Director of 'Unspoken' - Alan Bradley.

Lack of supports hard to swallow

In this week's 'The Good Life' column, Gemma Good looks at the issue of eating disorders and the lack of support available for sufferers...

Last Thursday night at 10.15pm, RTE showed Ireland what it is like to have an eating disorder in Ireland as a male. The documentary called ‘Unspoken’ opened with clips of three men: Cormac Ryan, Owen Kernan and Daniel O’Boyle. Each revealed negative self-talk, one comment followed quickly by the next, mirroring what it is like to be in the mind of somebody with an eating disorder.

It was an extremely powerful opening as it portrayed a common misconception associated with eating disorders; that they are simply about not wanting to eat. Contrary to widespread belief, an eating disorder has extraordinarily little to do with food.

Food, weight, exercise - are all a means of controlling the constant voice inside your head. Many people with an eating disorder describe this voice as their friend or ally, and will do anything to please it. Some of the comments the men uttered were “I have to eat less,” “I can feel my hip bone, I can feel my ribs” and “your legs are too big”, with the predominant feeling of worthlessness.

As a Dublin minor hurler, Cormac Ryan speaks about masculine culture within the GAA, where comments about character and appearance are all too common. Cormac believes many people would not suspect he struggles with an eating disorder just because he is six foot two, weighs 90kg and plays GAA.

Cormac’s brother Cathal explained how his sibling doesn’t fit the “traditional picture of someone who’s suffering with an eating disorder” because he does not suffer from anorexia or bulimia. Cormac portrayed his internal struggles, explaining how it has been two or three years since he has eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one day. He sadly revealed that he cannot walk past a shop or car window without body checking his reflection, and constantly seeks validation from other people.

Eating disorders are funny, not as in ‘ha ha’ but peculiar. A person with an eating disorder is obsessed with how they look and would rather starve than put weight on their body. While many may view this as vanity, it is the opposite. A person going through this is filled with so much self-loathing.

Cormac explained there is a constant voice telling him he is not good enough to eat today, but maybe tomorrow.

An eating disorder will rip you to pieces, there’s no other way to describe it. It will target every positive aspect of your life and take it away from you.

For Eoin, he “decided things needed to change” thinking that what happened in his thirties would determine the rest of his life. His health kick of eating clean and exercising quickly became obsession, as it often does, leaving him at a dangerously low weight. In a clip we see Eoin and his partner Carolina in a café ordering coffee. Carolina orders a bun, while Eoin is physically unable to, which he apologies for.

The thing is, today something like this is often praised. Not having a biscuit with tea, not eating so-called ‘bad food’ is seen as admirable, with people often saying “God, I wish I could be more like that.” You really don’t.

For Cormac, his love of hurling is evident. He says winning the Leinster final in 2011 was “dream stuff”.

He explains that, when he is on the pitch or on his bike, those are the only times the voice inside his head goes away. It’s a scary time, you wonder if you are doing these things to please yourself or the eating disorder. It’s like a constant battle with your best friend and your worst enemy.

Eating Disorder specialist Dr Kielty Oberlin explained that an eating disorder is often triggered by a stressor: something that is completely out of one’s control, forcing an individual to turn to something to give back this sense of power.

Daniel O’Boyle looked back on a fun, normal childhood filled with trips to the bog and jumping on bales. At the ripe age of eight, he became focused on weight and size. He remembered receiving comments from others about his appetite as a child, planting the seed for his eating disorder. This frustrates me immensely, children have enough to be worrying about today without being pestered about weight.

Daniel lost his father to a heart attack when he was on his college placement, something his mother believes was the “catalyst” for his eating disorder. He recalled running even when he was injured or in the most dangerous of weather conditions, driven to lose weight.

The determination of somebody with an eating disorder is scary. No amount of BMI charts, health professionals or scales can stop this dangerous trend.

Each of the three men explained their harrowing stories through strained voices and tears. Daniel was told, by a health professional, that he was not thin enough to access treatment, also that he was “atypical” because of his gender. Cormac revealed it cost €9,000 to receive private treatment, with no online information or podcasts for lads.

The most poignant part of the documentary is a video of Eoin in hospital, when he realised he needed help. Lying on a bed in A&E after speaking to 13 or 14 different professionals he said: “Ireland, this is what you’re f*****g doing to people with mental health problems.”

The HSE’s 2018 Model of Care Report found that eating disorders cause more deaths than any other mental illness. Cormac, Eoin and Daniel disturbingly all revealed they considered suicide to end their struggles. That same year, the HSE committed to create 16 specialised eating disorder treatment facilities in Ireland. In 2018, €1.5 million was allocated with €137,000 spent. The following year, €1.6 million was allocated and nothing was spent. Last year, funding was suspended entirely.

Can Ireland afford to let this go on?

* Gemma Good is from Killeshandra and a second year journalism student in University of Limerick.


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