For a while, I told myself my son was OK. Boys don’t really develop eating disorders the way girls do, the way I once did as a struggling 13-year-old who hated every new curve that appeared on my constantly changing body.
My son was also 13 when his battle with his body image began. Since kindergarten, he’d been teased for being chubby, and it had taken a toll on his self-confidence. A move across country after the first year of middle school was the opportunity my son needed to transform himself. Unlike me, he didn’t turn to punishing himself through self-induced vomiting. Instead, he practiced a more ascetic form of diet: self-denial.
It was the first stage of his progression towards disordered eating, a tiny dark cloud that followed him everywhere he went. At school during lunch, at the movies, out to dinner with us, self-denial overshadowed his natural desire to eat and darkened his mood. He lost weight, and then, when sheer hunger drove him to eat more than he believed he was allowed, he punished himself with exercise.
By 14, he had lost 50 pounds, leaving him lean and lanky like many of his peers. I thought that once he reached a healthy weight his severe restrictions would taper off and his exercise would become more about maintenance and less about personal shame. I was wrong.
I talked to my husband, who, at first, didn’t make the connection between what our son was doing and a potential eating disorder. My husband told me how in his early years, wanting to impress the ladies, he would only eat egg whites, tuna fish, broccoli and oatmeal and worked out at least twice a day. When our son talked about purchasing a weight loss meal-replacement shake, I was adamantly against it, but my husband didn’t mind.
“I used to drink those too,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
But we both noticed the change in our once-happy son’s mood. He rarely laughed anymore and was increasingly impatient with everyone in the family. The slightest things would set him off, and he would erupt in anger. I noticed that his moods were particularly crappy when he was hungry, and I noticed his hunger when he would come home from a vigorous workout and then only eat an apple or a banana.
I pestered my son about eating enough food. Every day I would try to find a way to get him to eat more, to encourage him to understand balance and to see that his body — a body that is still growing and developing — needed more nutrition than a small salad and a piece of fruit.
When he would eat a normal meal, say a plate of spaghetti or a sandwich, I watched as he would head to my bedroom mirror and lift up his shirt, assessing his body to see if he’d gained any weight.
“You’re fine, son,” I said. “Bodies don’t work that way. It takes eating unhealthy for a while to gain weight.”
“No, I’m getting fatter,” he said. He pulled at the thin skin on his taught abdomen and stared at me with dead seriousness. I laughed, but quickly realized it was the wrong thing to do.
“Son, that’s your skin. It’s flexible because you’re growing. It’s not fat.”
He shook his head in anger and left, only to repeat those same actions and words over and over again for the next year.
I reached out to a local therapist and discussed the possibility that my son had an eating disorder, namely anorexia. I’d read an online article and came away with the clear belief that my son likely struggled with an eating disorder and needed a professional evaluation.
Getting my son to agree to therapy was difficult. He’d joined the football team because of the appeal of an entire class period devoted to demanding exercise. He would often go to the gym immediately after and push himself so hard, he was hurting himself.
Tired of my incessant discussions, my son agreed to sit down with the therapist, but denied he had anorexia.
“Do you set a daily calorie limit?” she asked.
“Do you feel upset if you eat more than that calorie limit?”
“Do you feel upset if you eat certain foods, like bread, or meat, or things that are considered fattening?”
“Do you work out to burn the calories you’ve eaten in a day?” she asked.
More questions, more answers. In the end, she looked at us both and said that my son most likely has anorexia nervosa. My husband finally understood our son needed help. He was ashamed of himself for missing the warning signs and vowed to do whatever he could to support our son’s recovery.
We thought that starting therapy would be the fix he needed. The doctor would say the right combination of words and those words would unlock his former self, the fun, happy, loving, compassionate kid who had a killer sense of humor. Instead, my son resisted. He didn’t connect with the therapist and so, to get out of having to go, pretended that he was fine.
He convinced me the therapist wasn’t very good, that she didn’t listen well or seem to remember what they were talking about. He told me he felt better than he had in years and that he didn’t need to keep seeing her.
Stupidly, I allowed him to stop.
Within a few months, his old behaviors reemerged and were coupled with increasing negativity. He constantly bad-mouthed his body. He pushed away friends for the slightest offenses, and, frighteningly, mentioned suicide. I talked to my son’s general physician and expressed my concerns. He wasn’t convinced that my son had an eating disorder.
“Just eat healthy and you’ll be fine,” he actually said. We fired him that day.
For many people, disordered eating is associated with girls and women, and very little awareness exists for boys dealing with this issue. Unfortunately, this makes finding help, and even acceptance, a challenge.
For support, I reached out to the National Eating Disorder Association. Their organization was able to link me to a network of licensed psychologists who are trained in helping teens, including boys, battle their eating disorders. The overwhelming support I received was a breath of fresh air, and it reinvigorated me in my determination to find help for my son.
A few days later, after picking my son up from school, I drove to the beach instead of taking him home. He was angry at me, angry at himself angry at the world. I sat in the car with him, staring at the ocean, and I cried. I told him how afraid I was for him, how much I loved him. My son opened his heart in that moment and told me he felt like there was something wrong with him; that he didn’t want people to know about his struggles with his weight and body image, or with eating, because people would think he was “acting like a girl.” Even for my son, there was a stigma attached to his disorder.
Experts claim that upwards of 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime in the United States, making the need for awareness very real. He wasn’t “acting like a girl,” he was a boy with an eating disorder who needed help.
I promised my son that he would not be judged and that the only thing we wanted was for him to get healthy and find happiness once more. I promised him that I would do whatever it took to help him, but that he had to commit to getting help, too.
We talked for almost an hour, looking out over the crashing waves. Finally, my son agreed to return to counseling, but we had to find a new therapist. I immediately agreed and, a few weeks later, found someone whom my son felt more comfortable with.
Today my son is working with a psychologist who has experience with eating disorders. Together they are practicing cognitive behavioral therapy. The goal is to rewire his brain. Anorexia changed the highways in his thinking, creating bridges to self-destructive, angry and negative responses. Each session, they work on demolishing those bridges and building new ones, training his mind to remember his value and worth, his own inherent beauty and importance in this world.
My son is not healed. Not yet. He still struggles with body image and shame, especially when he eats. I have faith and hope that he will emerge from this a healthy young man.
Maybe there’s a young man out there like my son who believes he can’t or shouldn’t get help for his eating disorder because “it’s for girls.” But there’s no gender label for mental health needs, and as parents, we have to make sure the door is wide open to our children for support and healing, no matter what they are dealing with.