National Eating Disorders Association

Eating Disorders Aren’t Just a “Girl Thing”

Bev Mattocks

A few months ago, my 19-year old happy, healthy, anorexia-free son handed me a “thank you” card. Inside, Ben had written that his eating disorder had been “a struggle fought together not against each other”. He wrote that I was “a shining example to the world that love can overcome anything” and that “we would not be here today in such a state of contentment” if it had not been for my “sheer strength of willpower and motherly love”. Finally he thanked me “for being the one that never gave up”.

Well, the floodgates opened and I wept buckets!

Four years earlier, in 2009, I didn’t know that boys got eating disorders. So, when Ben’s passion for exercise went extreme and he began to insist on “healthy” eating, I had no idea what we were dealing with. Nor did Ben, because it’s not as if he sat down one day and “decided to get an eating disorder”.

Ben, his dad and I live in the UK. His dad has always been into rugby and was thrilled when Ben took up the sport at high school. Ben had been overweight as a child, but – once on the rugby field – he blossomed into a handsome, athletic teenager. Ben was bright and popular. He had everything going for him.

Then, over the summer of 2009, things began to change. At first it was gradual – so gradual that we scarcely noticed anything was amiss. We were vaguely concerned about Ben’s increasing passion for fitness; these days he was spending most of his waking hours at the gym or running, doing sit-ups and so on. And when he wasn’t exercising, he was “slimming down” recipes and counting calories. By the end of the summer, food-loving Ben’s diet had become extremely restrictive.
He was also losing weight.

Worried, I took Ben to the doctor. It took several visits before Ben was eventually referred for treatment and, even then, I had to insist on a referral. The doctor never officially diagnosed Ben as having an eating disorder. To be honest, I think he thought I was an over-protective mother…

Once I realized what was wrong, I was terrified. And the more I learned about eating disorders, the more terrified I became. Worse, I was told by our British National Health Service that we could have to wait 18 to 22 weeks for treatment. A quick calculation told me that it could be Easter before Ben got help: a full six months on from our first visit to the doctor.

With an eating disorder a lot can happen in six months. By Christmas, I was so frightened by what I was seeing that I hired a private therapist to help. But it was like trying to plug a hole in the Titanic with cotton wool. Ben was sinking too fast. And I was quickly realizing that eating disorders are not just about losing weight, they may also be about crushing depression, vicious mood swings, violent self-harming, suicide threats and social isolation as your child transforms into someone you don’t recognize. Ben even developed a different voice: a slow, low, deep, emotionless monotone that used to chill me to the core. To be honest, it was as if he’d become “possessed”.

Things continued to deteriorate. By January, Ben was a shadow of his former self: physically and mentally. He was an emotional wreck who fought tooth and nail to avoid going to school or doing anything other than work on the obsessions and compulsions that were part and parcel of his eating disorder. But, despite pleading with our doctors to speed up Ben’s referral, I was told there was nothing they could do. The private therapist was having little success and all the other private eating disorder therapists in the area were fully booked.

At the end of January, Ben was rushed into the hospital with a dangerously low pulse rate. I really thought I was losing him. I got straight on the phone and demanded that Ben was admitted for eating disorder treatment immediately. It worked; we were given an appointment for the following week.

Eight months later, following what I refer to as The Summer From Hell as Ben’s weight, moods and behaviour plummeted to new depths as a result of Ben being given control of his eating as the clinicians waited for him to “want to get better”, Ben ended up back in hospital, his pulse back down to dangerous levels again. Thankfully, it proved to be a turning point. Things very gradually began to improve from that moment on.

18 months on, Ben was discharged from eating disorder treatment, ironically at the same weight he was when he started, 26 months earlier. There was no follow-up. It was simply Ben and me, left to our own devices, working as a team to bring him to full recovery and get the weight back on. Through our own determination and refusal to give in to this devastating illness, we succeeded.

Nowadays, Ben and I want to do everything we can to help other families to identify the signs of an eating disorder in boys and empower them to demand good, evidence-based treatment, wherever they live. In March 2013, I published our story: “Please eat… A Mother’s Struggle To Free Her Teenage Son From Anorexia”. Possibly uniquely, Ben also contributed to this book. Occasionally my own story pauses and Ben’s voice takes over describing what he was feeling during a particular incident and why he behaved in a certain way. Ben says it feels as if he was in a coma, as if he was asleep during those terrible years. But he is now wide awake, restored to health and happiness, with new friends and a glowing future ahead of him at one of the UK’s top universities.

I am immensely proud of my awesome, strong and courageous 19-year old son!

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