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Male Eating Disorders, Part 5: the "Iron Man" Who Chose to Live

Posted Dec 15 2009 9:29am

Rounding out our brief look at male eating disorders (at least for now), I am pleased to share a guest Post today, written by Patrick Bergstrom. Patrick shares a must-read Post that is eye-opening, educating, and inspiring. 

Thanks to Patrick for his efforts to dispel the myths of "female only" eating disorders, for his work with althetes and EDs, and for his continued support of eating disorders recovery.

Male Eating Disorders

--Bigger, Faster and Stronger

It was the end to another demanding day for me at Canopy Cove, a residential eating disorder treatment center for both males and females.  It was in early April of 2008, and I was desperately trying to recover a life that was firmly in the grips of anorexia nervosa.   I was halfway through my 30 day stay in treatment when I received an unexpected email from a former housemate and lacrosse teammate.  The title of the email was “Iron Man,” and the message had me reflecting upon my life and a brief story that occurred back in college, which clearly defined my existence.

In short, the story highlighted a competition that was held during my sophomore year of college.  It consisted of a three mile run, followed by a thirty minute (45lb) plate weightlifting workout ending with the final “Iron Man” challenge.   The challenge was to test a person’s strength, endurance and heart.  It was simple; the last man holding the (45lb) plate above their head was the winner.  The final test lasted around 25 minutes and it came down to three people, and I was one of them.  I was by far the smallest athlete, but what I lacked in size and strength, I made up with perseverance.  I was in an extreme amount of pain, but I pushed forward and never gave up and I won the “Iron Man” title and competition.  The email I had received that day reminding me of this story I had blocked out during my five year battle with anorexia nervosa purging type ended with this line;

--“Patrick, you were the smallest player on the team, but at the end of the day, you had spirit and determination.  You didn’t win the “Iron Man” test solely on strength, you just wouldn’t give up.  You have more heart than anyone I have ever met-- take this resolve and fight, and use it to overcome this eating disorder.” 

This simple short story has great symbolism and meaning to my life, my struggle with anorexia, and my recovery.  I think the best way for me to explain its importance is to share my personal story from the very beginning.  I think this will also give you true insight into male athletes and eating disorders.  Though commonly perceived as an illness affecting women, eating disorders do not discriminate according to race, gender or class.  The latest statistics state that over one million men in the United States struggle with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.  This does not include the millions of men out there suffering from binge eating disorder. 

My name is Patrick Bergstrom and I am a survivor of a four-year battle with anorexia nervosa. I am a former Division III College Lacrosse player and graduate of Wesley College. I grew up in small town, where I was a record-setting lacrosse player and athlete in high school. You might wonder the same thing I often struggle with; “How could a talented, All-State student athlete, raised in a safe and loving environment, find himself physically and mentally devastated by anorexia nervosa?”  There is no simple answer, but my story of success and failure illustrates how I came to live a secret and destructive life with an eating disorder. This is my true-life account of anorexia, survival and hope.

I was raised in a rural town by two caring parents. I was the middle child and was considered the wild one — having extreme potential but lacking direction. I fell in love with sports, and my dream was to become the first lacrosse player in Western Maryland to play Division I lacrosse.  I was the typical little boy growing up and my adolescent years were full of laughter and excitement.  During my teenage days, everything came really effortless for me.  I excelled socially, academically and athletically.  Though I was a bit on the small side, I didn’t let this stop me from chasing after my dream to become a fierce athlete.  I always wanted to be; bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone else.  Athlete’s train, so I pushed myself, worked out six days a week and took supplements to attain the ideal male athletic build.   

I was told many times that at 5-feet, 6-inches tall and 135 pounds, I was too small to play college lacrosse. I was driven to prove them wrong. I had to be the best at whatever I did, and my teenage years were consumed with lacrosse, weightlifting and schoolwork. I set numerous high school records in lacrosse and weightlifting, played on the Maryland Senior All-State team and was nominated for the Maryland Public School Player of the Year.  When I wasn’t training, I was the life of the party. To those who thought they knew me best, I was a standout student athlete and a ladies’ man.  However, on the inside, nothing was ever good enough for me.

I graduated from high school 2001 and went to the University of Tennessee, looking to continue my reign of greatness. But during my college years I attended two universities, suffered back and knee injuries, had two concussions, saw my mom battle breast cancer, dated two girls at once, went through five coaches and drank excessively to numb the pain. My senior year in college is when I lost all control of my life.  In an effort to run from my problems, I began working out more and eating less. (one meal per day)  I was trying to keep my starting spot on the team, joggle two girlfriends, graduate and deal with a coach who didn’t believe in my ability. Nobody else seemed to notice the chaos my life had become, perhaps because I was still excelling in the classroom and producing on the field. Even I still didn’t see that something was drastically wrong.

 

My life took a disastrous turn during my final college lacrosse game.  I watched from the bench as my team lost the final playoff game.  Despite the determined efforts I made to become a great college lacrosse player, it never happened. This was the day I put down my lacrosse stick for good, or so I thought. I had never experienced anything so painful.  For the next four years I would struggle with anorexia, depression, substance abuse, and over exercise. I never once picked up my lacrosse stick.

When I graduated later that month (2005), I was not prepared for what was ahead. I was in and out of a relationship and could not find a job related to my business major. I had no avenue of escape from my problems. When things went wrong before, I had turned to lacrosse. It was my way of expressing myself and dealing with life’s obstacles. With lacrosse absent in my life, I had no way to cope. I began eating less and binge drinking more.  I was secretly suffering and dying from anorexia nervosa and I was desperate for some type of intervention.  At this point, I was pretty sick and I thought getting married would turn my life around and solve my eating disorder problem. 

A month before my wedding, I couldn’t get out of bed; my mind and body were completely drained and weak. I broke down to my fiancé, my friends, and cried out, “There is something wrong with me, and I need help!”  I never did get married, but I did get the intervention I was looking for.  The simple statement, “I need help,” changed my life and two weeks later, I was off to Canopy Cove. (Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Center)  My treatment experience was short lived due to insurance issues but it gave me the foundation I needed to build a successful and strong recovery.  I have been in full remission from my anorexia for two years, and I am now back running and playing the sports I love.  I had to learn the hard way that eating disorders don’t discriminate, but neither does recovery!  I am not wasting my suffering and I am using my experiences to help other athletes and males struggling with eating disorders.  Please feel free to visit, I Chose To Live (www.ichosetolive.com) to read my entire memoir and to learn more about my team outreach.

Here is what I believe that everyone should know about male eating disorders based upon my five year struggle with anorexia.  The most important thing to know is that there is no simple or clear stereotype for eating disorders.  Every eating disorder is different, including those in men and athletes.  I have found that most male eating disorders are diagnosed at the end stages of the eating disorder or when treatment or hospitalization is essential. This is because of the extreme stigma males with eating disorders face.  Here are some clear signs that could help you diagnosis a male eating disorder.

· Perfectionist attitude

· Over exercise

· Substance abuse

· Strong fixation on appearance and athletic performance

· Isolation

· Mood swings

· People Pleaser

· All or nothing mindset

· Loss of interest in friends and family

· Denial

· Overuse of supplements or performance enhancing drugs

The one fear I struggled with was the reaction others would have when they found out I had an eating disorder.  This fear kept me from seeking help for almost two years, and it nearly took my life.  After reaching out, that fear I had disappeared because I discovered that most people were very receptive to my illness.  Some were not and I did lose my fiancé’ because she just couldn’t understand my disorder.  I believe the most important decision for men is to reach out and get help.  The sooner the better!  It’s normal for men to try and solve all their problems on their own, but this is not possible with an eating disorder.  The best way to help a male struggling is to be very patient, loving, stern but supportive, and compassionate.   

Male eating disorders are very taboo and secretive illnesses, making it very difficult for caregivers and professionals to identify.   In most cases, the situation will be much like mine.  The male sufferer will be very popular, driven, and even obsessed at becoming the best in whatever sport or field they are in.  The eating disorder for them, like it was for me, will become a way to cope when things start to break down.  Also, know that guys do struggle with body image but it is very different from that in women.  We want to be bigger and stronger—having a ripped 6-pack and a muscular build.  Guys don’t talk about it, but we do compare our builds, our forty times (how fast we are), and our bench presses.  Again, most male athletes want to be bigger, faster and stronger.  This drive can ultimately lead to disordered eating and or an eating disorder.  Eating disorders are very complex, but by being very proactive, they can be avoided!  Men do suffer from anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders.  I hope that my story disclosed essential information that will help you care for another male struggling.  Look for the warning signs, and don’t wait until your friend or patient is drastically under weight.  Play it safe and address the issue when you sense something is wrong. 

Anorexia Nervosa nearly took my life because I was ashamed to get help, and those around me were afraid to address the issue.  Use my story and learn from my mistakes and from my recovery.  Know that I was a strong and very successful male athlete that destroyed the erroneous stereotype of those who can suffer from eating disorders.  If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone!  I am now a survivor of an eating disorder and my anorexia will never define me as a person.  If anything, my struggles have allowed me to become the passionate and beautiful person that I am today. Recovery is possible!! 

Patrick Bergstrom

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