Man’s battle with eating disorder breaks stereotypesRob hated to run. But he hated to stop even more. That’s when his disparaging inner voice, the one that had belittled him since seventh grade, would emerge. If he didn’t keep going, it said, he was going to get fat. He would never have the shredded abs that taunted him from every fitness magazine. He would be just a regular guy — not the superman he felt driven to become.
By: John Keilman, Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Rob hated to run. But he hated to stop even more.
That’s when his disparaging inner voice, the one that had belittled him since seventh grade, would emerge. If he didn’t keep going, it said, he was going to get fat. He would never have the shredded abs that taunted him from every fitness magazine. He would be just a regular guy — not the superman he felt driven to become.
So, on he ran. And when even six hours a day of exercise weren’t enough to quiet the voice, he started skipping meals too.
While anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are potentially lethal — up to 5 percent of those suffering from them die from suicide, substance abuse or medical issues, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry — they have traditionally been viewed as women’s problems. Researchers say only 10 percent of those who are treated for the conditions are male.
But a growing body of evidence suggests that number is misleading. A study published last year estimated that males actually make up 40 percent of teens who have eating disorders. An earlier Harvard survey found that men account for 25 percent of adults with anorexia and bulimia.
Some therapists say more men and boys are seeking help. Niquie Dworkin, who practices on the North Side, said males have been tormented by the same kind of unattainable body images that have long plagued women and girls.
While eating disorders in men and women appear to have similar roots in genetics, media messages, perfectionism and low self-esteem, the symptoms are often different. Experts say one big contrast is that men usually focus on muscularity, not thinness, and they tend to manage their weight by working out to incredible extremes.
That’s what happened with Rob, 24, a young man from Elgin, Ill., who asked that his last name not be used. Experts said his case was typical of men with eating disorders.
His trouble began at age 14, not long after bullying schoolmates mocked him for supposedly being fat. Vowing to gain the same kind of lean, athletic physique one of his tormentors had, he started doing 100 pushups a night. He then moved to the weight room, and when he entered high school, the cross-country team.
Almost imperceptibly, his routines grew longer. By the time he was a senior, he made excuses to leave practice early so he could work out even harder alone.
After noticing an odd relief in hunger, he began skipping meals too. Mastering his body allowed him to feel like he could manage a life that had become lonely and socially awkward.
Daniel Le Grange, director of the eating disorders program at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said it’s common for people who suffer from the disorders to express a desire for control and self-affirmation. But any contentment that emerges from starvation and hellish exercise doesn’t last long, he said.
Rob’s intense exercise led to stress fractures, but he didn’t let up on his body.
Rob’s family, long in denial, knew he was in trouble. He knew it too. But even though he had begun to see a therapist, it was easier to follow his compulsions than resist.
In November 2011, Rob suffered another leg fracture, the result of what doctors said was a lack of calcium in his bones. Though he was ordered to rest for a month, he grabbed his crutches and did hobbled laps around his parents’ kitchen table.
It turned out to be his moment of clarity. He called the eating disorders recovery center at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, Ill., and had himself admitted.
Therapy and reflection eventually convinced Rob that he needed to change. He yielded to the program and spent a few weeks putting on weight before transferring to Rogers Memorial Hospital near Milwaukee, home to a rare males-only eating disorders program.
His task there was to excavate the psychological turmoil that lay beneath his behavior — the desire for control, the need to feel special, even the fear of becoming an adult _ and reset his mind and body to healthy habits.
In his three months at Rogers, Rob said, he learned to take a more realistic view of himself and gain more control over his eating and exercise habits. He put on about 45 pounds in treatment and now follows a diet worked up by a nutritionist, dining at appointed times even if he isn’t hungry (his long periods of starvation scrambled the neural circuitry that governs hunger — a common side effect of an eating disorder).
He works out cautiously, lifting weights with his father lest he get carried away. On a recent Sunday morning he went for a slow walk around the block, the only form of cardiovascular exercise he allows himself.
Distributed by McClatchy Tribune