By Carl Wikeley
CN: Anorexia, OCD, Hospitalisation,
It’s late in 2009, and I’ve just been to the doctor’s against my will. My mum tells me if I don’t get better, I’ll have to be committed to the Leigh House, a hospital for mentally ill young people. I weigh in at an extremely low percentile for teenage boys, I’m barely eating anything, and I can’t see a way out.
A year later, into 2011, and my weight is normal, I am eating better – I no longer look ill. I am incredibly lucky.
My experience with mental health has been unusual, developing issues extremely early and recovering surprisingly quickly. That’s not to say I’m completely better now, at 21, because I still have my problems. But my friends at university won’t have known about my mental health problems. The average age to develop anorexia or bulimia, for instance, is 16 or 17. I count myself incredibly lucky not only to have recovered by the time I was 15, but simply to have recovered in the first place.
In all other ways, I’m a late-bloomer (I have approx. 2 facial hairs), but with mental health, I was the earliest of all the birds: before secondary-school level, I had already received CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for OCD. It started when I hadn’t even reached double figures. My main symptom was obsessively checking the dates on food. Imagine being so terrified of eating out-of-date food that you don’t let anything in your mouth until you know it’s at least a day ‘in date’.
“The earliest memory I have of anorexic thoughts is getting some kind of pleasure from eating less”
One mental health issue went, another came – and quickly. The earliest memory I have of anorexic thoughts is getting some kind of pleasure from eating less. Think teenage boy, and you probably think of a disgusting smelly mess who eats too much. I wasn’t smelly, and I certainly didn’t eat too much. In fact, over the course of a year or so, I ate so little that I was admitted to hospital with dangerously low blood pressure.
A few more days, the doctors said, and I could’ve suffered multiple organ failure.
How does that happen? I can barely wrap my head around it now.
Watching Louis Theroux’s recent documentary on anorexia, I had a curious thought: I’ve never really considered why I might’ve developed an eating disorder, at such an early age.
The ‘normal’ factors of media images, body pressure and peer tension didn’t really make sense in my case. I was never picked-on for my weight or appearance, I didn’t read or watch health, diet or beauty media compulsively, and I couldn’t have cared less about looking like a male model, or body builder.
Then I thought about control: a classic reason given as a mental health trigger. In OCD and related disorders (such as anorexia), we are often told that those with the condition want to exercise control – through compulsive behaviour – because they are losing, or feel like they have lost control in other aspects of their life: if you can’t control what goes on at school, you start counting calories.
“To a certain extent, I don’t think it makes sense to search for triggers at all”
But this didn’t really make sense, either. And to a certain extent, I don’t think it makes sense to search for triggers at all, because there never is an obvious one. I know genetic predisposition, family histories and more can play a part. But this doesn’t stop you wanting to know why.
In fact, what if I had been thinking about this in entirely the wrong way? What if the key to understanding my mental illness was not searching for the root cause, but thinking about its effects? What if my mental illness acted as a trigger for me to confront various aspects of my identity? I think, paradoxically, a good way to understand mental health is not by asking ‘why’, but by asking ‘what next?’
This is how I understand myself as privileged: not by glamorising mental illness, but by seeing how it may have affected my identity, causing me to explore and confront myself at an earlier age than many people. Before recovering from anorexia and OCD, I considered myself Jewish, and straight: what next?
“Before recovering from anorexia and OCD, I considered myself Jewish, and straight: what next?”
I don’t think it was entirely a coincidence that I began to develop anorexia while preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. In many cases, it seems, exams such as GCSEs can act as potential triggers for mental health crises – so maybe my Jewish ‘coming of age’ was that trigger. To be clear, I hated learning to read Hebrew, and the stress of that could have played a part in my developing the condition.
So maybe Judaism has taken two things from me: my early teen years, lost to mental health; and my long-gone foreskin. Miss you, foreskin (actually, I don’t really). But, in asking ‘what next?’, I wonder whether my mental health crisis gave the me privilege of feeling able to confront my religious identity. I think a more helpful way of understanding my anorexia is not as a rebellion against religion, but as leading to me question it, and ultimately identifying as an atheist.
Next, I wondered whether questions over my sexuality identity acted as a trigger. When I was in primary school, my mum caught me looking at two men kissing on the family computer. I was young, foolish, and was convinced we had enough bandwidth on the modem to load that risqué JPEG. I was wrong – thanks Windows XP.
After this somewhat scarring moment, I never once questioned my sexuality until later, in secondary school. At 13 or 14, I liked boobs – I knew that. But I also began to think about boys, and that was strange.
Curiously, while my eating disorder may have stunted my physical growth, I feel like I gained years on my peers in other ways. Soon after my recovery, when a boy I knew asked if I was gay, I said “Yes”. Without hesitation. I’d never even thought about it before. Thinking about it now, though, I might have been a bit hasty – I now identify as bisexual – but it was exciting, ok?
By 18, I had been with three guys and a couple of girls, and I felt pretty great. Is that a humble brag?
Again, I don’t think it’s helpful for me to labour over the question of whether sexual insecurities triggered my mental health issues. I’m no psychoanalyst, and I immediately apologise to anyone who is for implying your profession is as simplistic as that. So I ask, ‘what next?’, and see that, although I developed anorexia at an early age, I also came to explore my sexual identity before many of my friends.
To explore one’s identity is a privilege some people never get, because of their race, sexuality, gender, or own mental health situation. So, I don’t thank my mental illness for that, but I do think I understand it a little better. Thanks to the support I received, my mental health diagnosis didn’t have to be a roadblock, but the start of a new path.
“Thanks to the support I received, my mental health diagnosis didn’t have to be a roadblock, but the start of a new path”
Of course, I feel lucky to have had incredible treatment from the NHS, without whom I definitely wouldn’t be here. My sister, then incredibly supportive, is a former NHS junior doctor, but she escaped to Australia and is apparently now on holiday 24/7, only occasionally diverting to save a life. With a clown like Jeremy Hunt still unbelievably our health secretary, and with many BME people facing tough mental health issues, very few get to experience the privileges I have. Each young person should be able to explore their identity from the earliest of ages, and mental health shouldn’t stop that.
All images: Carl Wikeley