombur, he is a character from The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. Bombur is the fattest and the slowest of the dwarves that Bilbo accompanies on the quest. I do not remember any direct bullying or name calling because I was fat, but it did afflict me. In school sports, during team selections, I was chosen either near to last or last. In athletics, I had to compete in the race of the 'fatties'. I could find no jeans that would fit me, so my parents had to buy trousers in adult sizes to accommodate my waist, and then have half the leg taken off to accommodate my short legs. These years are the most formative years of our lives. These are the times when we form lasting friendships, when girls start to become interesting, when we have our first dance, our first kiss, our first date, our first love. For me, girls were interesting, I had crushes on many, but I was always met with rejection. My friends enjoyed dances, kisses and dates, I endured rejection. To say that these were trying times is to put it very mildly. In the years when we formulate our perceptions of the world and of ourselves, the perception of who I was extremely negative. I now know that it is the reason for so many of my struggles in life. Back then, I would look in the mirror and rather than see my own reflection staring back at me, I only ever saw one thing. It was just a simple four letter word: ugly.
Some mornings, I would wake and I would look down at my body. Laying down, the fat of my stomach did not look so bad. I would try to convince myself that during the night, a miracle had occurred, and I had lost some of the weight. I didn't want to get up because I knew that once I stood up, the weight would still be there, the 'spare tyres' of fat would hang around my waist. Whenever I was sitting on a chair, I liked to put my feet up on something, so that I could elevate my leg off the chair a little. This allowed the fat to hang down, rather than to spread out, and helped to reduce the width of my leg, making my leg look thinner. Such was this habit and the mental conditioning of it, that I still do the same today.
A pivotal, and life changing, moment occurred at the age of eighteen. One evening at a local pub, my so-called group of friends were teasing me, making me the butt of all the jokes. I didn't retaliate there and then, I laughed it off like I always did, but I knew that a line had been crossed. That evening, when I went to bed, I made a very important decision: this would never happen again. From that moment, I stopped going out socially and I filled the void that was left by taking up cycling. It was still winter, so I cycled each evening after dinner in my parents garage, on a set of training wheels. As my fitness increased, so too did my weight decrease. At the same time I began to exercise, I also went on a very strict, self-imposed diet. I switched to non-fat milk, I changed to black coffee with no sugar, I stopped putting additional sugar on my breakfast cereal, I never ate a dessert unless it was a piece of fresh fruit, for lunch I ate rye breads with a thin layer of non-fat spread, I stopped eating cookies, biscuits, cakes and chocolate. I never faltered, I stuck rigidly to this diet plan.
After a few months, the excess weight was gone. I used to check my weight every day and I set targets for myself. I do not recall what my weight was when I began, but I do know that my waist size was somewhere around 35 inches. I set myself weight targets, I gave myself a goal for which to aim and achieve. In the UK, we measure a person's weight in stones (14 pounds / 6.35kg). I know that I was in excess of 12 stone when I began, and I do remember that I set my targets in terms of half of a stone. So, if my weight reached 12 stone, then my next target would be 11.5 stone. When I reached that target, the next one would be 11 stone. And so it kept on going.
I would look at myself in the mirror and I always saw the same thing staring back at me. All I could ever see was that I was still overweight, that I was still fat. I could not see that I had become thin, that I was actually becoming skinny. Even though my face was becoming drawn, that I looked gaunt, and that my ribs were beginning to protrude, I did not see this. My mind blocked out the reality and showed to me only what it was that I wanted to see. My weight dropped to 9 stone (57kg/126lbs) and I can recall telling my mother that my next target would 8.5 stone. I remember that she said to me that I was becoming anorexic and I told her not to be so stupid.
The truth was though, that I was indeed becoming anorexic. Perhaps I was already anorexic. My mother used the term to describe a skinny, underweight person, because that is what she saw when she looked at me. I think she used it in a derogatory way to try to shock me. I do not think she understood the mental processes that were taking place within me. At the time, I dismissed it because anorexia was something that happened to young girls and to women. Besides which, I felt in absolute and complete control of what I was doing. I had a clearly formulated plan. I knew that I was still fat, I could see it, and I told myself that I would stop the diet as soon as I reached my goal. But what was my goal? I know that if I had reached 8.5 stone, I would have set the next target of 8 stone. When would it have been enough?
This is the scary thing about anorexia. I could only admit to myself that I did have anorexia some years later. Anorexia is a mental illness. When you are afflicted with it, you see yourself as fat. It does not matter whether someone tells you that you are not fat, it does not matter how many people tell you that you are not fat. Nothing will change the perception that you have of yourself. It is obvious to me now that I was anorexic back then. The symptoms and the signs were there. I was headed down a dangerous road and some how, I managed to pull myself back and to stop. I do not know what that was, whether it was an event or someone's words that finally got through to me. Probably, it was my own self-realisation of what I was doing and where it was headed. I stopped my diet and over the next few months, I let my weight increase a little, until it was at a more healthy level, and then I made sure it stayed there. I was very lucky. Other people get trapped in the vicious downward spiral of anorexia.
Ever since this episode of my life, I have been extremely weight conscious. Those of you who know me, will recognise this. I am very careful with what I eat, I know exactly what goes in, I buy products whose calorie level I know and understand. I do not use sugar in my diet, I choose diet sodas if I am to drink one, I continue to use low fat milk. If someone hands out chips (crisps), sweets, or chocolates, I will usually decline, even though I would like one. I always know my own weight. I think in terms of calories consumed and the amount of exercise I have done in minutes. I try to ensure that these always balance. I do it subconsciously, I am unable to stop it. It is part of the scar that remains from having had an eating disorder, from having been anorexic. But because of this, I am more healthy since I eat good wholesome foods, and I exercise as much as I can.
I look in the mirror these days and I am more pleased with what I see. I like my muscle definition, I work hard to maintain it, and I can recognise that I do look fit. But, there is one lasting trait that continues to exist from my days of anorexia. I still see myself as fat. I think that I always will because it has been so imbedded into my brain. It is just how I will always think of myself. I am comfortable with that, because I know it will drive me to continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I know that I will never again let myself become overweight and obese.
I believe it was important for me to write this blog post, to share this part of my life. It is my sincere wish and hope that by doing so, I may be able to help others. At the very least, I hope that it serves as an education. I have been lucky to escape anorexia, I have been fortunate to recognise it within myself, and by so doing, I am able to control it. As with many mental illnesses, I do not think it will ever truly leave me. But I'm okay with that, since I am the sum of all of my experiences.
If you know of anyone who you suspect as being anorexic, please reach out to them. They need help. If it remains untreated, it can, in extreme cases, lead to death through severe malnutrition. Anorexia is an illness like any other, and I hope to have shown that it can affect any one. Below are some resources for help on eating disorders.
Help Resources for Anorexia and Bulimia
Anorexia and Bulimia Care (UK)
American Physiological Association (ASA)
Help Guide - Eating Disorders
The Nemours Foundation - Teen Health