I’ve never written a blog post during ‘Eating Disorders Awareness Week’ before (I’ll abbreviate that now to its social media friendly version – #EDAW), mainly because there are so many articles that appear that are so well written that I don’t ever think I’ve got anything to add. In writing this I can’t truly say that stance has changed, however I had this burning desire to write things from where I am, what it’s like for me in a state of what I can only describe as having a “living relationship” with my eating disorder – namely anorexia.
I’m now four years into my diagnosis, four years into living with something that has ripped the fabric of the person I used to be apart. It’s true to say that I have always had mental health issues, for it’s important to recognise from the outset that eating disorders are 100% a mental illness and not, as some would believe, a ‘fad’ or some kind of ‘phase’ or ‘trend’ that people go through. Neither are they something that are exclusive to young girls, another misconception. Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, any gender, any sexuality and at any time of their life no matter what their background. I sit here as a 44 year old man. Yes, as I’ve alluded to I have had a troubled background and have a history of mental illness, but I have come into contact with a great number of people from all walks of life who have fallen ill with an eating disorder who have previously had fulfilling lives and not once shown any signs of any kind of mental fragility. In short, eating disorders are indiscriminate.
Some that will read this will have known me before I got ill with this, some won’t. For those that didn’t I’d describe myself as someone who was very socially active if a tad nervous and awkward, heavily into music and involved in the music scene, passionate about football and my beloved Wolves and with a wide circle of friends. I was also large, very large indeed. So large in fact that it took its toll on my physical health. I was type II diabetic and had been insulin dependent from the age of 25. At the age of 36 I had a significant heart attack that could have quite easily killed me and had two stents inserted into my heart. I ate to extremes on a daily basis, I drank alcohol to excesses (and at times had a particularly unhealthy relationship with it) and I smoked. To be honest I had an addictive personality and I was heading for disaster. I guess that’s a bit of a theme really, such are my own mental fragilities, my make up, that I stumble from one disaster to another. But that is mental illness, some things can be controlled, others can’t. We can fight, we can do all we can to try and combat things, we can get treatment, but ultimately illness is illness and sometimes we are powerless against it. There were other reasons for me being how I was, not just down to mental illness, but it can be said that they too were contributory factors to those very illnesses themselves. Provide the right breeding ground for illness to thrive and it will. My background hasn’t always been a good one, but that’s not for discussion.
My descent into anorexia came initially from a desire to improve myself, to stop being the fat guy with all the health issues. I think, however, that from day one I was already in anorexia’s grip. That addictive personality trait kicked in and that breeding ground was prepared; anorexia had all it needed to seize its opportunity. I can’t talk weights and numbers, to some that may read this it would be too triggering, but in a very short space of time I went from being a very big man to being a man that was being referred to an eating disorders unit for treatment. That was only after being rushed to A&E on a number of occasions with malnutrition, blood pressure issues, slow heart rate, complications arising from arrhythmia, the list goes on. My friends soon disappeared from my life whether from fear, ignorance or because I pushed them away. I became isolated, withdrawn. My new best friend was anorexia itself, it kept me safe, it didn’t want me to have anyone other than it. It was going to give me the ultimate; self improvement. With it I was invincible.
So here I am, four years on. Two lengthy stays in specialised residential eating disorders units later, some outpatient treatment too. All attempts to break the cycle have failed. In the end the eating disorders service provided by the NHS stopped helping me after trying to get me to go back to a treatment I had already failed at early on. Where does one go when the help isn’t there? I have tried hard to fight back against it, to force myself to eat without counteracting it in the ways that people with eating disorders do straight afterwards. I have tried hard to not goes days and days without eating at all, to lessen the amount of time between meals. I have shed blood, tears and all sorts but the truth is the mental anguish is far greater than the strength I have inside at this point in my life. For now I have nothing more than a living relationship with anorexia. I am at its mercy. It’s not so bad that its killing me, at least I hope that it isn’t, but I’m able to function to a degree within the parameters it allows me. I’m too ill to work, I’m too socially anxious to engage in everyday life, but I can at least get out to watch my beloved Wolves when there’s a game – albeit with the incredible support of a group of friends that I’ve made through supporting the team. Those friends mean the world to me, they keep me going, they are the ones who give me focus (alongside my daughter & mum) and it’s as much my desire to go and watch the football itself as it is to see them that I force a little food down on match days. The rest of the time? Things aren’t so straightforward – I just exist.
I see a lot of people on those match days. Sometimes they might tell me that I’m “looking well” or words to that effect. It’s like a bullet to the brain for people with eating disorders, as much as we know people are being encouraging and well meaning. An eating disorder will seize on those words and interpret them as we look “bigger” in some way. Cue days of deeper torment. It’s a messed up illness, a messed up mental illness.
My message today; if you think you might be falling into the trap that an eating disorder can lay in front of you, GET HELP NOW. Research shows that the earlier you get help the more chance you have of recovery. Don’t live in a state of denial, don’t push people away. Draw people closer to you, talk, be open. Eating disorders will try and close you off from the world (that’s what it did and does to me every day) – don’t let it!! Get help, get it now. If you know someone who you think might be going that way – talk to them, encourage them to get help, but be prepared to listen and try not to push them to do things that they can’t do or don’t feel comfortable doing (do NOT say the words “go on, just have a banana” – they’ll want to punch you in the face haha!)
I know all that might sound hypocritical coming from someone who is making no progress and is so ingrained in this, but it isn’t. Sometimes it takes someone who is experiencing it to really know what to look for, what to say or not say. I don’t want a single person to suffer this crap if it can be avoided. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover, at the moment I exist in this. My hope right now is that I will find something that unlocks a way that I can, at very least, learn how to control it rather than it control me. One day – that is my dream. For now these people, times like this, will be my focus to get by.