Keith Russell has lived with a crippling eating disorder and body dysmorphia for years — and with hospital admissions for eating disorders increasing by 66pc in the past year, he is not alone in his struggle
Like a lot of men his age — he turned 40 last year — Keith Russell loves to listen to 1980s music. The soothing sounds of bands like Tears for Fears and Wham! provided a nourishing pick-me-up of nostalgia for the Dubliner during the dark days of lockdown.
But for Keith, who works as a creative manager for an advertising agency, this music has another positive association. It is a reminder of a gentler time, in childhood, before a crippling eating disorder and profound body image issues began to take over his life.
“I’ve had these problems all my life”, he says. “I just hated my body and the way I looked. I had no confidence in myself. At one point it got so bad that I wanted to take my own life. When I was going through the very worst of it, I was convinced that I was the only one.”
In fact, Russell is just one of an increasingly large number of men who have suffered with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Eating disorder services and GPs around Ireland reported a marked increase in eating disorders during the pandemic, particularly in the final months of 2020, according to the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland.
A recent study in The Irish Medical Journal showed that hospital admissions with eating disorders increased by 66pc during last year. Researchers from Temple Street Children’s University Hospital and the School of Medicine at UCD also found that almost 40pc of new admissions during last year were male — which they say is “considerably higher than any previous year”.
It’s thought that isolation and lack of physical activity has been partly responsible for this spike, but the unrealistic standards of social media may also play a role. While many women have embraced the idea of body positivity — the idea that bodies of different shapes and sizes are of equal value — this idea has yet to gain currency with male Instagrammers.
This spring, the social media giant partnered with the mental health charity CALM to launch a campaign about body image issues in men. A survey commissioned by the two found that more than half of 2,000 respondents had body image issues which had been worsened by the pandemic.
Keith’s problems pre-dated the widespread use of the internet, however. He lived in Swords until he was about 10 before moving to Ballyboughal, a small village at the back of the airport where his father worked as a builder. As a 12 year old, he was enrolled in lifesaving classes and he pinpoints this as the moment when he became distressed with how he looked.
He says: “The guys in the lifesaving classes weren’t allowed to wear shorts, it was Speedos all the way. I was looking around thinking I don’t look at all like these boys. I had a little pudgy belly and just didn’t have the fitness physique that I felt the other guys had.”
At home, he would look at himself in the mirror and go through all of the things that made him uncomfortable. “I have a little birthmark on my ear, which bothers me. I didn’t like my side profile. I couldn’t grow stubble. My neck was too long and skinny. I had fat on my lower back. I could go from the top of my head to my feet and list out everything.”
Keith’s family lived in a house on two acres and he says that for a lot of his teens he was quite isolated. “I had a lot of time alone to think about what I disliked about myself. I just bottled it all up. I lived in my own head.”
He tried to lose weight with exercise at home. Keith says: “We had a big garden and I’d run around and try to lose weight. I had no idea about diet so that wasn’t on my radar. Nothing would work and I couldn’t put on muscle or lose the belly. I was caught in a vicious circle because I needed exercise to get in shape but I was too embarrassed to have a shower.
“At one point, I even remember wearing a fleece to the gym. I was pouring sweat, it was so impractical, but I wanted to wear it because it was baggy.”
Eventually, he tried to take his own life.
“I had been thinking about it (taking his own life) a lot and one day I tried to do it, but I chickened out. I was completely distraught. I called a friend over and I was sitting on the stairs crying. I didn’t even tell him why I’d called him. I just didn’t want to be alone. It was a dark time for me.”
He didn’t go to college but worked for his father for a while, before taking a job in a warehouse. “On the building site it had been all men but here there were lots of girls around and I was very self-conscious. Even to pick up a box I would make sure that I was pointing a certain way because I didn’t want them to see that I had weight in my lower back. I’d look for clothes that hid my body. It was intense, all day.”
A common misconception about body dysmorphia is that it’s connected with being vain. “It can look the same, but inside it’s a different experience”, Keith says. “It’s not to do with pride at all. It’s like being crippled with self-consciousness.”
He also developed an eating disorder. “I would not eat for ages and then binge. When you vomit it all up, that’s bulimia, I tried that a few times. Body dysmorphia is very closely linked to eating disorders, it’s a vicious circle. I was preoccupied with food all day, morning until night. I was all in or all out. I’d be dieting and exercising all day or completely stop and binge all the time and balloon up.”
Keith says he even considered surgeries. “I’ve never told anyone this. I went to a cosmetic surgeon, quite a famous place, and looked at getting a jaw implant, but that was too expensive for me. For other things, it seemed pointless. There were too many things to fix.”
He went to see a therapist in his early 20s for depression. In 2009, when the construction industry collapsed, he lost his job and was crippled with anxiety. Keith then underwent cognitive behavioural therapy with another therapist, but did not find it helpful.
In lockdown, he began to do his own research into eating disorders and body dysmorphia and began a podcast called The Endless Spiral, through which he got in touch with many male sufferers of eating disorders and body dysmorphia. He jokes that it has been a kind of ‘healing through media’.
He says: “It was very eye opening to me because I had an expert in the area, Niamh Orbinski, on my podcast twice. I joked that I was using her for personal therapy, but it was only partly a joke. She’s a nutritionist counsellor who specialises in helping people to develop a healthy relationship with food. I said to her: where have you been all my life?
“I think being able to help other people through the podcast has been a great experience for me and it’s helped me with my own recovery.”
Keith says he does not feel that he has completely dealt with his issues. “I’m OK with the food at the moment but I’m still all in or all out. As regards the body dysmorphia, I think one anecdote shows where I’m at with it. I have a five year old and a seven year old and I took them out on the green the other night to play.
“It was roasting outside but I went upstairs to find a hoodie to put over my T-shirt because I was self-conscious about my body.
“So it’s not gone, and I am still healing from it. There’s such a stigma around men talking about these issues, there’s a perception that if you’re a man you have to be strong and not talk about your feelings. But my message to people out there going through something similar is that you are not alone, and there is help if you look for it.”
The Endless Spiral is available wherever you get your podcasts and on theendlessspiral.com
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