Chris Duff's parents were told to expect the worst when he was admitted to hospital at the age of 15. He had come to the point of losing his life due to an eating disorder, as he told Cormac Ó hEadhra on Drivetime. Now, 13 years later, he is happily married, living in Paris and working at a job he loves. This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week and Chris took the opportunity to talk about his own experience and to try and dispel the shame and stigma around men with complex eating disorders.
Chris says he first became aware of red flags around eating and body issues at the age of 13. Looking back, he has the language to describe what he was going through. But back then he couldn’t admit to himself there was a problem:
"That early on in my experience with anorexia and bulimia and body dysmorphia, I was very much in denial about it and just not acknowledging that any of the symptoms were really problems. I felt like I had a problem - I needed to fix myself. "
Chris says his parents were worried about his behaviour around food and exercise. He was obsessing about food and overdoing it in the gym; then on top of that, cramming even more exercise into every spare minute. Chris’s parents tried to get him to dial it back, but he was having none of it, as he told Cormac:
"I was going on walks after every meal. I was really exhausting myself with as much physical activity as I could. I was obsessing about food, whether it was what I was eating, or the amount of what I was eating, quantity, sizes, portion. Even down to the time of day and the hours and minutes that I was eating. There were time frames when I could and couldn’t eat."
All this activity left Chris with almost no energy and he became severely malnourished. At the age of 15, he was rushed into Temple Street Hospital. The doctors gave his parents a grim prognosis:
"When I was first admitted to hospital they were afraid that any physical exertion would cause me to have a heart attack, right there on the spot. The night that I was admitted into Temple Street Hospital, my parents were told it’s very unlikely that he’ll make it through the night and we’re pretty certain that he won’t make it through the weekend, so start preparing, start making funeral arrangements."
Before things came to a head, he had been getting some counselling that his parents had arranged privately, but Chris says they found it very difficult to get some health care professionals to take the idea of a male teenager with an eating disorder seriously:
"My mother was told, 'You have nothing to worry about. Boys don’t really get eating disorders. It’s probably or most likely a phase.’ We were met with closed doors and I think that’s what personally, for me, added to the shame that I felt with it. You know, I almost felt embarrassed to have anorexia or embarrassed to be sick. It just made the issue much, much worse."
Chris says he never talked to his friends about what was going on inside, even though they had noticed the physical changes. The pressure on men and boys to look a certain way, but say nothing about the mental pain, has inspired Chris to put the message out there that men can get eating disorders. They can also recover and go on to live happy and healthy lives.
That’s where Chris is at now. He’s 28, he’s living and working in Paris and is happily married. Cormac asked Chris what would he say to his 15-year old self, if he had the chance? Chris says he would tell him that they are not alone and there are people out there who want to help:
"That there is hope, that you’re not alone, you’re not the only one going through something like this, there are people out there that would be happy to help, that are going through the same thing you have and come put the other side and are much happier, much healthier and living a much better life."
You can listen back to Cormac's interview with Chris Duff on Drivetime here.