Read the first chapter of my autobiography, 'Road to Recovery'. Road to Recovery is my story of surviving anorexia, embracing my sexuality & transforming my life. Read about my life in London and find out how I ended up on TikTok! Buy your 365-page SIGNED copy now at www.benwardle.org/shop.
TRIGGER WARNING: This book extract contains extensive details and descriptions of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. This includes examples of anorexic behaviours. I strongly advise that you do not read this extract if you are currently suffering from - or may be susceptible to - an eating disorder. For support and advice, please see: www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services
How are you supposed to react when a doctor tells you that you are starving yourself to death? How are you supposed to reply when they follow this up with the question, ‘is that what you want? Do you want to die?’ I can sum up my response to both of these questions in one word that I think goes to the very core of battling with the eating disorder Anorexia Nervosa: denial.
It’s October 2012, and I am sitting in a private room on the children’s ward of Macclesfield hospital. To say I am not happy to be here would be an understatement. I am incandescent with rage that these medical ‘professionals’ think there is something wrong with my eating, weight and mental health. I am desperate to escape this room, which is filled with doctors, nurses, child psychiatrists and my mum.
Why are they all ganging up on me like this? What have I done to deserve this kind of treatment? I am determined to get out of this room and out of this hospital. There is absolutely nothing wrong with me, and the sooner these doctors and psychologists realise this, the better. I want to go home.
Unfortunately for 12-year-old Ben, the Consultant paediatrician at the hospital has other ideas. It turns out that I will not be going anywhere anytime soon. They have received blood test results, and alarm bells are ringing.
They have calculated my BMI and have discovered that something is seriously wrong. I am so underweight and dangerously ill that they have decided I will be immediately admitted to the ward. I will be placed under strict 24-hour observation and banned from leaving my bed.
My mum is in floods of tears, whilst a children’s psychiatrist is reassuring her that this is the ‘right… the ONLY – thing to do’. I feel angry and overwhelmed. I don’t want this. This isn’t fair. They can’t do this to me; they can’t make me stay here! As I am led away by the child play therapist, fury rushes through my veins. I need to call my dad – who is at work – and tell him what they’re doing to me. But the play therapist won’t let me. I have to get into my bed, she says, and order something from the hospital canteen food menu. Oh, of course, I bloody do. Here we go! I instinctively order the lowest calorie options on the menu, opting for the soup of the day and a carton of orange juice.
I may only be 12 years old, but I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of calories and nutritional information. I am a professional calorie counter, and avoiding calories is my full-time job. If this play therapist thinks she’s going to win this one, she’s got another thing coming. I’m not giving up without a fight, I think, as I sit on this bed feeling more agitated and angry than ever before. Where is my mum? Why can’t I call my dad? Why are these people doing this to me?
It turns out that there is a very good reason that ‘these people’ are doing this to me. On this day that I am admitted to hospital, just one week before my 13th birthday, I weighed 24kg. To put this into perspective, the average 13-year-old boy weighs 45.3kg. My blood test results are incredibly alarming, and the doctors are genuinely shocked that I’ve not collapsed or become seriously ill yet. The medics are very clear – if they don’t intervene right now, I am going to die. They are saving my life. If they let me carry on like this, my body will not be able to cope. I am severely malnourished and dangerously underweight. My essential organs can’t continue functioning. I am a ticking time-bomb and practically knocking at death’s door. Perhaps most shockingly of all, I am completely and utterly in denial that there is absolutely anything wrong whatsoever.
For the past six months, I have been charging headfirst towards a catastrophic mental health crisis. Whilst the nation has been enjoying the 2012 Olympics ‘summer of sport’, I have been starving myself to death. Whilst families across the country enjoyed BBQs and the BBC’s Olympic coverage; I have been descending into the depths of anorexia. I have been throwing away food, militantly restricting calories, and obsessively exercising at all hours of the day. Deep down, I have known that what I’m thinking and doing is entirely irrational and dangerously self-destructive.
But I have been unable to do anything about it. My mind has become completely and utterly taken over by the most extreme and irrational anorexic thoughts. I cannot go for a single second without obsessing about calories, food and the size of my waistline. I am utterly obsessed with the idea of getting both my hands around my waist – I am desperate to keep losing more and more weight. I believe that all of my problems, worries and anxieties will disappear if I can just become even skinnier and skinnier.
On my walks home from school, people have started shouting things at me. ‘Go back to Ethiopia’, one boy yells, as his mates snigger around him. ‘Does your mum not want to feed you?’ shouts another, failing to realise the irony of what he’s just said. Yes, my mum does want to feed me – she is so beside herself with worry about my refusal to eat that she has dragged me to the GP at least twice. The GP has not been interested in what she has to say – ‘boys don’t get anorexia’, the GP tells her, adding ‘just give him a good meal, and he will be fine’.
My mum knows that her son is not going to be ‘fine’. She has been onto me for months, watching her son starving himself to death and unable to do absolutely anything about it. She has attempted to monitor my food consumption – or, more specifically, lack of food consumption– like a hawk, but I am always one step ahead. I have fool-proof strategies for getting around her efforts to feed me. They include hiding food in tissue paper, feeding whole meals to the dog, and excuses for claiming ‘Oh I’ve already eaten…’ ready to deploy at all times. The more that she attempts to help me, the more I start to resent her and view her as a controlling, interfering and force-feeding monster. She is trying to save her son, but I am so wrapped up in anorexic thoughts that to me, she is Public Enemy Number One. It’s only years later that I will realise just how amazing she is and just how much gratitude I owe her.
Let’s return to the story now because, at school, teachers have begun to talk. My Head of Year – the most fantastic business teacher, Mrs Moulsdale – has been summoned by my PE teacher to come and see me in the Sports Hall. I am skin and bones, standing there shivering in my sports kit. The teachers are desperately concerned and ask the school nurse to meet with me. I attempt to palm her off with my now well-rehearsed ‘I’m fine’ routine, but she is not buying it. She sees straight through it, and sends me straight to CAMHS, the Child Adolescent Mental Health Service. She calls my parents into school and expresses her concerns. I’m that malnourished, and underweight that the school think my parents could be abusing me. My mum is relieved that someone is finally listening to her concerns. Unlike the GP, the school nurse is taking her seriously. Very seriously, in fact. At first, she is confused by my height and weight statistics – they can’t be right, she tells my mum, because my BMI is ludicrously low. She is refusing to believe the statistics my mum gives her. So she calls the GP surgery, who in fact confirm the statistics are correct. The school nurse is mortified and immediately launches into action. This action saves my life.
The next day I am dragged into CAMHS. Now, CAMHS is notorious for its six-month waiting lists, but the nurse has called them with my BMI statistics, and I’ve been fast-tracked to the very top of the list. I am furious about all this fuss, and the anorexic thoughts inside my head convince me that everyone is trying to cause me harm. I am in complete and utter denial – I may be severely underweight and malnourished but, in my head at least, I am fine. And, as my mum has found out, anyone who tries to question me had better is prepared for the fight of their lives.
Fortunately, the CAMHS team know exactly what they’re dealing with. Lin, Sarah and Dr Andrew Weaver can see straight through my delusional denials and my defensive outbursts of anger. They are ready to fight against my anorexia with every drop of energy that they’ve got. I may be fighting back against them, but they know this eating disorder well enough not to take it personally. They are launching into battle and doing everything that they can to save me, even if I am insistent that I do not need to be saved.
I am dragged into a CAMHS room and asked questions that I refuse to answer. They are not surprised. I am asked to complete a ‘tick the box’ questionnaire, which I wholeheartedly take in my stride. I think that I’m winning – I think that I can pull the wool over their eyes. I take pride in lying my way through every single one of the twenty-eight questions. If you ask someone with anorexia ‘have you been deliberately trying to limit the amount of food you eat?’, they are not going to tick the box that says ‘yes – every single day’. Anorexia is too clever for that. Denial is in anorexia’s DNA. Deception is a fundamental component of living with anorexia. The deeper you sink into the depths of despair, the more insistent you become that ‘I’m completely fine, thank you for asking’.
And so, I breeze through al of these twenty-eight ‘eating disorder’ questions. I answer a total of zero questions truthfully. Do they think that they can trick me this easily, I think to myself? How dare they accuse me of having an ‘eating disorder’ – whatever that term means! Why are these people so bothered about me? Why do they care what I’m eating – they’re the ones with the problem, not me! Do I look like these stupid adults will control me? Do they think that they can outsmart me like this?
I am in-and-out of these appointments for the next few days. The CAMHS team become more and more concerned with every single appointment. They can see exactly what is going on, and they know that time is now absolutely critical. My mum is completely beside herself with worry. I am completely and utterly in denial. I hate these people, I hate their questions, and I hate the fact they’ve cottoned onto my eating disorder. I visit CAMHS; I visit the school nurse. I spend PE lesson time with the family liaison officer. Dr Andrew Weaver arranges blood tests, and he is alarmed beyond belief at the results. He immediately gets on the phone to my parents, and I am rushed out of school and taken immediately to the hospital. I don’t know it now, but I won’t be leaving this hospital ward for a very long time. And, when I do, it will be with the knowledge that these people I have been fighting against have quite literally just saved my life.
I have been spiralling to new depths of denial, deception and despair for months. Anorexia has been taking root and spreading its poison throughout my thought processes for a long time. I have lost all interest and enjoyment at school. During drama lessons – formerly my favourite thing in the entire world – I hideaway and avoid attending. I don’t want people watching me perform; I don’t want to play these stupid drama warm-ups or exercises.
People had always mocked me and thought that I was ‘different’ because I was a boy who loved drama so much. I had spent so many years feeling alienated because I was the weird boy who liked acting. Why couldn’t I like football like the other boys? Why did I have to be so, well, dramatic? Maybe everyone would be happy now that I hated drama. Maybe I’d stop being judged and labelled now that I was wasting away. Surely people wouldn’t notice me now that I was a shell of my former self. I don’t want any more glances, jokes or feelings of exclusion – I just want to hideaway. I’m fed up of the exhaustion, and I am fed up of the exclusion. I’m going to disappear and do my own thing. And by my ‘own thing’, I mean starve myself and control my food intake. It’s the reason I wake up in the morning and the only thing I can think about all day.
I continue to disappear, both figuratively and metaphorically. My life becomes completely overwhelmed by a brand new purpose: calorie control. Every day is defined by my obsession with what I eat. At every moment, I am looking for new opportunities to get out of eating – all that I ever want to do is restrict my food intake. I might not be able to control what other people think about me. I might not be able to change the fact that people see as this weird outsider who isn’t a normal boy. Still, I can control how many calories I am going to put into my body. Nobody likes me, and nobody pays me any attention. Nobody takes me seriously, and nobody wants to include me—nobody, except the anorexia. Anorexia is my inner ally. Anorexia is the only one who is interested. It’s me and anorexia against the world. How dare they try and take anorexia away from me – it’s not like anybody cares about this ‘gay’ and ‘dramatic’ little ‘gossip’.
Except they do care. And ‘they’ – my parents, the teachers, the CAMHS therapists, the doctors – are trying to do everything that they can to save me. I am not having any of it. I am perfectly fine, thank you very much, and the only thing I need saving from is people’s interference with my life. As the appointments and concern continue I – or, instead, my anorexia – continues to put up a good fight. I am like a clam superglued shut, and I am adamant that nobody is going to crack this case anytime soon. My façade continues, and yet deep down, I know that I can’t carry on living like this much longer.
I must be consuming no more than 300 or 400 calories a day, and I am obsessively exercising like someone in training to become an Olympic athlete. I go for ridiculous runs at night and spend hours doing star-jumps in my bedroom. My body is struggling to manage with the basics of just breathing and existing, never mind this kind of exercise. I am completely and utterly exhausted. My body is on the brink of collapse. I am severely malnourished, dangerously underweight, and I utterly unable to think clearly. Every waking minute is entirely preoccupied with my obsession for counting calories and my determination to maintain an absurd regime of starvation and self-punishment. It’s October, and I am always ice cold. I sit in lessons shivering, I can’t concentrate, and I don’t want to communicate. What kind of existence is this? How much longer can I continue spiralling towards self-destruction? Why won’t I let my parents, my teachers, or the medical professionals help me?
I am now a ticking time-bomb. At any moment, my body is going to give up. My organs are failing, and my body is wasting away. I am now nothing but skin and bones, and yet I am still convinced there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I refuse to let anyone even mention the word ‘anorexic’ in my presence. The GP telling my mum that ‘boys don’t get anorexia’ is music to my ears. This is exactly what my deceitful and control-obsessed eating disorder wanted to hear. How dare someone – especially my mum – label me as an ‘anorexic’! You heard what the GP said; boys don’t get anorexia! I don’t have it! There’s the evidence! How dare she try and give me another label that I do not want! I am sick of people commenting on my life, and I am fed up of being the object of people’s judgements!
All I want is for everyone to leave me alone. I want to control, and I want freedom from my pain. I want people to stop judging me and excluding me. I want to be understood and, if I can’t be understood, then I want nothing but complete control over my body. Nobody is going to stop me, and nobody is going to stand in my way. I don’t want any more judgement, anymore mocking or any more feelings of inferiority. I want to control, control and control. Nobody cares, so what’s the f*cking point? It just shows how toxic the anorexic mindset can become once it has infiltrated into your thought processes.
This is especially the case at such a young and impressionable age. As your body gets weaker, these anorexic thoughts and ‘voices’ get stronger. You don’t just lose weight – you lose your sense of self, sense of perspective and ability to think rationally. Anorexia is like a drug or addiction. It is compulsive, all-consuming and shockingly self-destructive. It eats you alive (no pun intended!) from the inside out. It’s no wonder that Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescence. It’s no surprise that eating disorders, in general, have the highest mortality rate among psychiatric disorders.
As my 13th birthday approaches, it becomes highly doubtful that I will reach it. As I walk around the park on another one of my weight-loss regimes, someone shouts something about me looking like a Holocaust survivor. I’m too starved and exhausted to care. I’ve given up caring about people’s opinions. I’ve realised I can’t control the fact everyone has a problem with this 12-year-old boy no matter what he does. They had something to say about the love for drama, and now they have something to say about the weight loss. I thought everyone was supposed to like you once you were skinny? I thought this is what made someone desirable and valuable? As I say, I am beyond caring. I’ve got bigger things to worry about than some random man’s outbursts in the park. What does he want; an award for tasteless and deeply offensive attempts at ‘humour’? I’d shout back if I had the energy to do so. But I barely have the energy for this walk, let alone any confrontations with this man. I should be in a hospital bed, not exercising in the park.
As I make my way home, I feel a sharp pain coming from somewhere in my stomach. Is it my lungs? Is it my kidneys? The pain intensifies each time I inhale. Each time I breathe in, I find myself clutching my emaciated stomach even tighter. I know I need to get home – fast. And so I clutch onto my stomach and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. What the hell is this pain? Why do I feel so dizzy and disorientated? What is happening to me right now?
By some miracle, I make it home. I immediately run to the kitchen cupboard and reach for the sweetcorn relish. I squeeze perhaps ¼ of the entire bottle directly into my mouth. I’ve started doing this a lot recently. After realising that one serving contains just 25 calories and 0.5g fat, I have been reaching for this sweet and supposedly energising relish every time that I start to crash. I’ve done the same with BBQ Sauce and Tomato Ketchup as well – I squeeze the bottle directly into my mouth, desperate for the salty and flavoursome taste. It is disgusting, but it is the only way I can get a fix of energy and flavour.
As I swallow the sweet relish, I feel a temporary relief from my now omnipresent feeling of hunger. I feel so smart to have found a way of getting this energy rush without having to consume any calories. I feel so smug to be cutting my calorie consumption like this, and I search the internet for new ways of supposedly ‘cheating the system’. I look for new ways to cut corners – what other low-calorie foods can supply me with the energy boost I am desperately needing? How many calories can I afford to consume for the sake of some temporary reprieve from my exhaustion and despair?
Later that evening, I lie in bed, unable to sleep. I am – yet again – freezing cold and utterly starving. Since I woke up this morning, I’ve consumed:
· Half a Weetabix at breakfast with a tiny drop of milk
· Lettuce leaves – perhaps with some kind of dressing – and carrots at lunch
· Sweetcorn relish, Tomato Ketchup, BBQ sauce directly from the bottle
· Probably ¼ of the dinner my mum has made me – usually just the vegetables. I have given the rest to the dog or wrapped it up in tissue paper
I lie in bed and will myself to fall asleep. The faster I can fall asleep, the less likely I am to go looking for food. The faster I can fall asleep, the less time I will have to spend lying here feeling so cold, so empty and so weak. The faster I can fall asleep, the less time I will have to spend listening to those anorexic thoughts and voices racing around inside my head. Yet, despite my exhaustion and my best efforts, I am unable to fall asleep. The feeling of hunger consumes my body. And, at this moment, I realise that it is not just a hunger for food and nutrition that is consuming me. It is a hunger for escape, a hunger for acceptance, a hunger to be understood and a hunger for control. I am starving for self-acceptance, self-confidence and self-love and, as a result, I am starving myself to death.
Right at this moment, I can see no light at the end of the tunnel. All I can see is calorie counting, defensiveness, and despair. I have dug myself a hole so deep that there is no hope of escape. I have gone so far down this path of self-destructing that it is a miracle my body keeps soldiering on. I am alienated from everyone, and everything – my family, friends, all my previous passions and interests.
All of my desire to make connections and all of my self-confidence has been utterly extinguished. I am a shell of my former self, and I am barely able to survive each day. When people see me, they see skin and bones. When people talk to me, they receive a vacant stare. When people try to help me, they are dismissed as controlling and interfering. I am completely isolated, and I am completely overwhelmed by utterly irrational thoughts. I am starving myself to death, and I am desperately in need of urgent medical intervention. This is the reality of anorexia. This is the reality of living with an eating disorder.
This is what it is like to be a 12 – almost 13 – year old boy who has spiralled to such depths of self-hatred and despair that they haven’t eaten, socialised or functioned properly for months. I finally fall asleep, my body essentially passing out from utter exhaustion. I have miraculously made it through another day. Time is running out, and yet I am still aggressively refusing all help.
Road to Recovery is available in paperback and eBook. Shop now at www.benwardle.org/shop (signed copy - £9.99 + P&P) and at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08M2HBF2C (Paperback - £13.99. Kindle - £4.99).