Eating Disorder Awareness debate

14th February 2013

Brooks Newmark shares his personal experiences of eating disorders and calls for better education and awareness among healthcare professionals and teachers.

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Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I was co-sponsoring the debate in the Chamber on violence against women and girls and could not be in two places at once. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) I did not really expect to speak in the debate, but I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who has not only taken a huge interest in the issue but has taken on a leadership role. She has persuaded me to out myself—but not in the way my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock might think. It was the speech that you made, Mr Walker, that inspired me to think that those of us in a leadership role who have had problems must take on the responsibility of talking about them. If we do not, people will think that we glided to the top easily and that life was easy.

I am 14 stone, but as a 17-year-old I was not. I had many issues that I did not understand, which caused me, one day, simply to stop eating. I had no support. I was at boarding school, and boarding schools in the ’70s were not exactly sympathetic to young boys who had problems. I felt, for whatever reason, under enormous pressure, and my weight plummeted to 8 stone. I did not know what was happening. All I knew was that I could not eat. I just stopped eating. A memory that has always stuck with me is being at school with a plate of food in front of me, and knowing, in my head, that I wanted to eat. I said, “I want to eat this: I know there is something wrong with me.” Intuitively, I knew that, but I could not eat. I remember taking a pea and putting it in my mouth, and simply not being able to swallow it. I want people to imagine how frightening that is. I was not hungry, but I knew I had to eat.

It was only years later that I began to understand what I was then going through, and I shall explain later how I got out of it, but it was not through the help of any outside party. I was under a huge amount of stress. I would get blinding headaches, and take aspirin to try to deal with them. That lead to addiction to the aspirin, and they did not help. I knew I was under a lot of stress because I would vomit every day. It was not bulimia. I did not have anything in me to be sick; but clearly I was under huge stress. I have five children, and thank God nothing has gone wrong with them, but when they have stress symptoms such as tummy aches I can relate to that. I understand that the tummy ache may not be from eating something wrong, but from some sort of stress. I think that that has made me a little more empathetic as a parent.

Other factors are fear—fear of failure in school or of letting down parents, for whatever reason; relationships that do not work; and, probably, a huge amount of anger, as a teenager. For reasons that, again, I did not understand at the time, there was a lot of anger. I know no one ever saw me smile. I suspect that a strange combination of stress, fear and anger created a tipping point for me, as a 17-year-old, when I just stopped eating. The reactions were varied, and none was particularly helpful, with a lack of understanding from my school. My parents did not know what the hell was going on, but they were concerned. My mother, who is a Jewish mother, would say, “Eat, eat.” That is the Jewish mother’s solution to everything: “You must eat more”.

The problem was not what is perhaps usually the problem with many women—body image. It was something else. Clearly it was psychological, and I approach the matter very differently. It is not simply about the physical body. In my view unless the mind is healed the body will never be healed. In coming up with a solution I begin with the mind: eating was not going to work, because I had not sorted out whatever was going on up there in my mind. I did not get much sympathy from the school other than isolation and teasing from a lot of the other boys. I certainly did not have any therapy, because men in boarding schools do not have therapy. It is just not the done thing. I had to help myself.

I am aware of other stories. A girl in my constituency had huge problems, one of which was that she could not get the care she needed, because at certain times her body mass index was not quite right. I thought that was a stupid reason for not looking after her. One could tell straight away that she had a problem. It is a bit like what happens with speed bumps in the road. A lot of traffic goes up and down a road, but unless a certain number of people are killed we will not put speed bumps in it. That seems a little counter-intuitive to me. My constituent’s parents told me that her second problem was that she would go in for four or six weeks and be given a quick fix, and hey presto suddenly everything would be sort of all right. She would be fed up a bit, and her BMI would be got over whatever the magic mark is, then she would be sent back out again. That was three or four years ago—so it is a recent example of the problems and the lack of understanding of the issues.

I was lucky. Eventually, after three or four months of being able to eat hardly anything, I found one thing I could eat. If I went down to the Chinese restaurant I could eat fried rice. I found something I could start to take in. That is how I began to repair my body slightly—through an attraction, for whatever reason, to fried rice from a Chinese restaurant. However, the big positive thing for me was a change of environment. I was lucky enough to get into Harvard, and that different environment outside the UK gave me, suddenly, a lot of self-confidence. It gave me a place to go from an unhappy space in my life. Even today I probably do not understand what was going on there, but I was clearly unhappy, so moving to a more friendly space where I could almost reinvent myself helped me to get a lot better. One of the advantages of being skinny was that when I got to Harvard—and I was very skinny—they said, “Why don’t you come and cox the Harvard crew?” I was a crewsman and coxed at 120 lb, which is the minimum weight. I was certainly the tallest cox on a national level at university. I never really found out what was going on at the time. I was lucky enough to be able to figure a way to help myself, which perhaps most people are not.

I have come up with some thoughts on what we can do for people who cannot help themselves in the way I was lucky enough to. First is education—for those in the health care profession, who I still do not think are up to speed. I get the sense that many general practitioners do not understand the issue or are not sympathetic. Teachers also need to be educated. They need to spot what is going on and to respond. Parents need to be better educated to spot what is going on, to see what the symptoms are and to try to ensure that their child, whether a boy or a girl, receives the help they need.

The problem is a mental health issue; it all starts with the mind. There are no short-term fixes. An individual needs long-term help—it is not two, four, six or eight weeks. There is no timeline to this. I appreciate that we have budget constraints, but mental health care is almost the orphan when it comes to health care in this country. There are many forms of mental illness, which we have talked about in other debates, and eating disorders are a mental health issue. I ask the Minister to look into the issue to see how we can provide more support for people.

As I said, I was lucky enough to help myself. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North for helping me come to talk to hon. Members about my experience. It is helpful that people out there know that there is life after going through something like this. I went on to be well educated; I went to Harvard and Oxford. I made some money in the City, and I am here today as a Member of Parliament. There is life after anorexia, though I would not recommend the latter. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s speech.

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