Eating disorders don’t just affect girls and women. They affect boys and men, too, and in staggering numbers (10 million just in the U.S.). In fact, anyone can have an eating disorder, no matter their age, race or religious background.
It’s critical that we realize eating disorders do not discriminate.
Yesterday, I shared an interview with Dr. Tyler Wooten, the medical director at Eating Recovery Center in Dallas. Today, I’m honored to share an interview with Chris, a 35-year-old Eating Recovery Center alum. Below, he talks about his struggles with anorexia, along with what’s helped him fully recover, how loved ones can help, and much more.
Q: Please share a bit about how your eating disorder started, and what kinds of symptoms you struggled with.
A: I came from an abusive household. My eating disorder started off as just disordered eating as a 12 year old. I got a sense of control from being able to control my food intake. It was all about weight and shape. They were tied to my self-worth.
My full-blown eating disorder started in college and manifested as Anorexia Nervosa. I restricted most of the time, with purging if I thought I ate too much. I abused laxatives. I also had food behaviors, such as cutting food into small pieces before eating it. When I was at my sickest, I logged my daily caloric intake so I wouldn’t go over a set daily caloric limit.
Q: It’s hard to seek treatment, especially because an eating disorder can be very convincing—convincing you that you don’t need help. What finally led you to seek treatment?
A: I was very physically sick and death was a real possibility. I was in a place where I preferred death over treatment, but my family was keen to remind me of my obligations here on earth. My wife and I had a 1 year old (our first), and she was pregnant with our second child. I went to treatment out of obligation to them—that they needed me to live.
I think there was also a small glimmer of hope that maybe, since I was going anyway, I might actually be able to make life worth living.
Q: What do you think are the biggest myths about eating disorders in men?
A: Besides the one where men don’t get eating disorders? I think it’s mostly the same myths as it is for women — that it’s about vanity or that we can “just eat.” I have to address most of the same misconceptions as my female counterparts.
I think, when people think of men with eating disorders, they think of an anomaly — an exception to the rule. They may think of rich white gay guys. While it’s true that 50 percent of men with eating disorders are gay, the other 50 percent are not and we come from all walks of life.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge for you in recovery, and what’s helped you navigate this challenge?
A: Allowing myself to be feminine — by far! It went hand-in-hand with my trauma recovery. I find many aspects of male culture to be flat out toxic. I also find that I tend to be a very gentle, kind, caring and sensitive individual — all feminine traits. I find that I have a more feminine way of expressing myself in the way I dress and how I style my hair. I don’t feel that I am transgendered.
Non-binary and gender-fluid are probably the most accurate descriptors, but even those don’t “fit.” I still see myself as a man — a straight one at that. I just find that dressing, looking, and existing as your standard guy isn’t authentic to me. I feel more congruent and authentic to self when I lead with the feminine and dress in a more feminine way.
I think people may have misconceptions about that. I don’t get all flamboyant or dress to pass as a woman. I don’t do drag queen contests. I don’t wear gaudy makeup. I still do masculine things that I used to do. It’s just that I have allowed myself to be much more in touch with my femininity than I used to.
Q: What has helped you in recovering from your eating disorder and maintaining your recovery?
A: My daily routine. I made it a point to prioritize and keep all of my therapy appointments, dietitian appointments, and doctor appointments. I made time to go to therapy groups — at one point, twice a week! I often had to drive a long distance to get to these appointments as they were on another side of town from where I lived.
Even when I wasn’t wanting to do recovery anymore, I showed up anyway. I did that for several years — as long as it took. I stayed committed to the process.
Q: What can family members do to help a male loved one with an eating disorder?
A: For the most part, it’s the same as helping a female with an eating disorder. I think it’s important to reassure him that he has nothing to be ashamed of and that he isn’t the only guy to get an eating disorder. Normalization is important in the sense that 20 percent of sufferers of an eating disorder are men and that number is thought to be lower than the true reality.
I myself never wanted to be in a male-only environment and did not, as a struggler, want to be seen first for my sex — as a male patient. One thing I realized in treatment is that the things that helped the women were often the same things that helped me. We deal with most of the same issues. Men and women are much more alike than we are different.
Q: What would you like male readers who are struggling with disordered eating or eating disorders to know?
A: Highly effective and compassionate care is available. There is no shame in getting help. You are not admitting to be a freak of nature by getting help. You are not admitting to be a weak guy or morally corrupt. You are strong for going to treatment.
It’s totally worth it. My health in a physical, emotional and spiritual sense is great now that I’ve recovered from my eating disorder and addressed the underlying drivers of the disorder. My family life is phenomenal — beyond what I could have ever imagined. Recovery is totally worth the investment, the work and the pain.