Just days after my 33rd birthday, with trembling hands and eyes blurred by tears, I picked up the phone.
Content warning: This article contains frank discussion on eating disorders.
Embarrassment, shame and guilt flooded my body as I spoke to an adviser called Laura* from the eating disorder charity BEAT. I’ve never been quiet or shy, as my family and friends can attest to, but when it comes to personal matters, I’ve always been a closed book. Now, however, the words just spilled out.
As a qualified PT with a degree in nutrition, it felt surreal to admit that I have an eating disorder.
Encouraged by Laura, I spoke about the lengths I go to to hide my behaviour around food. While telling her my secret, I could feel the pressure being lifted off my shoulders. I had learned to ignore my feelings for such a long time, but lockdown forced me to face them.
For me, it all started when I was around seven years old. Money was tight growing up and mum worked tirelessly to provide for me and my three older sisters. Shopping was done once a week; when the food was in the cupboard, that was the time to grab it as just a few days later provisions would, yet again, be scarce.
My fear of missing out was acute. I’d sneak downstairs, take food from the cupboard and hide it in the drawer under my bed, and devour it alone.
I had a group of local friends, who unwittingly aided and abetted me in my eating habits. Most days after school ended, I’d be invited for tea at someone’s house – from this, I developed an order of friends with whom to play, based on the likelihood of being fed at their place.
My tendencies heightened when I reached secondary school. I was bullied by boys in my class for being clever, and stopped going out after school to play football, for fear of seeing them.
I felt lonely and scared, and found solace in food – binging on chocolate and snacks – using money given to me by grandparents. My rocketing weight added ammunition to the bullies’ arsenal: jibes of ‘fat bas**rd’ by day, and the comfort of empty calories at night became my routine.
I developed deep insecurities about my appearance and worried that no girl would ever be interested in me. I felt I’d only embarrass them.
Given my experience growing up, it may seem strange that I applied to study Nutrition, Health and Lifestyles at university back in 2007. But my mum had recently been diagnosed with bowel cancer – a disease with strong links to poor dietary habits – so it made sense to go down that route.
However, it didn’t change my eating habits. If anything, I consumed more takeaways and alcohol by using money from student grants and loans, as I still lived at home. It is only recently that I’ve learned that many people with eating disorders often study nutrition, with a large percentage of these entering the industry.
In 2013, I took my obsession with health a step further and became a qualified personal trainer.
At the time, I wasn’t fully aware that my relationship with food was damaging – or perhaps I was in denial.
Becoming a PT didn’t change how I felt about myself, it only made it worse. I worried about what I looked like and my body dysmorphia led me to feel that I would be judged for being overweight in an industry where people determine how good you are at your job based on your appearance.
After three years, I gave up on persevering with training or nutrition as a career, but stuck around working part time at a gym in Sheffield long enough to complete a PGCE, which enabled me to become a qualified primary school teacher.
I didn’t even care what the treats tasted like – it was just the action of eating, followed by intense feeling of disgust and guilt
While it’s a truly rewarding job, it’s not one short of its challenges. Inevitably, my old friend – food – became my dependable ally to dull any stress I encountered – and when I lost my mum to leukaemia in 2016, my reliance on food and alcohol to soothe the pain grew even greater.
I would often devour a full box of chocolates in one sitting, hiding the wrappers from my wife. I didn’t even care what they tasted like, it was just the action of eating, followed by intense feelings of disgust and guilt.
This cycle continued, and still persists today: at meal times, when plates of food are placed on the kitchen worktop, I instinctively go for the bigger portion – the one that might have a slightly larger jacket potato or a few more beans.
Despite the fact that 25 per cent of all eating disorder cases affect men, there remains a huge stigma attached to talking about it, with studies showing that we are far less likely to seek help for mental health problems than women.
It’s only in the last year or so that I have begun to understand that I had an issue – it’s hard to explain why, as not much has changed, but I’ve just become more aware of the situation.
In lockdown, stuck with nothing but my own thoughts, I also opened up to my wife and sisters. I decided that now is the time to tackle my relationship with food.
They were all very supportive and encouraging. I am worried about speaking to my friends about this once lockdown is over. Our get-togethers often revolves around meals or trips to the pub, and I am worried that my eating disorder will make them treat me differently.
I thought my disordered eating was something I would be able to ‘shrug off’ without any support – but I was wrong.
The call I made to Beat was the first step to get help – I felt relieved after having up the phone. Knowing that I have this support is a comfort.
The next step will involve speaking to specialists from First Steps ED in Derby and implementing strategies to help me recognise and stop the cycle.
I know there is a long way to go and, although I’m anxious, I’m also excited about the path ahead.
Need help or support?
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, you can get in touch with the national eating disorder charity Beat by calling 0808 0801 0677 or look for more information on the website.
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