***Trigger Warning: Discussion of Eating Disorders and Mental Health***
“I can stop doing this whenever I want.”
“This is not an illness, this is me.”
Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff – it is difficult to imagine that the bubbly, loud, up-for-anything ex-cricketer has been struggling with Bulimia behind the scenes for over 20 years, almost the entirety of his professional career.
In a documentary released last month, the now TV presenter took to the screen in an attempt to educate not only his audience, but himself, on the devastating effects of eating disorders such as Bulimia, especially for men.
According to the documentary, over 1.5 million people in the UK suffer from eating disorders such as Bulimia, with experts estimating that 1 in 4 sufferers are male.
Despite the increased education and support surrounding eating disorders in recent years, they are still very much considered a “female” mental illness – marginalizing a whopping 25% of those it affects and contributing to a larger stigma surrounding male mental health.
This very gendered attitude towards mental illness is the main focus of Flintoff’s documentary, as he travels to visit men all over the country who have suffered, and many who are still suffering, with eating disorders like his own.
The ex-cricketer pins the beginning of his struggle with Bulimia around 1998. Already acutely aware of the tall, slim shape of his body as a teen, the 6”4 sportsman faced scrutiny in the press following a weight gain at this time. As the media questioned whether this weight gain would affect his performance in an upcoming test match for England, Flintoff became aware that the world was labelling him as a “fat” cricketer. Even claiming in an interview after the match that he “played alright for a fat lad”.
As a 20-year-old reaching the prime of his career, Flintoff should have been feeling on top of the world – but instead these were the years when his struggle with Bulimia began.
One of the most heartbreaking moments of the documentary came when Flintoff remembered the first and only time he tried to reach out for help from a dietician before a sporting event. Recounting her words as though the memory was still fresh in his mind, Flintoff stated that the health professional recalled working with many female athletes and Olympians, following the statement up with “but there won’t be any of that in this room will there?”
I sat, mouth open, staring at the screen. How could somebody whose profession it was to encourage a healthy lifestyle make such an isolating statement?
But the reality of how uneducated it seems many medical professionals were to the effects of male eating disorders was made even clearer when Flintoff visited Pam Nugent and her son Chris in Belfast. After losing her son Lawrence to Bulimia when he was just 24 years old, Pam emphasizes the lack of professional help available for Lawrence and her family at the time he was struggling the most. When Pam asks Flintoff where he thinks he’ll be with his eating disorder in 20 years, he bewilderingly admits that he doesn’t see any immediate change in his future. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the documentary comes then, from Pam, who tells Flintoff that “it is okay to have mental health issues” – it’s a notion that as an audience, we feel the presenter desperately needs to hear, and an incredibly resonant one in a society that still stigmatizes mental health.
The hour-long-feature portrays a variety of physical, mental and emotional responses to eating disorders, such as Bulimia – displaying the sheer individuality of experiences. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” to mental health issues, as Flintoff discovers throughout his journey seeing both similarities and differences within the stories he discusses.
What is most painstaking to watch, however, is the way Flintoff constantly downplays his issues, stating that he feels he is in control of his illness, or that what he struggles with doesn’t compare to the battles of others he meets. This seemed an accurate depiction of many of the attitudes still present in today’s society towards one’s own mental health issues.
Personally, I believe it is so important that the documentary portrayed this side of mental health, and probably what makes it a necessarily uncomfortable watch. We are grateful to see Flintoff reach out at the end of the programme, and like so many of his fans around the world, wish him all the courage and love he needs to move forwards.
– Molly Rymer
Featured Image Source: Still via BBCiPlayer