If Only You Had Known

By Daniel O’Kelly

Dear 15-year old Daniel,

There you were, passed out and gasping for breath, 100 meters from the finish line. You felt fine at the beginning of the cross country race – calm, cool, collected. Victory was in sight. Too bad you had restricted and over-exercised the day before.

You had failed even before you began.

And for what?

According to your logic, the lighter you were, the faster you were. It worked for Kenyans, right? Kenyans have less mass for their height, longer legs, and shorter torsos.1 Those aren’t your genes.

Was it to be the best on the team? Was it to impress your French class crush?

At 15, you had the same testosterone levels as a 5-yr old boy. Your body was literally eating the muscles surrounding your organs because you weren’t feeding it enough. Some people suggested you see a doctor as you exhibited “anorexic-like behavior.” Me? Anorexic?  I’m a male. Anorexia is a women’s issue, right?

Wrong. Anorexia is as much a male issue as it is a female one. Toned, male bodies are as detrimental to the male psyche as slim female bodies are to the female psyche. However, there is a social stigma associated with men acknowledging their vulnerability and seeking help. It could be your brother, your father, the guy in the next cubicle over, or a passerby who needs help but doesn’t seek it because eating disorders are perceived as a “women’s issue.” That thought process can be fatal. Anorexia is the most life-threatening physiological disease out there – twice the death risk of schizophrenia and three times the death risk of bipolar disorder in some cases.2

So, how did you recover?

Truth be told, you are still in the process of recovery. In my experience, anorexia is like a scar – it fades, but never disappears. I have learned to ignore troubling thoughts about food restriction, just like any other uncomfortable thought. Perhaps it came with maturity. Perhaps I began recovering after spending a year in Paris, where people actively socialize over a meal and don’t obsess over gym culture and the nutrition facts. You were a victim of our culture’s unhealthy and distorted perception of what it means to be attractive and “sexy” as a male.

Had you known all this at 15, would you have changed your ways? Would you have eaten appropriately and rested the day before the race? It’s hard to say. Anorexia is a complex, biologically and socially-influenced psychological disorder. However, you can take steps to recover. First, understand what’s triggering. Next, implement a plan to take care of yourself, body and mind, if you ever feel like relapsing. And finally, above all else, seek help – don’t face this beast alone. When family and friends reach out their hand, take it.

References

1. Fisher, M. (2012, April 17). Why Kenyans make such great runners: A story of genes and culture. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/why-kenyans-make-such-great-runners-a-story-of-genes-and-cultures/256015/

2. Arcelus, J., Mitchell, A. J., Wales, J., and Nielsen, S. (2011). Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders: a meta-analysis of 36 studies. Archives of general psychiatry68(7), 724-731.

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