I Was Almost Denied Eating Disorder Treatment Because I Was Male
My name is Michael, I’m 27 years old, and I’ve had an eating disorder for thirteen years. When it started, everyone jumped to attention right away. Well, almost. It was six months before they noticed.
My mom didn’t know what to do. I just stopped eating one day. I kept losing weight. I passed out whenever I stood up. I couldn’t carry my backpack to school so I had two sets of books — one for school and one for home. I had to take the elevator because I couldn’t climb the stairs. I had bruises all over my body. But this wasn’t enough to convince me I needed help. I needed to destroy myself more.
A year went by. I was 15 years old. It felt like my therapist had given up on me, and my doctor was angry at me for “not wanting to get better.” I was suicidal. I wasn’t able to sleep longer than 30 minutes at a time. I couldn’t stop shaking. My chest hurt. It was hard to breathe. I had muscle spasms for no reason. My fingers and toes began to lock up. My hair was starting to completely thin out. The bruises spread. It became harder and harder to see. Then one day at school, I was called up to give a report for World History and as I stood up, I passed out and slammed my head on the desk next to me. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I woke up in the hospital with a killer headache, a wrap around my head and IVs in both arms. I was connected to monitors. Confused, I tried to call for someone. But I couldn’t speak. I was too tired to speak. Someone came in and explained to me that my heart stopped. I almost died right there in World History.
The doctor explained that my anorexia had been out of control and that this type of response was “only a matter of time.” I tried to focus on his voice but I couldn’t. I passed out and woke up several days later. They also inserted a feeding tube (though I had no memory of them doing that). All I could think of were the calories pouring into my body. I tried to pull it out but doctors rushed in and handcuffed me to the bed. I felt powerless, angry and scared.
A couple of weeks later, they decided I needed to go to an eating disorder program, that a regular psychiatric unit wasn’t going to be able to help me with my eating disorder. They told me to sit tight, they’d find one for me. Days went by, and one program after another turned me down. My doctor couldn’t believe it.
And the worst part: I was actually being turned down because of my gender. I could hear him yell at a couple of programs from my room. “He’s dying, don’t you understand that? He needs treatment now, he can’t wait much longer!” And one by one, they all said no.
“If we send him home, he will die. There’s nowhere else equipped to handle a case like this,” he said to my mom, explaining the situation. At the time, not a single program in Massachusetts would take me. My mom wouldn’t stop crying. I felt lower than dirt.
I was already telling myself I wasn’t good enough, and being denied treatment only reiterated that belief.
Then one day, I found myself being wheeled out of the ICU. “What’s going on?” I croaked. The lights hurt my eyes and the cold wind felt like it was tearing into my skin. “We found a program willing to take you,” my doctor said as my stretcher was being loaded into the ambulance.”You are very, very lucky.” The doors closed.
I was lucky. At the time, we could only find one eating disorder program that accepted males in my area.
But the unfortunate truth is that while 10 million men in the United States will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life — as compared to 20 million women — studies suggest the mortality rate is higher for males than it is females.
But still, it seems like when we talk about eating disorders, we always refer to females. This makes a lot of males feel that having an eating disorder makes them “less of a man,” or less than who they are. But the truth is that having an eating disorder doesn’t give you an identity. It can feel that way, but it doesn’t. It’s an illness, like cancer or the flu. But seeking treatment is daunting and terrifying, especially if it’s not easily accessible. This isn’t fair and it needs to change.
I was lucky. But what about those men or boys who live in areas that lack treatment options?
I don’t have any answers. I only know that if you’re having trouble finding treatment for your eating disorder, don’t give up. When more men and boys who reach out for help, the demand for treatment will be noticed. We, all of us, need to fight together for more equal access to treatment because the alternative is too much of a price to pay. We need to change the gender-exclusive way we talk about eating disorders. Perhaps then, we will finally stand a chance at truly fighting this illness together.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.