Let me start this by saying I am not an expert at basically anything, especially when it comes to mental health and eating disorders (I guess that’s as good a trigger warning as any). Why am I writing this? Because I hate talking about this stuff, I find that I wanted to read more of this stuff online and because I want my friends to know what I’m experiencing without having to directly interface with them. Is that selfish? Absolutely, but this is my way of bridging the gap between internalising everything and whatever the alternative is.
A little while ago, I was diagnosed with an Eating Disorder. Which feels so dumb and indulgent (cis presenting white man has identity issue, boo hoo, I know), but to get to this point, I had to jump through a tonne of hurdles which I feel like not everyone knows about did I not have the privilege and luxury of support and money, I would not have been able to get to a point where I am able to begin a journey of recovery (god that phrase was weird, who am I, a white woman being interviewed by woman’s weekly?).
For those of you who have or have had eating disorders, and so you know how this might relate to you, I was specifically diagnosed with Bulimia and Bigorexia (which sounds like a made-up term, I know). I’m relatively healthy, mentally and physically, I have a great support system, and privilege, and I’m comfortable enough to be able to afford to take the time to work on this issue (and that hasn’t always been the case).
A little personal history. I was born in 1989 (I swear this isn’t going to be long), so as a child of the 90’s, I grew up in a fat-phobic culture (its still prevalent today but it’s getting better), with muscled men being the primary role model. As a young gay man, I was growing up in a post-AIDS world. The community that I was entering didn’t have a plethora of older role models; what we were left with were, muscled hunks, stick-thin twinks, and always men who were body-focused.
My family are from New Zealand, and the ongoing joke is that we’re basically hobbits. I’m 5’5″ and one of the taller members of the family. I’m also the lightest, easily by 20kgs if not more in most cases (not a humblebrag).
I’ve known I’ve had an ED (eating disorder), since I was a teen. When the guys in high school went gym on their lunch breaks and I went and smoked behind the sheds with my friends (I’ve quit now, but I used it as a dieting tool unhealthily for many years).
What’s my ED look like? Now, I’m pretty good. I have a long way to go, but it’s why I sought help now because I can feel myself slipping back into much more unhealthy habits (I use the word habits as a way to downplay the severity, when, in fact, it’s much closer to a compulsion). I eat relatively normally, in fact, I eat more than most people, three meals a day with four snacks, and I eat out at restaurants three times a week. These are all masking behaviours so that people close to me couldn’t tell what was going on. For every meal I ate, I make sure to exercise an amount that would burn more than what I ate. It’s a tightrope to walk on, ensuring I have enough fuel to be able to work out more than an hour and a half a day, build muscle and not gain weight. At the heart of it, that’s what my ED looks like. It’s a constant threat of becoming too fat, weighing too much, while simultaneously never being the right shape, and never having the right muscles in the right places. I thought I could fix it by hitting specific weight goals, at one stage I got down to 57.8kgs and thought thats it, I should be happy now, but I couldn’t see the definition I wanted. So I worked my way up again, once I had pecs, that would be it, abs, maybe that would fix the issue. Maybe unsurprisingly for most, this didn’t solve my deep-seated hatred for my physical form.
I’m jumping around but lets go back to the hurdles I had to jump over to get diagnosed. I started seeing a therapist a year ago. I knew about the mental health plans and was like, I need to get on this while it won’t cost me that much so that I can deal with this. Because a major part of this is the constant fear of my ED being noticed, being observed, or being impactful on someone else, if I can hide my ED then I don’t have one was an extremely prevalent thought.
I saw a doctor and had to be uncomfortably frank about why I was there to get a referral to see someone. I was almost immediately dissuaded from this and told that it was anxiety and was put on a mental health plan. This was fine, I mean I did have anxiety fair enough, I saw a therapist who helped manage that. When my anxiety lowers my ED is more manageable, and I can even get to the point where I feel like it’s not a problem (the great trick of ED is that it sits there and constantly tells you that it’s not a problem, people who eat healthily and exercise regularly are healthy, right? People who weigh X amount are healthy, people who do X are healthy, so you’re fine. This is an insidious lie our ED tells us as a protection mechanism).
I did try to raise the topic of my ED, on multiple occasions, but unfortunately, despite my best efforts, my therapist was a cis straight white man, who met every one of these discussions with “I exercise a lot too, it’s great right, keeps you fit”, the alpha mentality of being the best was oppressive. Even with the mental health plan, I was paying for each of these sessions out of pocket, no one explained how much I would get as a rebate, how many sessions, or how much I would need to pay upfront. A mixture of being non-confrontational and the ability to pay (I was in a fairly stable financial position), allowed me to just deal with it. I never figured out how they charged me, every session was different; sometimes it would be $60, sometimes $90, sometimes more; each session was the same length, so I have no idea and to be honest again my privilege allows me to be irritated by it but not majorly bothered.
When my anxiety was under control, we came to a point where I understood that this was all that was on offer from this professional, and we came to a natural ending.
Fast forward, a year later, I felt the same thing. When my ED hits, it hits hard, my eating becomes unhealthy (calorically low), and my self-esteem plummets; I know that when I can’t look in a mirror for more than two weeks without feeling revulsion that I’m probably in what I like to call an ED flare up.
This time I knew the hurdles; I did the research (https://insideoutinstitute.org.au was a great help I actually did their survey online, printed it out and took it to the doctor with me). This time I saw a doctor I was comfortable with, and I advocated for myself. I explained the issue, I explained how it had been dealt with in the past, and what I’d like to happen.
To be clear, this is the privilege I was talking about. I have the privilege of having resources available readily and being technically proficient to access them, and of understanding them. I have the privilege of being able to choose my doctor and just pay for it upfront so I can get in to see them when my ED is at its worst. Lastly, I have the privilege of being a man and being listened to. Eating disorders in men are often overlooked, but women’s health issues are far more regularly downplayed by medical professionals and I’m very aware of this. Just by going in, armed with information and an attitude of needing to fix the problem, I was able to get started. I had already prepared the health care plan in case they weren’t confident (again from the Inside Out Institute), luckily this doctor, a younger, more emotionally available gentleman, understood what was required and put it together. Taking the time to explain the process.
In North Queensland we don’t really have the option of choice, we have few professionals who deal with this specifically, and I was lucky enough to get appointments within a few months. I started accessing help when I could feel the decline of my mental health. I’m in a stable relationship with supportive friends. A lot of people with ED’s don’t have those luxuries. I still deal daily with my ED telling me that it’s not a problem, maybe we’re just making a big deal out of nothing, and having seen professionals, I know I can identify that voice and compartmentalise it, weakening its hold on me. Not listening to it when it tells me that maybe professional help is a waste of money (to be clear even with an Eating Disorder Plan, even with the rebates, this is costing me a fair chunk of cash regularly, a luxury a lot of people couldn’t afford (a luxury I couldn’t afford five years ago)).
So that’s where I am. I’m getting help, I’m seeing people, and I’m now in the phase where I tell people in an effort to try to destigmatise it. I’ve known many people with mental health issues, and I’ve never found them to be weak or wanting; but when it comes to myself, it feels like the dumbest thing. It feels like a cop-out to say oh yes I have this little voice that tells me that I’m the literal worst and if I don’t sweat enough that I’ll gain weight and be even more unlovable than I already am (god that was bleak).
In an ideal world, I’ll write more of these as I progress. I don’t think this is something you just cure and fix; I think it’s very much so getting a set of tools with which I can battle it regularly, and I’d like to share those tools. I guess so that when someone like me goes searching they can see that eating disorders in men are a thing, and you can get help, and it’s not easy but it’s worth it.