By: Mark Warren, MD, MPH, FAED
Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders
I’ve had the privilege of working in the eating disorder field for many years. To come to this work as a recovered professional has been an extraordinarily powerful and wonderful experience. As a male who has recovered from an eating disorder there are ways in which I know my experience has been both very different and very much the same as a woman in a similar situation. I am part of a group of recovered professionals organized through The Academy for Eating Disorders. There are only two men in this group at this time. So I’ve had the privilege of hearing from many women, and a few men, about their recovery, their experience, and what it is like to have had an eating disorder during the 60s and 70s, when treatment was not available. I’ve also been able to tell my story publicly, which has been very positive and healing for me.
My eating disorder itself was anorexia and following what I would consider to be a fairly classic pattern. It started in my teens, I was restrictive in food choice and amount, ran excessively for the purpose of losing weight, weighed myself constantly, was obsessed with food, body, size and shape and found myself fairly isolated from the world around me. I think the thing that was most powerful as I recall this period of time was the extraordinary experience of invisibility. As a man with an eating disorder my illness was literally unseen by every single person I came into contact with – including myself. Even now, as a recovered professional, I am amazed by how few times anyone in the field, patient or professional, has asked me about my own history. I know this is completely different from the experience of many women in the field. When I speak to women in the profession, both in recovery and those who have never had an eating disorder, questions and assumptions regarding their history are almost always in the room. As a man I think I am spared this level of scrutiny. In many ways this of course was a problem and made it much more difficult for me to get treatment. As a professional it is primarily a gift as it allows me much more freedom to decide how I share my experience and how to be best helpful to those who are work towards their own recovery.
For me, invisibility has been a double edged sword, both making it harder to be seen and making it easier to avoid stigma once recovered. For males struggling with eating disorders this dual nature remains a dominant concern. A man with an eating disorder may be less likely to be remarked upon, have less insight into their own behaviors, misinterpret eating disordered behaviors and medical complications and may be generally ignored by peers, family, and the medical profession. This adds complicating factors for a man to seek treatment, obtain treatment, and find a supportive community to help them stay in recovery. I was fortunate that I fell in love with a woman (my wife, Lisa) who saw my disorder for what it was, who re-fed me, and watches over me to this day. Many people, men and women alike, are not so fortunate. The crucial challenge for the field is that we know we can’t depend on luck to recover. Luck is a great thing to have and love is even better. Treatment, however, is a variable we can control. Our task as men, and for the profession, is to continue to create an environment that decreases stigma, increases awareness, and focuses on the needs of our community so that men, and all individuals who are suffering from an eating disorder, can have full and joyful lives.