Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia – BBC 1

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Please, please be careful what you say about other people’s weight, or any other aspect of other people’s appearance: you don’t know the damage it could be doing.  And, if you’re struggling with any aspect of your mental health – unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances, mental health charities are reporting a worrying rise in the numbers of people experiencing problems – please, please ask for help.  I know that not everyone’s up for famous people baring their souls, but evidence suggests that it does encourage others to seek help, especially men who tend to be more reluctant to open up than women do.  A lot of the focus in this programme was about how many men don’t seek help, and it was brave of Andrew Flintoff to speak out, and also brave of the others who took part to do so, especially the family of a man who tragically died as a result of bulimia.  It’s estimated that 1.5 million people in the UK, of whom 25% are male, suffer from eating disorders.  Hopefully this programme will have helped people to feel that they’re not alone, and that it’s OK to talk about it.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  I thought he was going to say that it was linked to coping with the pressure of fame, especially during the difficult period when he was England captain during the disastrous Ashes tour when we lost the series 5-0 and he was involved in the pedalo affair.  However, he was insistent that it was all about food and weight, and that it started when there were nasty comments in the media – notably from the Sun – about his weight and fitness levels.  The specialist whom he saw didn’t seem convinced by that, and said that it was never all about weight, but everyone’s different.

I, personally, quite genuinely can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as “The Fat Girl”, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a normal relationship with food because I never have done.  One of the other people interviewed for the programme said that, in his case, it started in his teens, and was a form of self harm and linked to other things that had gone on in his life.  I think that’s probably more typical than what Andy/Freddie was saying and I found that easier to identify with, but we need to understand that everyone’s experience is different.  It’s very difficult with sports players, because weight can affect their performance, and, especially with a team sport where one player’s performance affects others, some fans and commentators and reporters are going to feel that they’re entitled to pass comment.

Maybe people’ll think more carefully after this.  I’ve heard Gary Barlow talking about the upset caused by “fat lad” comments in the media, as well.  It’s not really that different to calling other kids names in the school playground, which is how it started for a lot of us.   With a lot of people, it’s linked to depression and anxiety disorders, but most people’s problems are so interlinked that it’s hard to separate them.  Andy/Freddie was insistent that, with him, it’s purely about weight.  But we’re all different.

What Andy said about feeling guilty whenever he eats, and only feeling good about himself if he’s losing weight, though, is something that a lot of people will recognise, whether or not their own eating issues are linked with other things.  It was interesting that he didn’t actually know a lot about the condition, despite having battled it for over 20 years, and seemed quite surprised to be told that the amount of training he does was linked in with it.  He spoke about the pressure of trying to keep up his fitness levels during his career, and it was mentioned that sportsmen are 16 times more likely than other men to suffer from eating disorders, because of that huge pressure.  Some people do struggle more with their weight than others, and it’s very hard to deal with that.  You can read all the books and go to all the counselling sessions but, if you’re someone who puts on half a stone because of one weekend away, it makes things very difficult.  That’s hard enough for anyone.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be if you’re under that amount of external pressure and scrutiny about your weight levels.

He also talked about how he hid it.  He told his girlfriend, now his wife, that he made himself sick after eating, but not the extent of it, and we saw him going into the toilets at Lord’s and explaining how he’d plan how he’d make himself sick during matches without anyone else knowing about it.  It was very distressing, and it just showed how someone can be struggling like this without anyone – relatives, friends, colleagues – knowing.

He also talked about feeling that he wasn’t entitled to have a problem.  There was once an episode of Casualty in which comment was passed about it being amazing that people in the West had eating disorders when so many people didn’t have enough to eat.  To some extent, eating disorders, like addictions, are seen as self-inflicted problems.  He actually seemed very reluctant to admit that he wasn’t in control of it.  And he’s happily married, with four lovely kids, and had a successful career as a top-class cricketer and is now enjoying a career as a successful TV presenter.  And, hey, he’s a big tough bloke from Preston.  But eating disorders can affect anyone.

The programme’s attracted a lot of praise, and hopefully it will help people, as well as helping Andy/Freddie himself.  There isn’t nearly as much stigma around mental health problems as there used to be, but we’ve still got a way to go.  Especially with men.  Please don’t suffer in silence xxx.