“I’d go in to the fish and chip shop and pretend I was buying food for lots of people, but it was all just for me.”
The lies. The shame. The secret.
It was the first time I’d ever heard someone say out loud what I’d been hiding for most of my life and it came from an unlikely and unexpected source – my biological father.
To say that I wasn’t aware of his issue with food would be a lie, but as a child all I saw was an extremely fat man who I didn’t like. I didn’t think about his emotional or mental issues, I didn’t consider how food could be his way of coping with life or his way of meeting unfulfilled needs. He was simply the man who told me he’d never love me. He was meant to be my father but rather than being the protector I needed, his absence allowed abuse to enter my world.
In my eyes, his physical person, his large body, reflected and therefore embodied intense rejection, abandonment and pain – negative emotions that I would internalise and suffer from as a result. I didn’t want to be big because I didn’t want to be like him … I didn’t like him.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I decided to embrace the uncomfortable and sit down in his presence to have a civilised conversation. It was in this space that my own hidden secret and shame around food was exposed and I found someone who understood exactly what I lived on a daily basis.
But there was a problem – I didn’t want it to be him.
His words and his experience resonated with me and in normal circumstances I’d connect easily with someone I shared meaningful experiences with, but this was different – he was the last person I wanted to know me like that.
I felt exposed, vulnerable, afraid and angry. Angry that not only had he hurt and abandoned me as a child but somehow, even in his absence, he’d biologically and emotionally poisoned me and my life, heaping this fat body and disordered way of eating, on my head like a lead weight.
Eating disorders in men.
I sat down in January to write, unsure whether I had anything to share that spoke to the theme of this year’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, then immediately remembered that conversation with my father. I remembered how it felt to hear him tell the same story as mine, which I now understood to be an eating disorder.
Holding my pen in my fingers, I wanted to weed out my own emotions and feelings to share what he told me and the behaviours he described from his own experience but as I started writing I realised something – his experience is nothing different to everything I’ve been writing and sharing over the last few years. I haven’t had weight loss surgery, nor have I suffered from significant health issues like he did, but as it relates to food and behaviours around food, the experience is the same.
I concluded that eating disorders in men are no different to eating disorders in other people. Unlike society, Eating Disorders do not discriminate. They may present differently, they may be covered up differently, but the thoughts, feelings, distress and ‘behind the scenes’ are the same.
My biological father died unexpectedly in April 2017.
I cried a tear (literally), that part of who I am was gone. But three years later, as I went through therapy for this eating disorder, I had to admit to myself that I still held a lot of anger towards him.
I was angry that he had escaped this life but left me with a ton of issues to sort out on my own. I was angry that he wasn’t the man I needed him to be. I was angry that the lifetime struggle with my weight, food and body was a mirror of his struggle. I was angry that if he had been whole and healed, my life might’ve been easier. I was angry that I was still living with a belief system that was impacted by the words he spoke when I was 7yrs old. And more than anything I was angry that I felt I had to pretend I wasn’t angry and that my needs didn’t matter, because he was dead and I was alive.
I don’t really think about it very much anymore, but if that conversation taught me anything about eating disorders in men, it’s that allowing men to not be okay and removing the expectation that men should be strong and show no sign of weakness, doesn’t just improve their own lives but the lives of everyone around them.
Like mental health in general, men are not immune to the pressures of life and maybe if I hadn’t been so hurt, I would’ve been more understanding and compassionate towards my biological father’s own challenges over the years. As I’m always highlighting the fact that there are diverse people who live with eating disorders, the conversation I had with my father only confirms this to be true.
Dear men: Help is available. Unfortunately it’s not always easy to access and stereotypes can influence the minds of those in caring professions, but please don’t suffer in silence – when I ask “How are you,” it’s okay for you to say, “I’m not okay.” It’s okay, because you matter.