Men are struggling to get treated for their eating disorders and no one is talking about it
‘If I was a woman in the same situation, would I have got that support? There’s a good chance I probably would’
CW: Eating disorders
Tommy’s eating disorder had already robbed him of his semi-professional football career. He’d played for West Brom and the Scottish national team, but serious nerve damage left him with him with no feeling in his right leg. Tragically, this wasn’t his lowest point.
Tommy had a heart attack, putting him in a coma for three long months. “They thought I would never wake up,” he tells me.
In very serious cases, eating disorders like Tommy’s anorexia can lead to organ failure, including that of the heart. What’s shocking is that, after years of trying to get treatment, Tommy had to get to this near-death experience for him to be finally diagnosed with an eating disorder. This was years ago now. Tommy has since fully recovered.
It’s a fact that women aged 12- 20 are the most at-risk category for developing an eating disorder. But these conditions also affect men, something that is rarely spoken about. And often, this lack of dialogue has a knock-on effect, resulting in men being unable to access proper treatment for their conditions.
Beat is a UK-based charity supporting and campaigning for those living with eating disorders. They estimate that of the 1.25m people in the UK who have conditions like bulimia and anorexia, roughly a quarter are male.
The Tab spoke to three men who have experienced eating disorders to find out more about their journeys, their attempts to get help, and to ask: What still needs to change in the way we speak about and treat male eating disorders?
‘If my mother did notice anything, she’d just think: hungry teenager’
Sam, 35, thinks it’s a popular misconception that eating disorders are all about body image. The roots of his own bulimia lie in his school days.
Sam was pretty much bullied from day one. “When I was 13, I’d run out of lessons to avoid the bullies,” he tells me. “I’d go to the boys’ toilets because I knew I wouldn’t be found, and I’d finish the contents of my lunchbox, just to pass time. Comfort eating can help in those situations where you’re very high anxiety.”
Sam essentially used eating as a coping mechanism for the ongoing trauma he was experiencing. But this soon progressed into binge eating, with Sam stuffing his lunchbox with anything he could find. And no one suspected a thing. “If my mother did notice anything, she’d just think: hungry teenager,” he says.
When Sam binged, his heightened anxiety would merge with a feeling of nausea. It was only when he forced himself to be sick that he got some solace. “What I found was that it made me feel better because it was that release of tension and anxiety,” Sam says.
‘Something in your life triggers it, that can be bullying or stress, but for me it was grief’
Tommy also traces his own anorexia back to past trauma. Tommy’s Grandfather, “the person he could tell everything to”, passed away when he was younger. Shortly after that, Tommy’s mother also died.
So he started eating less, binging, purging and overexercising. Two of Tommy’s cousins also have eating disorders, prompting him to think there is at least some genetic component. “Something in your life triggers it, that can be bullying or stress, but for me it was grief,” he tells me.
‘I can’t have that because that’s not something men get’
What is consistent with all the men I spoke to for this article is that although they can pinpoint the moment when their eating disorders began, at the time, they did not fully understand what they were going through.
Adam has anorexia, which for him developed as a “coping mechanism for feeling unsafe.” Luckily for Adam, his family spotted it early and took him to the GP who told him he had an eating disorder. “Being a young man, I’d never heard of eating disorders before,” he says.
Adam did some research into it and found out more, but thought: “I can’t have that because that’s not something men get.”
‘I didn’t relate to her situation, but I did relate to the behaviours’
Both Sam and Tommy also describe how there was little dialogue around male eating disorders. For Sam, the moment of realisation finally came when he was leafing through one of his mum’s magazines and came across an agony aunt column. A single mother had written in, describing how after her split from her partner, she’d tuck the kids up in bed, before binge eating and purging after.
“I didn’t relate to her situation, but I did relate to the behaviours. That’s how I learned it was called bulimia and that it was a very serious mental health situation,” Sam says. Unfortunately, that moment of realisation didn’t prompt Sam to get help, it gave him “permission to do more”. Sam’s eating disorder would get much worse.
‘Men are potentially unfairly stigmatised because their eating disorders may present differently’
While Sam, Tommy and Adam all eventually became aware of their eating disorders, their attempts to get help were often unsuccessful.
After the passing of Tommy’s relatives, he went to the doctors for help with bulimia. But they just dismissed it as a product of grief. “I didn’t know about eating disorders then, so I just kind of gave up. I thought nobody is listening to me,” he says.
Adam’s family really worked hard to get him help, driving him from their home in Cumbria to a doctor in Manchester. “No one would help me because at the time I wasn’t underweight. Even though I was unwell, I wasn’t unwell enough according to them for any support or help.”
‘Essentially I’ve had no formal support for my eating disorder’
While Adam, 25, has anorexia, he doesn’t present as underweight and often doesn’t get help as a result, saying that just this year he’s been rejected for treatment. He puts this down to weight stigma within the medical profession as well as chronic underfunding. “Men are potentially unfairly stigmatised in a different way because their eating disorders may present differently. So there’s even less of a chance of them getting help,” he says.
But Adam was in need when he went to university aged 18. The change in scenery combined with his own social issues and digestive complications led to an intense flare up of his anorexia. “I remember walking back one evening and thinking: am I going to make it home tonight?” Adam tells me.
After three months at uni, Adam had to drop out when his kidneys started to fail and he was hospitalised. He had four operations and was later discharged. A crisis team was attached to him for the next six months, trying and failing to get funding to support Adam.
Adam has now had his eating disorder for 14 years, and has even had a colostomy bag fitted due to internal damage. Reflecting on his attempts to get treatment, he says: “Essentially I’ve had no formal support for my eating disorder.”
He’s now physically stable but still suffers mentally. “For me I see recovery as being able to have a good quality of life despite what’s going on,”he says.
‘It was almost like it was the same disease, manifesting itself in different ways’
Sam managed to phase out his own bulimia by 21. That was 14 years ago. The trouble is, he swapped his bulimia for alcohol, which swiftly became a new coping mechanism. “It was almost like it was the same disease, manifesting itself in different ways,” Sam tells me. Fortunately, Sam has now been alcohol free for two years.
Tommy’s road to recovery was incredibly tumultuous, with traumatic flash-points causing flare ups of his eating disorder. After Tommy recovered from his heart attack and coma, he thought he was over his bulimia. Shortly after being discharged, Tommy got married and things were looking up.
But his wife then had four miscarriages, ovarian cancer and needed a full hysterectomy. “I suffered a massive relapse then and all my organs began to shut down,” Tommy tells me.
His wife recovered, but shortly after, Tommy’s Dad had a stroke and was paralysed down his right side. “It was at that point that I had my last relapse. I went into hospital and something kind of clicked within me because I always remember my dad telling me: ‘don’t do it for us, do it for yourself.'” Tommy has now been fully recovered for five years.
‘Services need a complete revolution’
All three of the men I spoke to have had long and hard battles with eating disorders and have potentially struggled to get treatment because of their gender. And all of them believe that not much has changed over the years.
Adam thinks that it’s vital something changes. “Services need a complete revolution,” he says. “Services need to diversify and treat every eating disorder and not just anorexia.
“All representations of every eating disorder as well. That requires a lot more, funding, resources and training. It’ll take a long time but it needs to be done. It needs government funding otherwise we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Reflecting on his battle with bulimia, Sam adds: “If I was a woman in the same situation, would I have got that support? There’s a good chance I probably would.”
Just checking in is an article series by The Tab running alongside Men’s Health Awareness Month and beyond. The series aims to shed light on issues that predominantly affect men.
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone like Beat, an eating disorder charity with a helpline open 365 days a year.
You can also contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.