CORONATION Street’s Jack P Shepherd recently bravely revealed he’s battling an eating disorder – and he’s not alone, as a quarter of the 1.25 million people suffering with one in the UK are male.
Here, Adam Laws, 19,a psychology student from East Yorkshire, and his mum share their story.
“My heart raced with panic as I lay in bed, too frightened to fall asleep alone in my bedroom. Aged 18, I had just been diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with eating ‘pure’ foods), and doctors had warned I was so malnourished my heart could stop beating at any moment.
Growing up, I was always on the big side for my 5ft 9in frame, and at school kids teased me and poked my belly. My weight never bothered me, until my family moved from Yorkshire to Texas for my dad’s job in the oil industry in June 2012, when I was 11, and I gained weight eating large American portions. Feeling self-conscious for the first time, aged 14,
I decided to try appetite suppressants. I ordered some online, but Mum found them before I could try them. She was shocked and upset, and I promised never to take them. Instead, I skipped breakfast and started doing sit-ups and push-ups until I couldn’t move. Within months the weight dropped off, and at school, girls suddenly fancied me, which gave me validation.
Aged 15, I began scrutinising images of ripped fitness models on Instagram, becoming obsessed with their V-shaped bodies, tiny waists and broad shoulders. Copying them, I began ‘bulking and cutting’, a bodybuilding technique of building muscle then stripping away fat in order to look as muscular as possible.
To achieve the look, I put on 2st in half a year, then lost 2st 6lb within 10 weeks, living on water, protein powder, egg whites and chicken. Mum was worried, but – increasingly moody from dieting – I told her she didn’t know what she was talking about. To me, eating disorders were something only girls suffered from.
In September 2018, I moved back to the UK and began my A levels at a boarding school in Wiltshire, which Mum and Dad thought would give me stability after living in the US.
After that, I started going to the gym twice a day, for two hours at a time. As anorexia took hold, I would drink eight litres of water a day and eat nothing until a small evening meal of chicken and salad. Sometimes I made myself sick when I felt guilty about the food I had eaten.
I knew Mum was really worried when she spoke to the housemaster about my eating. After that, he kept an eye on me and organised counselling, but the anorexia had made me so apathetic, I achieved little from those sessions.
When my parents moved back to the US for work in December 2019, I began dodging their Skype calls, not wanting them to see how ill I looked. By March 2020, I weighed just 7st 8lb and would sit in the classroom shivering, my bones digging into the chair.
Feeling depressed and suicidal, I finally called Mum and admitted how bad things had got. Terrified, she booked me on a flight to the US just before the pandemic hit, then took me to the doctor. I began outpatient treatment, before my parents managed to get me into residential care in September, paid for by their health insurance.
The doctor told me I had a paralysed digestive system and acute heart failure. Because I’d starved myself so severely, I had signs of potential brain damage and – if things didn’t change fast – I had two months to live. The news hit like a truck.
I wasn’t allowed to go home until I was better. My panic around eating was so bad, I was put on anxiety medication and given a meal plan of high-calorie foods. I was always under the watch of a dietician, as well as having daily therapy sessions.
Facing my fears was overwhelming, but over the weeks, I found comfort being with people in the same state as me. Gradually, my relationship with food improved and I was discharged in December after 11 weeks at the centre.
Today, I have no idea what I weigh, but I’m healthy and look forward to family meals. I’m living back in the UK with my family after Dad took early retirement at the end of last year to support my recovery.
I still worry I could relapse, so I have plans in place for when I’m struggling, such as eating lots of my ‘safe’ foods like chicken, steak and sweet potatoes, and limiting my time at the gym. I’ve also unfollowed anything to do with fitness on Instagram – social media can be so toxic.
I am so grateful to my parents, who I know will always be there for me. I’d never confided in my male mates, as I felt ashamed – my eating disorder felt like the opposite of ‘manliness’. I finally told close friends over text in May last year, before I started treatment.
The doctor told me I had a paralysed digestive system and acute heart failure.
I wanted to explain why I’d always said ‘no’ whenever they asked me if I wanted to go for a drink or order a pizza. They said they had their suspicions I was unwell, but had never considered it was an eating disorder.
I was shocked by how supportive they were, and they’ve had my back through all the hard times during treatment and recovery since. I only wished I’d opened up to them sooner.
While in America, I grew close to Sophie, 21, who was also being treated for an eating disorder. We started socially-distanced dating in July 2020, and I proposed to her in December. She’s in recovery now too, living in residential care in Boston, and we’re looking forward to her coming to visit the UK soon.
There’s still so much stigma around male eating disorders, but it’s not a weakness – having faced mine, I’m starting to feel stronger than ever. To anyone struggling, please know you’re not alone. Asking for help is the strongest thing you can do.”
Adam’s mum Sally, 54, is a retired nurse. She says: “Watching Adam eat just the whites of an egg, discarding the yolk as it was ‘too calorific’, my heart sank. With each mouthful, I felt heavier with despair. I suspected my teenage son was in the grip of a terrible eating disorder – and nothing I could say would stop him from feeling the way he did.
Growing up in Hull, Adam was a confident child, but when we relocated to Texas when he was 11, he suddenly started to worry about his puppy fat. It was the start of a dangerous body complex.
I told him that he was too young for bodybuilding, but he wouldn’t listen, and I soon suspected he might have bulimia. I would find myself listening behind the bathroom door and checking the toilet bowl after he’d been. It was horrendous, and some days I felt heartbroken.
Until then, it had never occurred to me that eating disorders affected boys too, and I didn’t know any friends who had sons going through something similar. I felt so alone, though my husband shared my concerns, and we knew that whatever was happening to Adam, we could overcome it together.
When Adam moved to Wiltshire for his A levels, we hoped it would be a chance to put his unhealthy habits behind him. I was worried about leaving him, but he wanted to be
an actor and the school had a great drama department. Perhaps naively, I hoped that by supporting his passion, it would give him a new lease of life, and he would feel happier settled in the UK. We chatted every few days, and I spoke to his housemaster often. But when he told me that Adam was spending increasing amounts of time at the gym and alone in his room, away from friends, I knew I had to act.
I pulled him out of school, and when we were reunited at the airport, I was confronted with the horrific reality: my son was a walking skeleton. As we embraced, I felt his spine protruding and his hips jutting out. I was beside myself.
When Adam went into treatment, I was only allowed to see him from 6ft away at the gate, because of Covid. It was devastating, but I was relieved that he was finally being looked after by experts. We spoke over Zoom every few days, and at the start he would cry and say he wanted to come home, but we liaised with the staff, who explained that he had to stay and ride it out.
When Adam went into treatment, I was only allowed to see him from 6ft away at the gate, because of Covid. It was devastating, but I was relieved that he was finally being looked after by experts.
When he was discharged, Adam gave me a big hug and said how lucky he was to have us as parents, which meant so much to me. After my husband retired, we moved back to Yorkshire so we would never have to leave Adam alone again. Back at a healthy weight, he now looks wonderful and has life behind his eyes again.
Still, I sometimes wonder if it was my fault. Adam told me recently that as a child, I told him off after finding chocolate wrappers under his pillow, which made me wonder if I was the trigger for his eating disorder.
I’ve also questioned whether moving around a lot for my husband’s work affected Adam, though he says he wouldn’t have swapped it for the world, as he met some of his closest friends while living abroad.
I’d urge other parents not to assume that this doesn’t happen to boys. It can be a difficult age to talk to them, but trust your instincts. I noticed so many things with Adam – the amount of water he was drinking, the meal avoidance, the low-calorie foods – but social media was the big thing. Every time I went in his room he was looking at bodybuilders’ profiles.
I worry about Adam every day and watch him like a hawk, but it’s a balancing act, as I know he needs to live his life. The best thing is that he’s open about his anorexia now and he’s not ashamed of it. I couldn’t be prouder.”
- For support, visit Seedeatingdisorders.org.uk or call 01482 718130.
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