Joe Briggs, 23, a marketing assistant, lives in Wiltshire with his partner Alice Curtis, 24, and their 15-month-old son Otto. Here he shares how grief and body insecurities triggered his eating disorder and how the support from his loving girlfriend ultimately saved him.
The other day I was eating an apple and caught sight of my toddler son Otto watching me with his big blue eyes. Holding his hands to his face, I could see that he was copying me, pretending to eat.
It was a particularly poignant moment for me because I could tell I was setting an example to my little boy. Yet only a few years earlier I had been in the grip of an eating disorder and very underweight and unhealthy. Although never medically diagnosed, I was restricting my calories to less than half of what is normal for a man of my 6ft 4 in frame. I was gaunt, lethargic, and kept suffering from dizzy spells. Friends and family were worried about me. But it was the love and support of my partner Alice and the arrival of my little boy that has helped my recovery.
The weight began to fall off and at first people complimented me. I hadn’t been overweight but I’d been a ‘big’ young man and was still very self-conscious.
My worries about my appearance began when I was a child. I’ve always been tall for my age, even in primary school so I’ve always been self-conscious. I remember having to shop in the men’s sections of shops before any of my friends and absolutely hated it. I would stoop my shoulders to appear shorter and although I was never bullied, people used to call me the ‘Friendly Giant’ so I was always made aware of my height.
Growing up was often physically painful. I was fit and active and regularly did sports such as swimming and horse-riding but I’d suffer with growing pains, particularly in my legs and had stretch marks on my legs, arms and torso so I would want to cover up.
I first started to intentionally lose weight in 2015, due to the general stress of GCSEs and worrying about my mum, Paula, who had a heart condition. But when I was around 16, it became worse because mum was due to go into hospital for a major operation and I was terrified of losing her. She was divorced from my dad – although Dad and I have a great relationship – and my two older brothers had moved out so it was only me and her. We did everything together and she was so strong. I remember her saying to me that if she died, everything was sorted out for me and I would be fine.
But the thought of suddenly being without her really scared me and that’s when I started skipping meals. First, it was breakfast. Then breakfast and lunch. It was my way of regaining some control back into my life. I found it easy to hide it from others because mum worked such long shifts as a carer and I’d lie about eating food at school. I was obsessed with calories and could tell you even how many calories were in a milk chocolate digestive compared to a dark chocolate one.
I lost about five stone and I weighed less than 12 stone. It sounds a lot but at my height I was very thin. I used to stand up from the sofa and feel dizzy.
The weight began to fall off and at first, people complimented me. I hadn’t been overweight but I’d been a ‘big’ young man and was still very self-conscious. I recall one day in a science lesson where we all had to step on the scales and I point-blank refused. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. But as more and more weight began to come off, people started to worry. My auntie in particular had noticed the weight loss and expressed her concern but I’d always make some excuse about it being ‘puppy fat’ and that I was fine.
But months later I had lost about five stone and I weighed less than 12 stone. It sounds a lot but at my height, I was very thin. I used to stand up from the sofa and feel light-headed and dizzy. I never made myself sick but I’d do lots of exercise to counteract the calories, taking the dog out for lots of walks and work out with weights in my bedroom.
When Mum’s operation arrived, everything went to plan but then she was rushed back in for an emergency op. It was at that point that we moved into my auntie and cousin’s house for extra support and things started to improve.
By now, I had finished my GCSEs and had gone to sixth form in the September which is where I met Alice. I knew I liked her straight away and one day she messaged me about something to do with homework and we started hanging out together, going for coffee and even food. By November, we were going out together.
But dating when you have an eating disorder is nerve-wracking and I was quite scared of going out to restaurants with Alice. But because I wanted to spend more time with her, I faced my fears head on. One time we went to an American Diner and that was such a huge step for me. Ordering anything as calorific as waffles would have been unheard of only a few months earlier. But I started enjoying my food – and life - again and thankfully, the weight began to build up again.
Dating when you have an eating disorder is nerve-wracking and I was quite scared of going to restaurants with Alice. But because I wanted to spend more time with her, I faced my fears head on.
For a while, everything was good again and Alice and I went to university and moved in together in Bath. But when Covid hit in March 2020, things began to go downhill. In April 2020, I called my mum only to hear her slurring her words. Her voice sounded funny. My brother was with her and he got her an ambulance to hospital but she was sent away and told she had Covid, even though they didn’t test her. That night she worsened and was rushed in again, where this time they realised it wasn’t Covid but sepsis, probably due to a bacterial infection in her mechanical heart valve.
Later that day, I got a phone call from my uncle saying that she was going to die and I should get to the hospital. Despite the Covid restrictions, I was allowed to see her but I refused to say goodbye. I still had hope. But the whole experience scarred me. She died on 29 April, 2020 when she was only 56 years old.
I was distraught. Losing your mum at any time is traumatic but in the pandemic it was so isolating. I couldn’t grieve properly and wasn’t able to see the rest of my family so I felt very much alone. I paid for therapy but really didn’t feel that it helped me and before long, my eating disorder had taken hold again. I started skipping meals again and avoiding food. It sounds ridiculous but the thought that kept coming back into my head was: 'My mum can’t eat now so why should I?'
It sounds ridiculous but the thought that kept coming back into my head was: 'My mum can’t eat now so why should I?'
Naturally, Alice was very worried and I hated that because I didn’t want to worry her. When my aunt met me for a walk during lockdown she sat me down and said she felt sick seeing me so thin. But it was Alice’s mother who suggested I try another therapist and she knew someone who could help. This time the therapist Denise and I had a much better bond and it helped me to stop dwelling on the past and look towards the future.
In 2021, when I was due to have my 21st birthday without my mum, I was absolutely dreading it. Alice booked The Ivy for lunch in an attempt to cheer me up. But on my actual birthday – January 5th – another lockdown was announced and it was cancelled. But Alice wasn’t going to allow that. She ordered everything from the Ivy that I would have ordered that day – even in the special serving bowls that they serve the food in – and we replicated the meal. It was such a caring thing for her to do, really incredible.
I found another support group – this time through the UK Sepsis Trust – and this was a turning point for me. I decided that I couldn’t stay in the past but had to look forward and raise awareness of Sepsis to help others. Life began to look good again. I started eating properly. Alice and I graduated from university and we started talking about trying to start a family. She got pregnant in November 2021 and little Otto was born in August.
Life will never be the same again after losing mum but earlier this month the family came together to celebrate what would have been mum’s 60th birthday. My older brother and Otto and I met at an arboretum for a walk with the dogs and stopped to have a cream tea – one of mum’s favourite things – in her memory.
Men have often struggled talking about their mental health, particularly when it comes to subjects like eating disorders.
Today, life is better. Being a father has changed everything. It’s incredibly scary being so responsible for someone else’s life but he’s the reason I want to get my story out there. Men have often struggled talking about their mental health, particularly when it comes to subjects like eating disorders. But I never want my son to do what I did so I hope by being open about it, the stigma will be removed and he will have an easier time in the future.
For support, visit Beat Eating Disorders.