Extraordinary People

‘Eating disorders are not a female illness’ Man who beat bulimia stamps out stigma

On the outside, Richie Cartwright's life looked perfect. On the inside, he was falling apart.

As Freddie Flintoff’s documentary Living with Bulimia hit iPlayer last week, it ripped the plaster off male mental health and the reality of how many men battle eating disorders.

It is believed 1 in 4 of those with eating disorders are men, likely even more as there is a large number of males who do not come forward and are therefore not included in stats.

Many boys and men fear speaking out over the misconception that eating disorders are ‘a female illness’, and this exacerbates their shame and secrecy.

As World Mental Health Day approaches tomorrow, we caught up with Richie Cartwright, 25, who has struggled with binge eating since he was 19-years-old.

Speaking exclusively to Uspire, the Cambridge University graduate turned mental health campaigner revealed how his unhealthy habits began when he left home.

Richie said: “I grew up around healthy eating, with both of my parents being doctors. There were always large amounts, with mum’s side of the family really valuing food.

“It was seen as a masculine thing to eat a lot, and I was always the one to finish leftovers of friends and family. I had been a bit chubby as a child, but later played a lot of sport, so had a healthy weight from age 13.

“I got into fitness and aesthetics when I was 14, and have cared about my body ever since then, harbouring underlying body image problems.”

Richie added: “Then when I went to uni, the exposure to food like kebabs and living in halls, I found it really difficult not to steal other people’s food; ‘unhealthy’ things I wouldn’t buy myself but couldn’t help having from others’ cupboards.

“Progressively things got weirder, like I started eating from bins after coming home from a night out. It was all very, very hidden, and on the outside I appeared very fit and healthy.”

Richie continued on a downward spiral, living a double life; on the outside he seemed well having graduated and started his own company, while on the inside he felt like a failure.

He was also unaware that he had a problem as it didn’t feel like he was “actively hiding” his bulimia from anyone; consequently, Richie didn’t seek help until he hit crisis.

Richie explained: “I was pretty unaware that this was a ‘thing’. I obviously struggled a lot, but it was just so normalised for me, and I think masculinity dictated that I tackle it myself and didn’t air it with others.

“Around 2018, things got more extreme, now looking back I can see it was linked with stress and emotion. It began happening during the day, whereas before it had normally only ever been at night, and with foods I would normally really avoid, such as pastries.

“During that summer, I was going to the gym consistently. This felt normal at the time, but I was often engaging in compensatory exercise i.e. eating a lot of food at the office when everyone had left, then using the exercise bike a few hours after.”

Richie said that while he would physically feel overwhelmed after a binge, emotionally everything would come flooding to the surface too, including disgust and self-hatred.

Yet still he did not realise he had a problem until he began to search online for his symptoms, and then he discovered ‘binge eating disorder’ and it all clicked into place.

He revealed: “I remember so, so vividly being on the NHS page and seeing those symptoms listed and thinking, ‘That is me! That is me! That is me!’

“It was super surreal as I had thought it was an internal quirk and to have it laid out so clearly in a clinical setting to realise it was thing, it was powerful.”

Richie even tried to reach out to his flatmate, although without understanding the intricacies of the illness, he simply told him he ‘ate a lot, it’s fine’.

It was not until April 2019 that Richie finally told his parents who helped him get treatment. Now, Richie is on a mission to help other men who are struggling in silence.

He also hopes to highlight that eating disorders are very often linked to external factors other than weight, such as looking for control or finding a coping mechanism.

Richie said: “Stress is a big trigger from me, that I continue to struggle with, albeit much less serious now.

“Food and weight are important in that they tie into body image, which is a big pressure driving binge eating behaviour. I have a significant, unaddressed flawed thought processes in that I have a six pack but feel real shitty when it feels like I’m putting on fat.”

On his crusade to stamp out stigma, Richie has created a new company named Fella to help men with eating disorders.

It is a ‘digital therapeutic’, initially focused on binge eating disorders, with CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] being delivered digitally via a mobile app.

Alongside the evidence-based therapy used to treat addictions, there will also be an online community and peer support programme to ensure users maintain motivation.

Richie said: “Users will do the exercises every two days via the app and engage with peers to ensure they’re building up daily strategies to tackle binge eating in-the-moment.

“I am fed up of the fluffy/sales-y solutions out there which aren’t evidence-based and don’t tackle the root cause.

“That’s why we’re focused on building the best possible CBT delivery via software.”

When asked how he hopes to tackle the embarrassment felt by countless men over their eating disorders, Richie said we need education around the fact it can happen to anyone.

He concluded: “There is no ‘male eating disorder’, all people get eating disorders.

“EDs are commonly associated with middle class white teenage girls, or everyday middle-aged white women. Both groups are sadly effected, but the lack of diversity in our understanding is flawed and damaging to those groups and others who are affected.

“I am not asking anyone else to change their messaging. Instead, we are making it our mission to put out more content focused on men of all ethnicities, backgrounds, ages, sexual preferences, body types etc. to demonstrate that our current conceptions of eating disorders are flawed, and that a lot of guys out here are struggling with the same battle despite their apparent differences.”

For more information, click here: Fella.

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