How did your eating disorder develop?
My eating disorder first developed when I was about 13 years old. I wanted to be a better athlete because I was really invested in playing hockey. I had dreams of playing for the Boston Bruins one day. I was good at hockey, but I wanted to be better.
I believed that if I lost weight and put on some muscle I would be a better hockey player. I vividly remember working out in my bedroom every morning and night. Those workouts quickly became more intense and more frequent.
I’m not sure where I learned about calories, metabolism, and weight loss techniques, but I picked all that information up. These activities and attitudes, along with my sensitive and self-conscious nature, being bullied in school, and of course, family and biology, was how my eating disorder ultimately developed.
How you were diagnosed, and what was your treatment experience?
My pediatrician diagnosed me with an eating disorder. In many ways, he prevented my eating disorder from further developing. I was lucky that it was caught early and I think that helped with my recovery in the long run.
I took some time off of school and went to a partial hospitalization program (PHP). The first few weeks were miserable and I hated every minute. Like most people, the first time in treatment brings a lot of anxiety and difficulty around food, weight restoration (if that’s a goal), and no longer having the eating disorder to manage your life and emotions. My mother, a single mom raising two teenagers, was an amazing source of support. In time, with her and my sister’s help, things began to improve at the PHP. I became more motivated to recover, and left the PHP and continued with a great outpatient therapist and dietician.
I had a great eating disorder physician at a local children’s hospital who was realistic, though somewhat abrasive in her approach. This scared me terribly, but as I got better, I understood the reason for her approach. I also had a therapist who not only pushed me to find my own voice and develop my authentic self, but also coached my mother to give her the tools to manage my eating disorder and support herself.
I maintained a pretty solid recovery through high school, but began slowly slipping when I transitioned to college in New York City. I loved my school, studies, and New York, but I was terribly lonely. Though I saw a helpful therapist and made some great social contacts at a local fitness club, I still struggled with eating disordered thoughts. After graduation, I moved home with my mother and stepfather and prepared for graduate school. It was a difficult year and I began to over-exercise and restrict again.
I started graduate school and moved into an apartment with a roommate. At this point, I was not in a good place mentally or physically and I needed help. I made the decision to get treatment again. I credit my recovery to the fact that entering treatment this time was my decision. Others had tried to convince me that I needed help, but I wasn’t ready when they approached me.
I entered another PHP, but the facility was concerned that my medical needs were too great and that I needed inpatient treatment. A case manager suggested some programs in other parts of the country that took men with my needs, but I really wanted to continue my schooling and to stay local. In my region, there are many facilities for women who needed my level of care, but there were not any for men. The discrepancy here is unfortunate and a huge barrier for men who need and willingly seek treatment. It was disempowering to hear that I needed to cross the country to get help when I finally built up the courage to reach out and admit that I need help in the first place.
Ultimately, I stayed at the PHP and became quickly motivated when I realized all that I was missing out on in my life and quite frankly, I was terrified that I was going to die from my eating disorder. I did what I needed to do to get better: I saw a therapist, a dietitian, and a physician who specializes in eating disorders, and I followed my meal plan.
I tell my clients now the two things that they need for recovery: persistence and will. You have to be persistent every single day, and you have to have the will to push forward even when it’s hard and you would do anything to go back to the eating disorder. This is what I did in order to recover.
Do you think you faced additional stigma because you were a man with an eating disorder?
When I was actually in treatment, I never felt there was stigma on the part of providers or other clients. I always felt accepted, though I did feel like an anomaly. It was obvious that I was different from the female homogeneity of the group. I was never in treatment with another male. Outside of treatment, I felt similar stigma that women with an eating disorder feel, with some differences. I felt people thinking, “why can’t you just eat” or “stop it” or generally not understanding the deep psychological aspects of eating disorders. I didn’t feel the stigma or misunderstanding that many women may feel regarding eating disorders being all about achieving an unrealistically thin body type. I did however feel the pressure of having the ideal male body: lean, muscular, and defined.
I was young when I was diagnosed, so I was protected from the stigma that older and more independent and mature males may feel. Similarly, when I was struggling in college and sought treatment in graduate school, I was so familiar with having the eating disorder in my life, as it was not a new diagnosis, that I was again protected from the stigma. I think I would have felt otherwise had I been first diagnosed in graduate school.
What advice do you have for other men and women who think that their eating/exercise habits may be problematic?
My first thought is: you don’t think you have a problem. When you’re in the midst of an eating disorder, it’s difficult to see that you have a problem. That said, I do think there is a part of you, even if it’s very small, that can step back and realize what the eating disorder is doing is not helpful.
My advice for people who care about someone with an eating disorder is to talk about it and not be afraid to ask questions. Without people around the person with the eating disorder helping them notice what may be going on, it’s really hard for them to see it themselves.
Overall, there needs to be a societal change in the general dialogue about men and mental health. We need to break from the belief that men don’t need to seek help. Everyone in this world needs help. I think this has shifted with the recent changes in the economy and job market, but there needs to be permission for men to put work aside, without being shamed, to help themselves.
Men (and women) with eating disorders need to know that they are not alone. In the United States, 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. So the statistics show that more men are struggling with eating, exercise, and body image, sometimes clinically diagnosable and sometimes sub-clinical. Ultimately, this is proof that you are not alone.
Anyone can take a free and anonymous eating disorder screening at MyBodyScreening.org.
Kyle Taylor Ganson, LICSW is a clinical social worker in private practice in Concord, MA, a therapist at Monte Nido & Affiliates, an adjunct professor at Simmons College, and a visual artist. More information can be found on his website: http://www.kyletaylorganson.com