In 2009 it took us months to work out what was wrong with our son, weeks to get his eating disorder diagnosed and an even longer wait for treatment. We were met with stumbling blocks at virtually every stage mainly, I believe, because of a lack of awareness that boys can get eating disorders just like girls.
Today I blog, write books, do talks and appear in the media because I want to help other parents to identify the signs of anorexia in boys and seek prompt and effective treatment. I also want to do my bit to fast-track parents through what was a massive learning curve for our family. I want to offer hope, to show that recovery from an eating disorder is possible and to point families to support groups that can help them to succeed in getting their son or daughter through the eating disorder.
It's difficult to pin-point when Ben's eating disorder started. Ever since he moved to secondary school, he'd been an active and athletic boy. Before the anorexia kicked in he'd been a star player in the school rugby team. He also played for his local team. Pre-anorexia, he'd enjoyed squash, swimming, walking, cycling, cross-country and athletics. Being part of the sporty crowd had given Ben a kind of kudos. He already had his own close circle of friends, but being 'the guy in the rugby team' earned him respect and admiration across the year group.
Anorexia crept in virtually unnoticed at some point during the spring and summer of 2009 (although, looking back, the warning signs of an eating disorder were there even earlier). By October 2009, we realised with horror that an eating disorder had entered our lives. By Christmas, Ben was locked into the illness; it held him like a vice.
Anorexia tempted Ben with promises of looking physically perfect. His role models became the Adonis-style men you get in men's fitness magazines. The only problem was that, in practice, it didn't work out like this. The eating disorder robbed Ben of his self-confidence, his self-esteem, his social skills and his sense of fun. He even lost his much sought-after 'six pack' as the anorexia began to eat away at the muscles in his body.
It wasn't until we went on holiday to France in the July of 2009 and were with Ben 24/7 that the changes became more apparent. Ben was doing an awful lot of exercise. He was swimming up and down the pool every day, going for runs and so on. He became obsessed with men's health magazines which were full of exercises that promised the perfect set of abs. He was also refusing to eat the kind of stuff he'd normally eat on holiday like ice creams, biscuits and bread.
But rather than being worried we were impressed with Ben's apparent dedication to health and fitness. Back in England, he began to go to the gym every day, pushing himself on the machines and supplementing this with gruelling daily runs plus umpteen sit-ups, press-ups and crunches. But my husband and I just saw it as Ben wanting to get into top-to-toe condition, ready for the rugby season in September.
As time went on, we began to be aware of other things - behaviours that began to set off alarm bells. For instance, I'd buy a cookery magazine and he'd re-write all the recipes to make them 'more healthy'. He also became obsessed with food packaging. Very soon he could accurately guess the calorie and fat content of virtually anything just by looking at it. Anything containing fat or too many carbs was banned. He became a devotee of zero-fat diet foods, salads and vegetables.
Meanwhile his mood was dropping. He was getting snappy, depressed and isolating himself from his friends. Most noticeable of all, he was losing weight. By the end of the summer he had lost around a quarter of his bodyweight.
Over the summer of 2009 Ben was showing text-book symptoms of a boy developing an eating disorder. These included:
You can read more about Ben's descent into anorexia on my blog by clicking the link below.