Paul McNamara used to think anorexia was an illness that only affected teenage girls – until he realised he had it. He talks to SARAH FOSTER about his eating disorder and why it’s not a female-only issue.
There’s a fine line between dedication and obsession. But by the time Paul McNamara realised that it was too late.
To an outsider his punishing exercise regime might have looked like the ultimate example of self-discipline. For Paul, it was something to feel proud about.
While he lagged behind his friends in many respects, the 100 per cent focus he gave to running actually made him feel superior. They might be getting married, having children and holding down jobs but he spent all his time exercising or thinking about it.
But what had started out as a healthy interest was now a deeply unhealthy obsession. Anorexia and excessive exercise had taken hold.
The lifestyle that he’d always held up as an example of his own self-control was now controlling him – and he was powerless to do anything about it.
Paul’s days revolved around two- hour runs every morning followed by a never-varying breakfast of coffee and cereal, more exercise and then an evening meal that would only fill his mind with thoughts of when he could run again.
‘It’s a mental illness, it just takes over your life,’ says Paul.
‘I withdrew myself from every situation, I stopped going out. I didn’t want any comments about my appearance. I didn’t want anything to mess up my routine.’
Today the 32-year-old can sit and talk about how tough the last 10 years have been.
But when he weighed a little over eight stone and all the muscle had been stripped from his once-stocky legs, talking was the last thing he wanted to do.
His eyes were ringed by dark circles and his face was sunken and hollow but to Paul that was proof of the effort he was putting in.
Around 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, with approximately 11 per cent of them men.
Paul says he wasn’t overweight as a teenager and had no real hang-ups about his size. But he can remember taking jibes about his weight personally when others could bat it off as lads’ banter.
His interest in getting fit came about because he wanted to be in better shape to play football.
‘In 2000 I went away to the US to coach football to children and while I was there I was ill,’ he explains.
‘I couldn’t exercise and did put on a bit of weight. It was only about half a stone. When I got back I got committed to getting fit and that coincided with me not being able to get a job. My days became structured around my daily run. That’s when the obsession started to get hold a bit.’
In 2002 he took part in the New York Marathon, completing the notoriously gruelling course in a quick time he was proud of. He believed he was fit and healthy. But mentally, things had started to shift.
Even when he did get a job his need to run every day was all-important. Exercising and eating went hand in hand. If he didn’t run, he tried to reason, how could he justify eating breakfast? Sitting at a desk all day gave him permission to skip lunch and an evening meal only gave him a new reason to start each morning with a run.
‘I’d enjoyed running when I first started but I didn’t any more,’ he explains.
‘I was completely exhausted, I had no muscle in my legs but I was still proud of myself. I felt cold all the time, I had no energy, everything was such an effort. I hated running but I still ran first thing in the morning so I could allow myself cereal and coffee after I got in.
‘Then I’d do exercise in my bedroom or on the exercise bike in the garage. Once I’d done that I’d be ready for dinner. That would be the time I felt like I could eat and I’d have something carbohydrate-heavy.
‘For the first few mouthfuls it would be fine but then after about five or 10 minutes I’d feel a bit sick and I’d be thinking “I’ve got to run this off tomorrow”.
‘That meal time would be put on such a big pedestal. It was a vicious circle.’
In 2003 Paul went to Australia with a friend for six weeks but relaxing was the last thing on his mind. He was determined not to come home to Titchfield Common having put weight on.
‘I ran every day regardless of whether it was 45 degrees Celsius and I was still watching what I was eating.
‘The first thing I heard when I got back and got out of the car to see some friends was, “It’s Posh Spice”.
‘I was angry. I thought “If I’d come down overweight I would have got stick”.
‘But to me it was also like a validation. I was thinking “I must have done this really well, it must be linked to my running. This is pretty good but I’m getting stick for being good at something”.
‘At that time I felt like I was lagging behind my friends. But this was one thing I was going to be good at.
‘By 2003 my friends were settling down, working in professional careers. I was still living at home. But when I ran and restricted food that was what I was good at.’
Paul became a fitness instructor, deciding that the best thing he could do was put all his passion – or obsession – into exercising.
During the day he’d talk about the importance of rest days and eating the right things but ignore that advice himself.
In late 2004 he ran the Dublin Marathon and says he still thought he was the right side of healthy.
‘Physically I probably was,’ he adds. ‘But mentally I wasn’t.’
On the way back from Dublin all he could think about was getting home and running.
‘I could recognise that my body was tired but I just persuaded myself it was to do with the running and that was just how I was.
‘If my parents questioned me I could just lie. I’d pass it off as my interest. I’d say I was going to do a warm down and I’d be going upstairs and doing press-ups.’
Three years ago he sent the eating disorder charity beat an email outlining his exercise and eating regime. The response was clear – he was entrenched in an eating disorder and his next step should be to see a doctor.
But he still wouldn’t talk to anyone about it and plunged himself into preparing to run the Florence Marathon instead. He wouldn’t take rest days, pushed himself too hard and restricted his food intake. Even though he knew his body would need fuel to get him through a marathon he stuck to the one-meal-a-day rule, ignoring lunch completely apart from an occasional chopped carrot, or Ryvita spread with peanut butter.
‘I ran Florence in four hours and 45 minutes – slower than I’d run the Dublin marathon,’ says Paul.
‘I was really disappointed because this was meant to be something I was really good at but it was an effort all the way round. I ran the first half in exactly the same time I ran the second half, I was just plodding. But that night I was on the exercise bike. By November 2008 I was back to running two hours a day.’
In the end, something had to break. The last two months of 2008 were particularly cold and Paul got 15 minutes into his morning run one Friday and, starving and freezing, was forced to give in. His body could not carry on and he returned home. His mum was surprised to see him but during the course of that weekend he began to talk about what was happening. On February 4, 2009 a nervous Paul went to see a doctor.
‘By the time I went I was gripped by it,’ he says. ‘The doctor said if I was a 16-year-old girl she would have no hesitation in diagnosing me.
‘It’s a common misconception that anorexia is all to do with young girls. I know these things do affect men, they are just as affected with eating disorders. When I was younger I can remember my perception of eating disorders and the stereotype of who it happened to and it was young girls.’
Paul left the surgery with anti-depressants and a referral to see a mental health specialist: ‘It was pure relief,’ he adds. ‘It felt so good that I was getting a referral. I’d waited years for this.’
His official diagnosis – anorexia with obsessive exercise – was made at Hampshire’s eating disorders clinic and he entered the day treatment programme as an outpatient.
‘The whole support you get from others can’t be over-estimated. However good a professional is and the understanding they have of the illness they can never have 100 per cent understanding. It was such a relief to share ideas and support each other.
‘I was still having to come home and run and eating in the afternoon was a huge challenge. At home I would be desperate to run but as soon as I started to seek help there was no way I wasn’t going to be honest about it. I was desperate to get well and I gradually started to bring my running times down.’
During his treatment Paul went on holiday to Egypt and expected to keep up his running schedule.
But he didn’t run once during the two-week break.
His weight started to go up for the first time in years and that sparked a relapse. Food became an issue again and the walking he’d taken up as a healthier alternative to running became a new obsession.
It took until August 2010 for him to get things back on track and now Paul’s weight has gone up to around 10 and a half stones.
He’s started running again – but this time it’s different. He says he knows the bad signs to look out for and he’s only running every other day for less than an hour.
‘If you’ve got a starving mind you can’t reason but as you become healthier your brain is well nourished and you start thinking in straighter lines,’ he adds.
‘At first, running again was really strange but good. I’ll never base my life around it again. I want to be fit, healthy and in control. There are things that I really want to do, like helping other people. The last 10 years can’t be wasted.
‘I found a way out, it is so important to talk to someone.’
n Need more? Log onto b-eat.co.uk for help and advice about eating disorders, or call the helpline on 0845 634 1414. For the Hampshire Eating Disorders Service call 023 8081 9000.