One man's experience of disability and anorexia

Ryan now

When I was three I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Though described as "mild" it affects my mobility and balance so I use a walker-frame or scooter to get around.

Growing up was difficult because of my disability. People at school imitated my walking, called me "crip" and said hurtful things such as, "go and sit with your friends - oh you don't have any". I felt excluded and became very lonely.

When I got to secondary school I became fixated on people noticing my disability. I had no real friends, became very depressed and dreaded going to school every day.

I started to think I just wanted to disappear - I didn't want to deal with people judging me. I thought that if I lost weight my peers would have nothing else to make fun of me about, even though looking back I can see I was already thin.

I was about 15 when I became scared of eating and developed an intense fear of getting fat. Every time I put food or drink into my mouth, I thought of the calorie content and how I could burn it off. Be it five or 500 calories, I felt compelled to do some form of exercise after eating or drinking.

I hid my feelings from my family because I didn't want them to worry. I'd check the mirror or feel my body frequently and was always wrapping my hand around my wrist to see if I had gained weight. I felt I could control it and not let it get out of hand but though I tried with all my will power, the eating disorder was too strong.

Image caption Ryan was taunted at school because of his disability

My cerebral palsy had made me feel out of control of my body for so long, but as I began to lose weight it felt as though I was reclaiming that control in some way.

My parents soon noticed there was a problem, and mentioned how little I was eating, but I didn't tell them anything about my internal struggles because I didn't think they'd understand, and I didn't want to worry them. I felt this was something I had to go through alone.

I did try to eat more, but I just couldn't. My mind would just say no, don't do it. By the time I was 17, I weighed very little. My mother took me to see an adolescent doctor and I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa as soon as he weighed me, and heard my intention to lose more weight.

I managed to convince him I could get better on my own, and wouldn't require hospitalisation, but after a week I had lost even more weight. My parents were telling me I must eat but I would refuse, and tensions began to run high, as they became more desperate for me to eat.

By this time I was beginning to get chest pains and started to get really frightened. The doctor checked me into hospital for a week where they measured that my heart rate was dropping to 20 beats per minute when sleeping (it's around 60 usually) and my blood pressure was very low. Despite these bad signs, I was still terrified of gaining weight - I just couldn't shake the feeling. I began to realise I needed serious help, and after a week and a half I accepted I must go to an in-patient centre if I had a chance of beating the anorexia before it killed me.

  • If you are affected by any of the issues in this piece you can contact the eating disorder charity, Beat on 0845 634 1414 for people over 18, or for the Youthline for under 25s on 0845 634 7650

I got through it but relapsed at 22 with similar symptoms. I could see my bones and ribs protruding when I looked in a mirror. But I didn't feel disgusted, instead I felt a sense of achievement and power from seeing this.

Image caption When he was admitted as an in-patient Ryan was put on a feeding tube

It affected my bones and I was cold all the time. I was even more severely malnourished at in-patient admission at age 22, and had to be put on a feeding tube. There was concern that I wouldn't survive. When they put the feeding tube in, they had to start re-feeding me very slowly, or the shock could have been too much for my body.

During this time I knew that I needed the help, being put on a feeding tube shocked me and made me realise how serious this had become.

During my in-patient stay I had regular therapy sessions, but I was completely outnumbered by females. Few male issues were ever addressed as a result - there were only three other male patients during my time there. And I was the only patient with the kind of physical disability who needed walking aids, so it was difficult for me to talk about the root causes of my eating disorder.

I think there is still a stigma when it comes to men and eating disorders. It is still too often associated with young females, and this can be very damaging. As a part of my volunteer work with a male eating disorder charity, I have spoken to males struggling with eating disorders who are scared to reach out for help. This breaks my heart because they should not have to worry about being judged for having a medical condition - eating disorders do not discriminate. The stigma is preventing them from getting help and more damage is possibly being done to their bodies each day as a result.

I am pursuing a career as a dietician for people with eating disorders, as I know and have seen the positive impacts that they have on people suffering. I really want to try and help young men who may have eating disorders, to try and get rid of some of the stigma.

Looking back now, I feel both my eating disorder and cerebral palsy have been blessings in disguise. Both of these make me different, and I realise now that isn't such a bad thing. I have an opportunity to help make a difference to the lives of people who also experience these conditions by campaigning for more awareness and equal treatment.

I'm now a healthy weight and in control of my eating disorder. I realise it is something I will live with for the rest of my life, but today I feel happy and confident in my skin.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this piece you can contact the eating disorder charity, Beat on 0845 634 1414 for people over 18, or for the Youthline for under 25s on 0845 634 7650.

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