Friday 26 August 2011

The eating disorder goes back 5 years at least...

The pressure of school on the horizon prompted Ben to explain in detail why school = pressure because it reduces the opportunity to exercise. And reduced opportunity to exercise still = the need to consume less calories in order not to 'balloon out'. So he decided to fill me in on the history of why he had an eating disorder LONG before anyone realised it...

The conversation started with: "Mum, why did you let me eat so much when I was a child?" Ben's reaction to his past as a slightly overweight child has always been at the heart of what he believes triggered the weight loss which led to the development of the eating disorder.

There is no doubt he had an enormous appetite as a baby and child, and used to make our lives hell if we didn't feed him (healthy food). But for years we simply assumed this was a healthy appetite. While Ben's peers were fussy around food and preferred junk food, Ben's 'healthy appetite' made me as proud as punch.

However as he grew older (around 8 or 9) he began to put on weight. We just assumed it was 'puppy fat'. He never got 'fat' or 'obese' as we interpret it today, but he was more fleshy than his peers. Being a quiet, shy boy who was prone to being bullied, he also associated this bigger body with 'being unpopular'. For him, popularity = being thin, because all the popular boys were thin. He wasn't as 'popular' as them and was often sidelined by the boisterous kids, therefore he blamed it on his weight.

During this time his Dad also encouraged him to play club rugby on Sundays. Ben was extremely good at the game, but hated it, mainly because, as he says, he "couldn't be bothered". He claims to be the kind of person that hates exercise and felt he was being forced into the rugby, just doing it "to please Dad".

Ben was bullied in the final year at primary school. Thankfully things improved when he moved up to secondary / high school and he got in with a really great circle of friends. His obvious talent at rugby meant he was immediately press-ganged into the rugby team which meant playing rugby on Saturdays as well as club rugby on Sundays plus sport and rugby activities on all 5 of the other days of the week. So, in effect, Ben was now doing around 6 times as much sport as he'd been doing at primary school - and that sport was extremely physical.

At this stage (age 11-12) he hated what he saw as an 'over-large' body. He was a Prop Forward in the rugby team - a position given to the 'big guys' and he hated being seen as a 'prop kind of guy'.

However he quickly cottoned on to the fact that all this exercise meant he was losing weight.

By the time he was 13 or 14 he'd slimmed down to the 'perfect' athletic physique. We and everyone else simply assumed this was Ben growing up and losing all his 'puppy fat'; a natural occurrence, and indeed this might be fact. But that wasn't the way Ben's mind was seeing it.

Ben had always loved food. Lots of it. And the other thing he cottoned on to at this stage was the fact that, thanks to all this exercise, he could eat as much as he wanted yet still maintain 'the perfect physique'.

The only problem was, it meant having to carry on with the rugby, etc which he was starting to seriously HATE. But no matter, it meant he could eat. So he forced himself to do a string of other sporting activities as well, in and out of school. Also he was getting more and more popular within his friendship circle. So his mind was telling him that having the 'perfect physique' = being the center of attention. Being fat didn't; viz the lonely, bullied years at primary school.

Without anyone realising it, Ben began to look more closely at the various equations involved. He started to analyse food content and had a fit when he 'discovered' calories for the first time and found out how much his favourite foods contained.

So his mind went through this thought process: "I hate exercise with a passion but I have to do it in order to eat what I want without putting on weight, because if I put on weight I'll be fat, ugly and no-one will like me... HOWEVER I've just discovered that much of what I eat can be 'slimmed down' either in 'diet' or low fat forms or by eating different kinds of food. So it figures that I can still eat loads of stuff but, because I won't be taking in as many calories, I don't need to exercise as much to maintain 'the perfect physique' and stay popular. Result? I get the best of ALL worlds! Eureka!!!"

The only trouble was he started to crave certain foods. Again, without anyone being aware of it, he'd eat entire packets of biscuits, bags of dried fruit and huge chocolate bars. And with this came the 'purge' reaction of needing to exercise to counteract it so he didn't put on weight. So, although half of him was nagging him to eat low calorie stuff, the other half was craving cakes and chocolate - in large quantities.

By the time we went on holiday in July 2008 he was swimming 100 lengths of the pool every day and doing sit-ups, etc while to all intents and purposes maintaining a normal 'healthy teenage appetite'. Yet, looking back, he says he was trapped in a 'binge / purge' cycle.

This was followed a month later by the Coast 2 Coast cycle ride with his Dad. This grueling up hill, down dale cycle ride across England gave Ben the 'green light' to eat even more because of the sheer number of calories he was burning every day.

The ride exhausted him, but he was thrilled at the results he was seeing in his physique which, in his eyes, was now 'perfect'. He also had a girlfriend and wherever he went he was eyed up by girls. And at school he was more popular then ever within his friendship circle (although he remained naturally quiet and shy, because this is who Ben is).

So yet again, this voice inside his head was telling him "Look, this is proof. The more you exercise, the more you can eat without it having any effect on your body. In fact the recent cycling (coupled with consuming zillions of calories every day) has actually given you the 'perfect physique' you've been craving for - and see how popular you are now with everyone, especially the girls!"

However, deep down, Ben was hating exercise more and more. It wasn't enjoyable. It was a chore. It was the thing that enabled him to eat more without getting fat and this is the sole reason for doing it.

Yet he was at the height of his popularity resulting in the biggest and most boisterous birthday party he'd ever had, at Christmas - a party that lasted a whole weekend. At this party Ben consumed an enormous amount of food and scoffed all the chocolates and sweets he was given as gifts. As parents we were thrilled at what we were seeing. A load of teenagers having fun, messing around and eating like horses, which is what growing teenage boys do after all, isn't it?

But inside Ben's head it was a different story.

Painfully aware that he'd just consumed an entire box of truffles given to him by a friend on top of stacks of biscuits, crisps, pizzas, puddings and massive breakfasts, he looked in the mirror and saw a fat boy looking back at him.

Or at least a boy who was fatter than he'd been during the summer of the 'perfect physique'.

To us, of course, he looked no different. And we didn't notice anything wrong. In fact Ben seemed to be going from strength to strength, excelling in sports, being praised by his sports teachers, excelling academically, spending loads of time with his friends, taking a starring role in the school drama production and so on.

What we were seeing was a boy who'd arrived at the school aged 11, quiet, shy, slightly overweight and with a history of being bullied, transformed into a handsome, athletic, talented, happy and popular boy with a normal healthy appetite for a growing teenager.

What he was seeing was a boy that wasn't exercising enough because look how much weight he was putting on, so he needed to exercise MORE in order to carry on eating as he wanted to because OMG what would happen if he carried on 'getting fat'? His popularity would vanish in a flash and he'd be back to where he was at primary school.

So, if he didn't have an 'eating disorder' in the accepted sense, he had definitely developed a 'disordered' attitude towards eating, exercise and body image which was playing havoc inside his head.

We first noticed a problem during the summer of 2009, as described in umpteen different entries in this blog so I won't go into it again.

The point is: We didn't realise that, for 4 or 5 years BEFORE this point, the foundations had been set in place for Ben's eating disorder. He'd been having 'disordered eating' thoughts for YEARS; what we were seeing in that summer of 2009 was just the tip of the iceberg starting to become visible - there was a heck of a lot of stuff that had been going on beneath the surface for some time.

And meanwhile the equations continued to go on in his head along the lines of:

"I hate exercise but I don't want to get fat. So how about I REDUCE my food intake because that way I won't need to exercise as much yet I would avoid getting fat?"

... followed by Ben cutting out breakfast, then he'd cut out puddings, then he'd decide to simply have plain salad for school lunches ("I love food - so look how much stuff I can cram onto my plate yet it probably totals no more than 10 calories so I can GORGE myself without having to worry about exercise!")

And meanwhile he was losing weight and liking what he was seeing.

But that was the point when it all started to go seriously wrong.

He is very aware of the fact that all these 'good intentions' suddenly went pear-shaped on every front.

He couldn't stop himself losing weight. His mind was changing and instead of maintaining or increasing his popularity he was withdrawing into himself and from his friends. Meanwhile he was thinking about food more and more; in fact it was taking up most of his waking hours - and keeping him awake at night.

He still loved food as much as he ever did, if not more, but he just couldn't eat it. So he started to ritualistically chop his food up into small pieces because (a) it took a long time to do and (b) it kidded him that he was eating more stuff than he was - so he needn't worry about putting on weight.

Modern research and thinking on eating disorders believes that certain people have an 'anorexic gene' which kicks in when the body reaches a low enough weight - and this could be what happened to Ben at this point.

He had reached the point of no return as he spiraled down hill in every sense.

The point of this entry is to show how Ben's thinking and life experiences led to this point and why even now, at this advanced stage of recovery, his mind has to almost be 'reprogrammed' bit by bit until he adopts a normal, healthy attitude towards food, physique and exercise.

This is definitely happening, but it's still a 'work in progress'.


  1.! Thanks do much for sharing! I so wish that Ben could ' visit' with Vale...

  2. Pedantic bit from pedantic girl: there is no anorexic gene. Well, it's extremely unlikely that there is an anorexic gene. However, there are many genes which control the biology and personality traits of a person which predispose one to anorexia - for example, the way someone reacts to malnutrition, perfectionism, obsessiveness, difficulty with change, and so on. I'm only being picky because telling people that anorexia most likely arises from a combination of genes is so much easier for them to swallow, as well as being more accurate.

    Anyway, Ben's history sounds very similar to my partners. Replace anorexia with anorexia and bulimia, and replace rugby with running and you're basically at my boy. He is still suffering at 29, only now from BED and the medical problems of obesity. Proper treatment and full recovery are so important - people with eating disorders often imagine that they will balloon up if they allow themselves to eat without restricting, but it's actually the ED which causes people to swap AN for BN or EDNOS or BED. Full weight restoration and learning intuitive eating protect against that happening.

    Ben's history actually sounds quite similar to mine too. I had EDNOS for years before my weight dropped low enough for me to be diagnosed as anorexic. But EDNOS is just as dangerous as any other ED - the thoughts and anxiety can drive a person to suicide, the behaviours may not be quite as immediately life threatening but they do cause cumulative damage. In some ways it's good that Ben eventually developed full blown anorexia, because otherwise he could have lived with that kind of torment for decades without anyone noticing. Eating disorders are such secretive, distressing illnesses.

    I read your post about his personal statement on ATDT (I still lurk!) too - can I just say, most of the time those things don't count for much? I think you're right about including the reason for his absence over the last couple of years, but the way I've done this is to mention a chronic illness from which I have now fully recovered. Personal statements are kind of a tick box exercise anyway. As long as you write something with good grammar which talks about your interest in your subject, it's not going to count against you. Some universities don't even bother looking at them! After all that time I spent slaving over mine too...

  3. Thanks again, Katie, for a very insightful comment. Really interesting...