by Dr. Mark Warren MD, MPH, FAED, CEO, Medical Director
“…if your Child is not getting well it is because the treatment
is failing, not you”
I’ve had the privilege of working in the eating disorder field for many years. To come to this work as a recovered professional has been an extraordinarily powerful and wonderful experience. As a male who has recovered from an eating disorder there are ways in which I know my experience has been both very different and very much the same as a woman in a similar situation. I am part of a group of recovered professionals organized through The Academy for Eating Disorders. There are only two men in this group at this time. So I’ve had the privilege of hearing from many women, and a few men, about their recovery, their experience, and what it is like to have had an eating disorder during the 60s and 70s, when treatment was not available. I’ve also been able to tell my story publicly, which has been very positive and healing for me.
My eating disorder itself was anorexia and followed what I would consider to be a fairly classic pattern. It started in my teens, I was restrictive in food choice and amount, ran excessively for the purpose of losing weight, weighed myself constantly, was obsessed with food, body, size and shape and found myself fairly isolated from the world around me. I think the thing that was most powerful as I recall this period of time was the extraordinary experience of invisibility. As a man with an eating disorder my illness was literally unseen by every single person I came into contact with – including myself.
For me, invisibility was a double edged sword, both making it harder to be seen and making it easier to avoid stigma once recovered. For males struggling with eating disorders this dual nature remains a dominant concern. A man with an eating disorder may be less likely to be remarked upon, have less insight into their own behaviors, misinterpret eating disordered behaviors and medical complications and may be generally ignored by peers, family, and the medical profession. This adds complicating factors for a man to seek treatment, obtain treatment, and find a supportive community to help them stay in recovery. I was fortunate that I fell in love with a woman (my wife, Lisa) who saw my disorder for what it was, who re-fed me, and watches over me to this day. Many people, men and women alike, are not so fortunate.
For parents, it is incredibly easy to not see your child’s ED till it has been present for a while. As happened to me, the world around you ignores the disorder, your child is unaware they are ill, and secrets are at the core of the illness. And when you speak to a professional it is likely they will minimize the disorder or recommend a treatment that does not work. It is so important to remember that parents cannot cause an ED. And if your child is not getting well it is because the treatment is failing, not you. Only good treatment produces good results. Love alone is not enough. One thing I feel I know for certain is that if my own parents had known of my disorder they would have gotten me into FBT as soon as possible and I would have hated it but I also would have gotten better. Many years later, when I first discussed my ED history with my mother her first question was did she cause it. And I knew for certain she did not. And I will always know that she would have and could have helped me if FBT had existed then. Your child’s greatest fortune is the loving way that FBT can bring your family together for the health of your child.
The crucial challenge for the field is that we know we can’t depend on luck and love to recover. Luck is a great thing to have and love is even better. Treatment, however, is a variable we can control. Our task as families and professionals is to continue to create an environment so that good treatment is available to all so that all individuals who are suffering from an eating disorder can have full and joyful lives.
Mark Warren, M.D., is the medical director of The Emily Program. From 2006-2014, he served as medical director and co-founder of the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders, a comprehensive eating disorder treatment program. His practice focuses on bringing the most up-to-date research into evidence-based care. Dr. Warren co-chairs the Academy of Eating Disorders Presidential Task Force for Medical Care and serves on the FEAST Medical Advisory Board and the London-based Succeed Foundation Medical Advisory Board. He has presented extensively at the International Conference on Eating Disorders, The Renfrew Foundation and the Multidisciplinary Eating Disorder Association.