Rewind 8 months. I was going to have to go to A&E.
I was dizzy. My head was buzzing. I was on the verge of passing out. I felt exhausted, for no good reason. My heartbeat was irregular, incredibly slow (hovering around 40bpm) and I was experiencing some of the worst palpitations I ever have. Even more worryingly, my whole right side was cold & numb. I couldn’t really feel or control my left arm or leg. It was terrifying. The whole thing was causing me intense waves of panic, fear and nausea.
And when I did drag myself down to the ER (or A&E), it was treated fairly seriously by the doctors & nurses I spoke to. But, all the same, I was (rightly) discharged a few hours later with a clean bill of health.
I must’ve been in denial at the time because, looking back, I know exactly what was wrong. This was just an extreme manifestation of symptoms I had been feeling every single day. The intense feeling of cold. The dizziness. The headrushes. The nausea. Aches, pains, exhaustion & this constant discomfort in my own skin. In fact, I had fainted at a business lunch a few days earlier — even if I didn’t want to acknowledge then that these things were connected.
A few months later, another low point. I was in bed, exhausted, but too restless & uncomfortable to sleep. Palpitations, again. Even lying down, the room was spinning. There were purple flashes when I closed my eyes, and even on a warm night under two duvets and a blanket I was still shivering.
This time, the cause was much more apparent. Because, throughout all of this, I couldn’t stop thinking about one thing and one thing only: food.
I had only eaten about 1300 calories that day and I had knowingly gone to bed hungry, hoping that I could sleep my way out of eating any more until the next day. There were some rice cakes in the kitchen that had been the last thing I’d eaten that night (about the lowest-calorie snack you can find), and in my mind there was a battle raging between one voice screaming at me to go and eat some more, and another telling me that I’d be somehow better off without those few calories.
Both of these episodes & many others in the last few years have been caused by an eating disorder that was hard to admit to myself and even harder to admit to others. Happily, things are starting to improve — thanks to some professional help, the incredible support of my friends & family, and an uphill struggle that I think still has years to run.
As a twenty-something-year-old, fit & healthy, sporty, gym-going man, I’m in a high-risk group for eating disorders, but a group that struggles to open up about them. For men of my age, it’s probably the most embarrassing medical ‘ED’ — in a competitive field!
Being in relative good shape, fairly lean, fairly muscular, it seems as though people assume you’re doing things right. In my case, that’s a long way from the truth. What started as a keen interest in fitness & nutrition has transformed over the years into an extremely unhealthy relationship with food, underpinned by body dysmorphia and a set of obsessive habits that have — at times — driven me into the ground.
I mean, where do I start? OK — so I didn’t make myself sick, but I pretty much ticked every other box for symptoms of an eating disorder.
I’d track calories obsessively, demonising certain foods (usually calorie dense), while glorifying others (usually high volume & low calorie). I’d often feel guilt for eating anything that wasn’t on the ‘good’ list, or satisfaction for unhealthy behaviours (like under-eating).
I’d go as far as to project this on to others — even experiencing quite a severe reaction when I’d see friends, family or strangers eating & drinking things that didn’t fit into my ever-more-restrictive view of what was OK. Ultimately, one of the main reasons why I opened up to my girlfriend was because I had something close to a panic attack after spending some time around people eating some particularly unhealthy foods.
Oh, and then there was the glorious occasion when I burst into tears while trying to eat some pizza.
I’d monitor my weight too closely, constantly manipulating things so I would achieve a lower weigh-in. I didn’t particularly need to lose weight. I just became obsessed with the idea, and always felt this urge to just see how things were if I dropped another pound. (As an aside, it became harder and harder to drop weight as my energy levels dropped, my metabolism slowed and my workout intensity collapsed). I’d go through highs and lows with body image, even when very little had changed.
I’d use Intermittent Fasting as a pretext for starving myself for longer than I comfortably could — regularly eating my first meal well after midday.
I’d look at foods but see nothing but numbers. Calories. Macros. Comparisons. I’d find it impossible to choose what to eat because I’m in an endless spiral of ‘is this worth the calories?’ or ‘would I rather have this now, or maybe something else later?’.
Sometimes I’d binge-without-bingeing by filling myself up excessively on those high volume but low calorie foods, sometimes in an uncontrolled fashion. I’d feel excessively full but my body would still crave more because I was still so far under my calorie needs.
What all this meant was that I’d regularly under-eat — really giving my body a fraction of what it needed for my active lifestyle.
The physical symptoms of undereating are utterly debilitating, and I think often underestimated. Some are those familiar feelings we all know from occasions when we’ve had low blood sugar, only multiplied by 100x.
But then there’s this indescribable fatigue. Getting out of a chair feels like a momentous effort. When you’re faced with the prospect of having to climb a staircase, it’ll seem to distort & elongate itself up into the heavens like something from a film. Sometimes, I would just stop while walking because I felt like I could no longer put one foot in front of the other. You feel so heavy, sluggish and slow that it’s almost impossible even to talk. After the working-from-home / living-at-work era started, I fell asleep during at least one meeting.
And physiologically things aren’t great, either. The cold is horrendous — especially in your hands and feet — as the furnaces of your metabolism switch off. It’s a constant internal chill, no matter how warmly you wrap up. I had severe heart palpitations and was repeatedly seen by a cardiologist after various episodes of arrythmias & ‘skipped beats’. My average heart rate over the course of 24 hours would usually hover around 40–45bpm.
The mental side is even more crippling. We’ve all been hangry, but the effect of undereating day after day, month after month is like nothing else. You just feel permanently tragic, irritable, miserable, grumpy, stressed and anxious. It is awful.
What’s especially cruel about eating disorders is that they feed off themselves (notwithstanding the irony in that particular choice of words…). The more stressed you are about food, the more difficult it becomes to eat, to choose what to eat, to eat normally, or to ‘stop overthinking it’. The mental agony is partly caused by your body’s physical response to being messed around in this way. You are a victim of your mind’s tricks and your body’s chemical balance — and you know you are, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop.
Above all, though, imagine having a profound panic response to something that you cannot avoid in your day-to-day life. We all need to eat. We’re surrounded by food — much of it unhealthy, and much of that heavily marketed. In the doldrums of an eating disorder, you completely forget that food is good. It stops being sustenance, nourishment & fuel. It becomes nothing more than a source of guilt and fear.
I don’t have a neat ending to this piece, or a clear solution to propose. I suppose that makes sense, because I don’t think this story has a neat ending for me. At least, not yet. I’ll still look at food and see calorie counts. I’ll still feel those flashes of anxiety about certain foods. I’ll definitely still put other foods on a pedestal: those superfoods that are the holy trinity of enjoyable, calorie-friendly and satiating.
But I’m in a much better place now, and in a position where I hope I can help others who might be suffering. I am sure many people in my network are, even if in silent & in secret. Maybe this piece will go some way towards helping someone. Maybe you’d like to get in touch. Please feel free. Otherwise, I would absolutely suggest opening up to someone you trust. If that seems a bridge too far, start with an anonymous helpline.
And for the many, many lucky people who might be reading this without ever having experienced these challenges, I’d say two things. Firstly, don’t underestimate how lucky you are. Don’t take for granted how wonderful, liberating & life-affirming it is to enjoy food without guilt, stress & anxiety. And secondly, look out for the signs in people around you. Those obsessive, restrictive behaviours. Those comments that just feel wrong — perhaps indicating an unhealthy view of food. Rapid weight loss or gain, of course. You can help. Just by being sensitive to another’s struggle, you can help.
For me, I had to hit a low (or a couple of lows) to really trigger a change. After that night in June, I just decided I never wanted to be in that state again. I stopped tracking my calories and forced myself to listen to my body and eat to satisfaction for a fortnight.
That was a reset button for me. From there, everything started to improve. It can feel like a huge battle when you’re crying over pizza or panicking over your next meal. It can feel like your relationship with food is so broken that you’d be better off going your separate ways, if only that were an option.
It can feel like a long way back to anything like normality.
I remember telling my girlfriend that I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a deep, deep well wondering how on earth I’d fallen so far, and how on earth I’d ever be able to climb all the way out.
It turns out that the analogy has legs. You have to find a foothold. And then a handhold. And then another foothold. And another handhold.
A few months later, I can see the summit. I'm up 6lbs. Mostly muscle. I look better. I feel great.
Don't forget: things can improve.