Who says men don't get anorexia? They do, and it nearly killed me

North Londoner Rob Richman explains how his life was blighted by the eating disorder

By Robyn Rosen, March 18, 2010
Rob Richman: his weight fell to 5st

Rob Richman: his weight fell to 5st

At the age of 14, Rob Richman thought he was ugly "from head to toe".

By the time he was 15, he weighed less than 5st, had been admitted to a private psychiatric hospital and was being force-fed through a tube in his nose.

Parents, friends and the Southgate Jewish community were baffled as to why an intelligent, polite boy from a middle-class traditional family in north London had starved himself to the point that he was too frail to walk.

Richman, now 35, believes his anorexia was triggered at the age of 13, when he was severely bullied after joining the boys' public school, Highgate, in north London.

"I was so anxious and nervous in the morning that I couldn't eat," he says. "I would feel so sick at the thought of eating that I'd retch. I didn't want to face people in the dining hall so I started not going. As the anxiety carried on when I got home, I found it difficult to eat after school too."

At the time, his parents were concerned about the bullying and understood why he was put off food. "It didn't cross their minds that I might be ill because people hadn't heard of anorexia, especially for a man," he says.

The facts

● Anorexia typically affects people between the ages of 12-20.

● Eating disorders affect 1.6 million people in the UK, 11 per cent of whom are male. 30,000 men suffer from anorexia and 150,000 from bulimia.

● Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health illness - 10 per cent of those affected will die.

At the age of 15, Richman was taken to see a psychiatrist and psychologist to help cope with his anxieties. It was then that he was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and admitted to a children's ward at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. "In the ward they started weighing me twice a day and that's when I became conscious of my weight and it became a control thing," he says.

"I wanted as little as possible inside of me. I didn't want to have that feeling of having anything in me."

After a few weeks, he was admitted to the eating disorder ward at a London clinic where he remained for six months. "The ward was all girls," he recalls. "I had my own room with a television and en suite bathroom and I thought it would all be ok. How wrong I was. I was put on a 5,000 calorie diet straight away and wasn't eased into it. I refused the first two meals so they stripped my room and wouldn't let me have contact with the outside world.

"For the next meal, they brought in a nasal gastric tube which they inserted into my nose to try to force liquid food. It started hurting and I begged them to stop and said I would eat.

"Every meal was so painful to eat. I have never experienced pain like it. They didn't know then what they know now about how dangerous the re-feeding process is and the strain it puts on your heart.

"It would take me two hours to eat a meal. My stomach was so small and it couldn't handle the food. I would be reeling about on the floor in agony and by the time I had finished one I had to start another.

"I started mixing with the other anorexics there and picked up habits like hiding food. I learnt how to lose weight. They showed me how to calorie count. I would drink loads of water before I was weighed so I would weigh more."

Richman was readmitted more than a 10 times over the next four years. "My weight was going up so they thought I was getting better but my anxiety was worse than before," he said. "My eating disorder was my identity and took over every aspect of my life. No-one could help me because I didn't want to get better."

During his time in and out of wards, he noticed a high proportion of Jewish patients. "I think there is more pressure on Jewish children to achieve qualifications and become what parents demand from them," he says. "When children feel they are being controlled and that they can't assert themselves in the family, it is a way of controlling something.

"Food is a major part of Judaism. I remember at one point, a rabbi came to visit me and asked: 'What's wrong - don't you like your mother's cooking?'"

Dr John Morgan, one of Britain's leading eating disorder experts, says that the "focus on food rituals" in the Jewish community may be a contributory factor in cases of anorexia. "I have come across cases of offspring of Holocaust survivors where there is a sense in the family that any food is precious and should be respected so a normal teenage rebellion of not eating at family times was a sacrilege."

He adds that he believes many more men generally suffer from the illness than documented. "Men have been consistently undiagnosed and untreated since anorexia was first discovered. The characteristics doctors look at when looking for anorexia are periods stopping, which obviously doesn't apply to men, and weight loss, but men are usually more concerned with shape rather than weight."

When Richman was 24, a meeting was called between his parents, his doctors and psychiatrists.

"The doctor said that I had anorexia so severely for so long that I will die and there was little hope of recovery," he says. "When I heard that, I didn't care. I thought it was the best thing - for years I wanted to die.

"My dad was my rock. I had never seen him cry before. When everyone left he went on to the landing and fell in a heap and burst into tears. He told me I was tearing the family apart.

"I can't explain how emotional that was. That was the turning point. I decided life with anorexia was no life."

Richman returned to the Royal Free Hospital as a day patient, and after treatment he went up from five to nine stone. With this improvement, he resumed studying for his A-levels and eventually gained information technology qualifications. Last year, his set up his own company, A Helping Hand, which teaches older people basic IT skills. "I remember how isolated I felt and had very little contact with the outside world," he says. "I set up A Helping Hand because I wanted to give back."

He also campaigns for Beat, the leading UK charity for people with eating disorders, by acting as a case study to highlight anorexia in men. "The more people who are aware of eating disorders, the more help will be available and the more understanding there will be," he says. "I want to raise awareness that it happens to men too. They are afraid to come forward and admit it."

Despite successfully tackling anorexia, Richman says he cannot become "complacent".

"I've gone from 'Rob, the chronic anorexic' to 'Rob, the recovered anorexic' to just 'Rob'," he says. "And that's great."

Last updated: 12:49pm, March 18 2010