Stuart Graham interviews Brig editor in Chief Ross Brannigan about his history and recovery from anorexia
Interview by Stuart Graham
Answers by Ross Brannigan
Q-For you what is the first word that comes to mind when you hear the phrase mental health?
A-Uncertainty. Being scared is often something which comes up because I think mental illness is often caused by lack of control over some facet in your life, be that family issues or bullying or you feel like social media is putting across a body image to you that you can’t achieve so you feel out of control. So yeah, for me I think mental illness is a loss of control, feeling unsafe and feeling scared.
Q-So in your case would you call the loss of control you experienced as a literal loss of control of your identity at that time in your life or was it more of a figurative loss of control?
A-I think at the time when I had anorexia I was going through the end of high school and I was scared about what university was going to be like and scared of losing all the friends I had at school. It was just a massive upheaval of everything. Also, at the time, my dad was living in Ireland and he was miles away.
I think a lot of those things just built up that I felt like I was between personalities. I was this person who wanted to rewrite myself as I went into university, but also still be at high school, so I could still be the idiot that I was and go onto university to be something different. So I think it was just a case of me wanting to heavily control one facet of my life, which was how much I could eat and how much I exercised, so that became the driving force for me to be able to control something.
You just lose control. Before I had anorexia I was quite sceptical of people who had mental illnesses, I was always in the mindset they were just doing it for attention or they were looking for the sympathy vote. But after my experiences I realised you cannot control it. If you have a mental illness, if you have, in my case anorexia, it’s not you that’s doing it; it’s the mental illness that is doing it to you. It’s not like you can control it so you do literally lose control.
Q-When you were at your most vulnerable do you think people understood your state of mind?
Q-Could you talk me through how you felt dealing with that lack of understanding?
A-It’s a difficult one because I think that we have to be careful when talking about “being misunderstood” as if there was something to understand because I didn’t understand it, I don’t think anyone else understood it. I think that the way in which some people treated it was like my stupid food thing, that’s kind of what my family sort of took it as for a long time. It was literally referred to as my “freaky food thing”. But, of course, I cannot blame them at all for that. And I couldn’t help it, they kept telling me how bad this stuff was and so did the doctors. As for the eating disorder itself, they would tell me to eat more and I would insist that I was trying but I literally couldn’t, the message just didn’t sink into my head.
So when I felt my most vulnerable I felt scared, as I was sort of listless; I didn’t have any way of thinking other than ‘I just have to keep doing this, just got to keep eating like a bird’. I got into food tracking apps thinking somehow that might help me out of it.
I always used to think food tracking apps were for people who were trying to lose weight, and when I plugged my daily intake into it and I came to 900 calories I just thought, ‘That’s wrong, no way am I eating that little’. So I just kind of kept doing it – I thought the app was broken. But at my most vulnerable I don’t even think I knew what was going on.
Q-Did you reach a point when you had to admit to yourself that you weren’t quite as strong as you thought you were and could you just talk me through what your mindset was like at the time of realisation?
A-Well there was a couple points where there could have been that moment of sudden enlightenment. The hospital was a big one. So when I was in hospital I remember it was the worst couple of days of my life cause I was hooked up to an ECG machine, I had the things all over my chest, I had a drip, I had a piss pot, I wet the bed as well, and every 20 minutes during the night my ECG machine would beep because my heartrate had dropped below 30 beats a minute.
I had to go to A&E just the other week and they have the blood pressure machine that beeps, and every time I hear that sound it goes into my head and is just awful, I haven’t experienced anything like that in my life – it’s just like a nightmare.
But then after the hospital I didn’t take it all on board, I just kept doing what I was doing beforehand. The moment which I realised I was really wrecking my life was when my grandad told me that he could no longer look at my sixth year photo that was sitting on mantelpiece; he turned it round so he couldn’t see it, and he didn’t have to look at what I used to be like compared to what I had become.
I really had a big breakdown after that, and I think it was just picking up the pieces and when I got to university and realised I could go to the gym and start trying to build up my strength again. So I knew I could get back to the health I was at before relatively quickly, but I needed the support and that was the moment really, when I got to university and started building myself back up.
It was December 2013 when I started to notice that I was starting to look a little more gone, looking back at photos. But probably between August 2013 and then by May-June 2014 I had lost 15-16 kilos, and then in July I was in hospital. So yeah, that was quite a sudden phase in my life I guess.
Q- You mentioned your granddad telling you about the photo on the mantelpiece and the breakdown that followed, but what was it that brought you out of the dangerous place after you had this realisation?
A-I remember I started going to the gym because I had the thought there was something wrong, I need to start maybe bringing my strength back up and putting some weight on, and going to the gym was the way to do that. I still ate like a bird so I was still doing almost the same thing. I didn’t quite realise how important food is to your ability to survive. That’s sounds really obvious, but I just thought ‘Oh, people can get by on so little food, I can do that as well’.
I don’t think he realises how much of a massive part he had to play in this, but one of the postgraduate fitness officers who used to work at the gym, his name is James Dugdale, probably saved my life. I went and had a lifestyle and fitness consultation with him, a one-to-one sit down and said I was trying to put weight on, how am I going to do this. I remember I showed him a picture of Zyzz (who is like a fitness model) and said I wanted to look like this guy and he just turned around and nodded, amused.
So he basically said “I want you to eat everything you can get your hands on and do this certain programme here”. The guy literally saved my life. In the six or seven months after I started doing this programme with him, speaking to him and him having been my friend, I gained ten kilos. Then I got myself interested in fitness and stuff like that and I learned more about how to fuel yourself properly and how to train yourself properly and that’s where my controlling went. It went from birdlike eating to investing so heavily into fitness but I channelled it in a different way.
Q- What made you come forward to be part of this project?
A-One of the main reasons is that someone I know from the gym recently told me that her son is going through this. Her son is 11 years old, he is fucking 11 years old and is going through this. He is just out of two weeks in hospital – he just got out last Tuesday.
I was supposed to meet him to have a chat about all this, but the night before she told me he had been admitted to hospital. He’s just a kid. He was being bullied, he wants to be better at football – kid stuff. He’s an absolutely amazing bagpiper, but he wants to be this football star but he’s not very good and can’t control that. And the bullying as well, he can’t control that either. So what does he control? He goes home and doesn’t eat much. He goes out running, he goes out and plays football to the ends of the earth, but he just isn’t that good. I’m crap at football, not everyone can be good at it.
That’s really the reason why I decided to come forward.
There will be other people out there who suffer from anorexia and things like that who think it’s their fault. I also hope that people who are parents, guardians or friends of people who they think have an eating disorder can realise the disorder for what it is, as opposed to them “just being a bit freaky about food”. Maybe sitting down and asking them, are you okay, is there something in your life you feel is difficult or challenging or you are scared of. But before jumping in and thinking they just have a weird food thing, I think it’s important that you ask them if they are okay, is there something they want to talk about.
I think they need to know they aren’t alone, that this isn’t you that’s doing it, and you can beat it at the end of the day. I feel like I’ve come out on the right side of it.