Q&A: Battling My Eating Disorder As A Male Athlete

Our self-identified male guest author shares with us how his dedication to his sports performance began a dangerous journey of restriction and comparison. The pressure  from racing and cross-country running led our author to focus heavily on his diet, training, and his competition. Our guest author brings up an important point, noting the lack of awareness around males and eating disorders in sports as something to be mindful of.

Q: Tell us about how your relationship with your body and/or eating habits first began to change. Did any major events in your life play a role?

A: Around Grade 7, when a lot of people (myself included) hit early adolescence, I started to become more aware of myself. This new awareness included how I presented myself socially and how I physically saw myself. I felt awkward being myself, like nobody would notice me, and when they did, I wouldn’t look good enough for them. As a result, something I felt I could work on was how I looked. I remember weighing myself and looking at myself in the mirror quite a bit, and for that reason, deciding to begin making changes to how much I ate and how much I exercised. The thoughts of weight loss were temporarily managed for a year and almost even went away during Grade 7 but my low self-esteem and low confidence was still very much there.

In grade 8, when I started racing track and cross country running competitively, the thoughts were amplified as I dealt with the stresses of racing. I would heavily beat myself up for underperforming in races and whenever I wasn’t able to win, I would just eat less and train harder because I felt that I was “probably eating too much” to be at the top of my game. Grade 9 rolled around and I was eating less than I had ever eaten before but I was still running a lot. The thought of gaining weight was terrifying and my body was ready to give in.

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Q: What were changes in your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors during this time?

A: It seemed like there was never a dull moment; I was always fixated on something. I was thinking about what I was going to eat next, how I could skip my next meal, or how I could deal with how hungry I was. Initially, my thoughts were more centered towards eating less and exercising more but later on, my thoughts moved more towards eating less and eliminating deep-fried foods and societally-perceived “junk foods.” I loved it and hated it at the same time. I liked it because it made me feel productive and as if I would never be bored, but I hated it because it was a destructive feedback loop that I could not escape. I saw no escape at all and thought that maybe I only had so much time left. I wasn’t even focused on the future anymore because it was hard to see life sorting itself out.

Q: How did the gendered stereotype of eating disorders being a “feminine illness” affect your experience?

A: I found that it affected how I presented my eating disorder to other people who would ask about what was going on. I didn’t want to say that I had an eating disorder, so I would say that I “trained too much” or just talk my way out of answering the question because I was nervous about how friends and strangers would perceive it. Still to this day, I don’t always tell people because sometimes they do react strangely since it’s traditionally seen as a “feminine” illness. Sadly, it did make me feel embarrassed about my eating disorder for quite some time, though it didn’t really affect my recovery, thankfully. Another reason I was a bit embarrassed was because there were lots of doctors who would comment, saying that it was “surprising” to see a boy with an eating disorder. These comments didn’t really affect my recovery negatively; if anything, it was motivation for me to recover faster. I was quite driven to make a good recovery because I wanted to get back to what I loved, such as running, and attain new goals. I know other males with the illness and they have told me the same thing. The more we talk about it, the easier it is for other males to feel comfortable addressing their situation and feel that their illness is valid.

Q: Did your cultural background or environment play a role in your eating disorder?

A: My semi-dormant thoughts about looking unappealing were awakened by track and cross-country training in a very competitive setting. In those days, training and racing was more stressful than fun for me, even though there were still good moments. Being in an environment where comparisons on performance are constantly being made by other people, it only felt natural to want to gain an edge. This edge was something I was already fairly familiar with. To me, this edge was eating less whenever I lost a race or didn’t do as well as I would’ve liked. This cycle would continue until I couldn’t eat less because there was no more food or meals left to eliminate from my diet. I eventually got to a spot where I was proud of how muscular I was and how little body fat I had. Even if my performance was “worse” than one of my competitors, I still felt like I was winning in one area.

Q: Did your relationship with loved ones change in any way when you had an eating disorder?

A: I became much less talkative and much more reserved. I depended on loved ones more to follow through with commitments such as them offering to make meals or saying they would go out with me to do something. Those commitments were distractions from the reality of what was going on, so if they didn’t follow through with them, I would get very irritable and sad because I’d just stress about food if I didn’t have those distractions to help me cope.

Q: What did loved ones do to support you that you found helpful or what kind of support do you wish you had received?

A: My parents and family were worried about me but they didn’t really know what to do. I can’t blame them for not knowing because it wasn’t common knowledge on what you’re supposed to do when a loved one has an eating disorder. A teacher and a school counsellor noticed my physical appearance and did their best to help me out. The issue at school was that the counsellor was too afraid to ask if I had an eating disorder and if I had support, and for obvious reasons, I did not want to tell them. I didn’t even want to tell my family, even though they were suspicious and eventually asked me.

At track and cross country, the coaches noticed my physical appearance but they were too uneducated on the subject to intervene. The coaches later said that they assumed it was not their place to intervene, saying it was a serious assumption to make. I now see that there is more awareness being raised about eating disorders in the running community and as a result, more coaches know how to deal with this sort of issue.

I wish that I had been more educated on eating disorders when joining track and field, since it’s not as uncommon in the running community as one might think. It would have been very beneficial for me if coaches had reinforced good eating habits and made sure that we got recovery food after each workout to replenish depleted glycogen stores*. Regardless of my past with this sort of situation, I am very happy that coaches and younger generations of athletes are currently getting more education about eating disorders in sport.

*Glycogen is a form of glucose (sugar) stored in liver cells and skeletal muscle

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Q: Did you seek treatment or support?

A: In grade 9, I started family-based therapy and it was good for the most part. However, I think that I definitely could’ve used some treatment sessions that were private and just for me. There were things that I didn’t want my family to hear but also because I am an independent person and when I have a goal, I prefer to work on it alone.

I also saw a sports medicine doctor who specialized in eating disorders, but it was just for an extra opinion after we had finished with family-based therapy. I think it would’ve been a good idea to see her sooner because she had dealt with more patients that had been in similar situations.

Prior to starting the large majority of my family-based therapy sessions, I was hospitalized for a week. This was because the doctor thought my heart rate was too low. Physically, I certainly did not look healthy, however, there was some debate around if my heart rate was abnormally low. Since athletes with high training loads generally have much lower heart rates, it was hard to determine the reason for my heart rate being lower than average.

Q: What resources or types of support did you find most helpful during this time? (Ex. Individual therapy, support groups, school counsellors, apps, treatment, etc.)

A: I found that the family based therapy helped. It wasn’t so much the therapy itself that helped but it was being there and realizing that I could be doing other things with my life rather than focusing on an illness. I would definitely recommend family-based therapy. In my opinion, before going full throttle on it, it might be helpful for an individual to think about whether they like to work alone or in groups more. I found that family-based therapy could be really annoying at times for me because I would be trying to do my own thing but my family would try to help (which I really appreciated), but it would just take longer. It reminded me of working in a group project where not everyone has the same level of knowledge on the subject and some people are giving their best shot but still figuring it out as they work.

With that being said, family-based therapy really made me realize that this illness was not worth my time and not what I wanted to be doing. Either way, if anyone is reading this and trying to decide whether to go through with family-based therapy or not, I would say to go for it but to have a word with your family and decide for  yourself if you work better solo or with others.

The other part that made me realize I was wasting my time by fueling the illness was when I was hospitalized.  As easy as it was for me to be sitting in a bed for a week straight with little movement, it was also incredibly boring. It was difficult to know that I could be skiing, running, or out somewhere else enjoying life, but I was in a hospital during winter break instead. That is when it really began to dawn on me that this illness just wastes time and did absolutely no good. I realized that in the hospital because there was nothing else to think about; there was so little that happened from day to day. As a result, my mental capacity had lots of empty space available for new thoughts to form.

Q: What kinds of self-directed behaviors did you find helpful? (Ex. Journaling, meditation, hobbies, habits, etc.)

A: I found the most helpful thing to be distracting myself, specifically finding new things to do so that I didn’t have as much time to focus on my eating disorder. I like music a lot, so a big thing for me was getting together with some friends and making music. Besides music, exercising and competing in track and cross country running was a big part of my life so during recovery, running with my track club was a great distraction. The training schedule was great for providing structure to my day and learning how to organize my time while leading a healthy and active lifestyle. The goals that came with track and cross country were very good distractions too. As soon as I stopped comparing myself to other athletes and focused on my own path, track felt fun again and it was extremely rewarding to see what I could accomplish through dedication and hard work. In my time away from music and running, it was great to relax by watching The Office and YouTube videos. I could relax and destress while being in a completely different world.

About the Author

The author of this guest post has requested to remain anonymous.

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