Pressure to Win: Supporting Men with Eating Disorders
Growing up the only brother in a family of sisters, I knew about eating disorders. Or rather, I thought I knew. My sister had a friend who recovered from an eating disorder in high school and I remember hearing her talk about her friend's struggles, treatment, and recovery. I thought that eating disorders tended to affect females, so I never really learned much more about them. That all changed when I was in college. That's when I met my best friend. To protect his privacy, I'm going to call him Paul. I met Paul my sophomore year.
I had just joined a fraternity and he was assigned to be one of my roommates at the frat house. His job was to show me the ropes – the weekly study groups, the service projects, and of course, the best parties. While introducing me to Greek life, Paul became like a brother to me. We were in a lot of the same classes and both shared a passion for volunteering at the community gardens. My family lived nearby, so Paul often stayed at my house during school breaks. Paul was raised by a single mother who was an alcoholic, so he didn't go home much. He was also one of the top wrestlers for our college team, so he needed to stay close to campus for training. During my junior year and Paul's senior year, I didn't really see him much. It was his last season of wrestling, so he hit the gym hard each morning. After classes, he was on the mats training before heading to the weight room. I assumed that such intense training was a normal part of being a college-level athlete and that I'd see him more after the season ended.
I remember that evening in January like it was yesterday. Paul had just come home from practice and started slamming things around the house. That didn't seem normal – he was usually even-tempered. I asked him what was wrong. He didn't want to talk, so I invited him out for pizza. He had been training hard, so I assumed that maybe he was just hungry. That's when Paul got angry, telling me to leave him alone. I turned around and walked away. That was a mistake. An hour later, I went back into our room to grab a textbook and saw Paul in bed sleeping. I noticed that his breathing was odd, so I called 911. The rest of the night was a blur as paramedics arrived to take Paul to the nearest hospital. I rushed to the hospital and called my parents. Since I knew that Paul's mother probably wouldn't come, I figured that having my parents there would be good for him. My parents loved him like one of their own.
When we arrived at the hospital, doctors told us that Paul's blood alcohol level was high and his electrolytes were way out of balance. His bloodwork showed that his body was malnourished. It turns out that Paul was bulimic. Combined with alcohol and pain medication, the eating disorder and excessive exercise was taking a toll on his body. I couldn't believe it. I knew that Paul had been hitting the gym hard, but I didn't think much of it. While I knew that he drank every now and then, had an odd eating schedule, and took medicine for the chronic pain caused by a decade of wrestling, I somehow missed that my friend was in so much trouble.
Once Paul was healthy enough to leave the hospital, my parents helped him enroll in a Christian alcohol treatment center with a dual diagnosis program. There, Paul was able to address the trauma he faced growing up and started the healing process. He saw both a substance abuse counselor and a therapy team to address his eating disorder. Paul took the rest of the school year off and moved in with my parents while he finished treatment. Just over a year later, Paul and I experienced one of the greatest moments of our lives. In front of an audience of thousands, the two of us walked across the stage together to receive our diplomas. I was so proud of him that day.
“Despite being an athlete the entire time I knew him, I'd never seen him stronger than he was at that moment. He had fought two beasts: substance abuse and an eating disorder. He was in recovery.”
Today, years later, Paul and I are still good friends. I am the godfather for his amazing baby girl. You can tell that the child is one of his reasons for living. He also just earned a master's degree in counseling and is working as a counselor for teens with substance abuse problems and eating disorders. He wants to help kids like himself – the ones who feel so much pressure to win or succeed at all costs.
“While eating disorders in males don't receive a lot of attention, it's important to know that men and boys may have them. If you suspect that you or one of your friends has an eating disorder, my advice is to find help as soon as possible. There is so much worth living for and the right help may make a huge difference”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ADAM DURNHAM
Adam Durnham is a freelance blogger and lifecoach that specializes in mental health and addiction. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan with his dog Beignet.