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Eating disorders are not a choice – we must find new ways to tackle them

Thomas spent 10 months in hospital fighting anorexia nervosa, he wants to see people getting help at the earliest opportunity. 

Just over a year ago, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. 

The first signs that something wasn't quite right appeared the Christmas before last, when my parents noticed my dramatic weight loss during a visit on my year abroad in Spain.

As all-consuming as this illness is, I was unaware for a long time that anything was wrong. Even after my diagnosis, I was reluctant to accept that I had an eating disorder.

Eating disorders affect men too

I had the impression that eating disorders were just for females, for women who were obsessed with weight and size and losing weight. It turns out that I was very wrong. 

Eating disorders can affect anyone – of any gender, ethnic background, or age – as I was to find out when I was admitted to a specialist eating disorder ward in Yorkshire in November 2016.

During my ten months in hospital, I met people from across the country, from many different backgrounds and generations. This illness does not discriminate. That said, only two other males were admitted during my entire stay, and neither of them stayed more than six weeks. It is clear that there is a serious lack of awareness of eating disorders among men, the statistics show that men do suffer from eating disorders, yet from my experience, they are not getting the treatment they need. 

I want to see the taboo around eating disorders in men broken down so that more men receive the treatment they need without feeling ashamed. 

Fighting anorexia nervosa

Acceptance of an eating disorder is the first step to recovery. The second is to actively want to get better. Sustainable recovery is only possible if you choose it. But it’s incredibly hard, anorexia nervosa becomes your friend. The anorexic voice (something which still requires more research to fully understand) feels comfortable, familiar, safe, you come to cling to the very thing which is killing you and you are blind to what it is doing to your mind and body.

It took me months before I properly engaged in recovery and decided that I wanted to fight this illness, that was the turning point for me.

The hidden causes of my illness

Once I did engage in treatment, I began to unearth the potential causes of the disorder. After weeks and months of psychological therapies, I began to understand why the disorder had developed. Anorexia nervosa became a way to manage myself in an uncertain and anxiety-provoking world.

I had always sought to control myself and my world because there was a part of me which scared me, which I didn't want, which didn't fit to how I thought I was supposed to be… I am gay. I sought to hide this side of me through control: control of work, control of money, and then food.

And the anorexia also gave me the opportunity to punish myself for not being the 'good' person I thought I was supposed to be. It numbed my emotions.

Without the incredible support and help from the Yorkshire Centre for Eating Disorders, I would never have got this far in my recovery: I probably would never have accepted recovery as an option. Many people don't, which is sad, but I can understand why.

Why people need help early on

Early intervention is essential for eating disorder recovery to be successful: the longer you live with the illness, the harder it is to fight. But ultimately, if we want to beat this illness, we have to diagnose early.

That’s why Dr Clare Llewellyn’s work really excites me – she’s understanding why eating disorders emerge. This knowledge offers hope for early detection.  

We need GPs to be more aware of the warning signs and pathways for treatment and schools to be more aware of their students. There needs to be a lot more awareness and understanding among the public and young people. 

Treatments are not one-size-fits-all, we need approaches that look at the individual and more research into how we can personalise support. 

Eating disorders are not a choice: they are a life-threatening illness, we must find new ways to tackle them to save lives. 

Last updated: 3 August 2018

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