Ian, February 28, 2018

"I certainly look fine. I’m no longer underweight. But that doesn’t mean the anorexia has gone away"

People like opposites. Right or wrong. Pass or fail. Leave or remain.

It’s how I often think about my mental health. I am well or ill. Recovered or relapsed. Coping or not coping.

Three years into my recovery from anorexia, I’m learning to admit that my mental health is not black or white. I’m learning how to talk about not being 100%.

As a man who loves both musical theatre and rugby, I am not anyone’s model of traditional masculinity. Fun for me is found in the shades of grey. In disagreement and debate. In diversity.

But deep down, I am as binary as the next person. Maybe more than most given I have lived with an eating disorder for twenty years.

I am fat, even when the scales say my BMI is normal. I am hateful and unloved, no matter what my friends and family say. I’m weak because I had to take 18 months off work, not resilient because I got help and turned things around.

The hardest thing I’ve had to learn during my (ongoing) recovery is that it’s okay for things not to be black and white.

Yes, I have weaknesses because of my eating disorder, but I also have strengths. I may not be the warmest person in the world, but some people still seem to like me. It appears possible to be a man and to express emotions.

Mostly, I’ve had to learn that when it comes to my mental health I’ll probably never be totally well, and hopefully never totally ill either. It is okay to still need to care for myself sometimes. That occasionally things are tough and I need to ask for help.

Since I was discharged from hospital and started working again, I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues that included the phrase: “But you are alright now”.

I certainly look fine. I’m no longer underweight. I’m showered, shaved and in a suit and tie. I’m in a job, in a relationship, and have my flat. I’ve been incredibly lucky.

So, it’s easy to just say yes. I am alright now. It is what they want to hear. It is what I want to believe. But it’s also not totally right.

I’m certainly better than I was. But some things are still difficult. I’m back to a healthy weight, but that doesn’t mean the anorexic part of my brain has gone away. In fact, at times it’s louder than ever. I am just getting better at ignoring it.

So why is it hard to tell people I am still not 100% now?

It’s not because my friends and family ran away from me when I was at my worst.

I started to be honest about my anorexia in 2013. Everyone was more supportive than I could have dreamed of.

The most common reaction was relief. Relief that they could finally admit to being worried about me. Relief that I was giving them permission to help. Rather than blank disbelieving stares, scorn or laughter, I was met with hugs and tears. The people I loved told me they were proud of me for getting help, not ashamed of me for being ill.

So why did I try and hide being ill? Even when I was severely underweight and sometimes so paralysed by depression I couldn’t get out of bed.

Partly, I had convinced myself that I was completely alone. If I showed the real, flawed, emotional me, people would hate me more. Some of that was in my head.

But some of it was what I had been taught. The culture I grew up in venerates the ‘strong silent type’. Being ‘mad’, or a ‘nutter’, or ‘cracking up’ are still casual insults I hear every day.

I was the one who was prejudiced against people with mental health problems. Prejudiced against myself.

Some people around me had prejudices too - that a man, especially a man in his 30s, couldn’t develop anorexia. My weight loss must be down to something else. The scars on my arms couldn’t be self-inflicted. My mood swings were just work-related stress. Deep down, I think they had absorbed the same lessons I had. Better not to talk about it and embarrass me.

I took their silence as evidence that they didn’t care. Thought I was pathetic. Believed being mentally ill was something to be ashamed of.

I was wrong. I don’t want to get caught in that conspiracy of silence again. Even if it means disappointing people when they say: “But you are alright now”.

The experience of twenty years of ups and downs means I’m sure there will be some more downs along the way. I’m functioning. Even enjoying life. I’m not 100% all the time, but I hope to prove to myself that not being 100% is okay. That I can be non-binary about my mental health.

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