Ending the Stigma: Peer Support for Men

We’re excited to share this post with you in collaboration with our amazing friends at Project HEAL!

“I’ve never felt this seen or heard before.”

Those words rang my heart and opened the floodgates under my eyes. Through the wave of emotion, I wrapped up my Wednesday night support group and sat there with those words echoing in my mind and tapping on my chest. It was a moment of reflection on my own journey and a reinforcing reminder of the mission I’m on.

In 2020, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder after struggling in silence for more than 15 years. There was never any denial or refusal to accept a diagnosis. I guess you say it was naivety, perhaps ignorance, that kept me quiet for so long.

Growing up, eating disorders were always presented as female conditions. I was well aware of the struggles of celebrities like Karen Carpenter and Tracey Gold; however, I never thought it could happen to me because I was a guy.

Grief, insecurity, and anxiety coursed through my veins, but never through my lips. I stayed quiet and never asked for help. My life crumbled after the passing of my parents during my teens. I faced eviction, arrest, homelessness and an overwhelming amount of grief, yet I never asked for help. Boys don’t cry. Men can handle it. Toughen up.

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Tossing out the unwritten man book.

I’ve had difficulty trusting men for a long time. Could it be because my biggest bullies in school were guys? Or that my brother-in-law is just an arrogant jerk? Perhaps, but I think it’s even deeper than that. We live in a society where guys pass down this unwritten rule book for what it takes to be a man from generation to generation. Don’t talk about your emotions. Rip on other dudes if they do. Strength is physical, not mental. Muscles over mind. Fists before words. That’s why we struggle as men to connect with each other and that’s why so many of us battle mental illness seemingly alone.

The first couple of weeks after my eating disorder diagnosis were confusing. Websites and resources often showed images of women with eating disorders. Very few, if any, guys could be found. I was the only guy at the first support group I went to. I felt invisible. I felt ashamed. I felt like something was wrong with me. How could I be the only guy in the world with an eating disorder?

As my recovery progressed, I began to tackle the stigma and stereotypes that cloaked my disorder. I realized I wasn’t the only man with an eating disorder and that asking for help is a sign of strength. That frustration I felt after my first support group turned into motivation. I was determined to toss the unwritten man book and speak out against the stigmas and stereotypes that were hurting men around the world.

We all deserve a safe space!

I began sharing my story. I wanted other guys to know they are not alone and that it’s okay to ask for help. The mission was clear…to be the guy I needed to see and hear during my own battle.

Along the way, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to connect with men around the world who stand with me in the fight against stigma and stereotypes. I’ve built friendships with men as far away as the UK and New Zealand who have also experienced eating disorders and mental health issues.

With every word we share, I grow one step closer to trusting men again. Each conversation is one giant leap closer to finding comfort in sharing my authentic self.

The thing I’ve realized is that men need other men to set an example. I see this all of the time at my speaking events. After I share my story, at least one or two guys will come up and share their story with me. The day after my book came out, I started hearing from men across the country who finally felt like they could speak up.

This leads me back to the words I shared at the start of this entry: I’ve never felt this seen or heard before.

Earlier this year, my mission led me to a role at ANAD. One of the first things I wanted to bring to the organization was a men’s support group. I wanted a place where men could heal together. Not just from their eating disorder but from the stigma in general. For many of us, it’s a learning experience. We have to tap into parts of our mind and heart that we’ve closed off or suppressed since childhood.

In May, we launched the organization’s first free, peer-led support group for men. I facilitate our bi-weekly meetings with a friend I’ve met along our roads to recovery. Our friendship is a true testament to the importance of being able to see a reflection of yourself in someone else.

My anxiety was racing heading into the first support group. How will this go? Will anybody share? Will anybody show up?

The anxiety eased as a diverse group of men from all backgrounds came together and supported each other. That first evening felt like we demolished the walls of the “comfort” zones societal and gender norms placed on us at birth.

I may have been the one facilitating the group that evening but those 75 minutes surrounded by these strong vulnerable men brought healing, comfort, and hope. A few weeks later one attendee would share the words that had reverberated in my mind too: I’ve never felt this seen or heard before.

Words that serve as a reminder that men need more of these types of safe places where we no longer feel invisible to the eating disorder community, to the world, or to ourselves.

Jason Wood

(he/him)

Jason Wood turned his battle with orthorexia into a mission to break the stigma around men’s mental health by publishing his memoir Starving for Survival: One Man’s Journey With Orthorexia. He is proud to serve on the board for two eating disorder recovery organizations, Running in Silence and SoulPaws Recovery Project. Additionally, Jason is the Marketing & Communications Manager at ANAD and facilitates the organization’s new men’s support group. Through speaking engagements, his writing, and his work, Jason strives to start an important conversation that encourages everyone – especially men – to speak up, share their stories, and get the help they deserve. Learn more at orthorexiabites.com.