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'Anorexia made me into a recluse and nearly destroyed me, then a switch flicked and I slowly began to turn my life around'

Belfast personal trainer Alan Waterman first started being conscious of his weight at grammar school. By the age of 20 his weight had dropped to less than eight stone. He tells Stephanie Bell why he was enraged when Joan Bakewell branded those with the disease as "narcissists"

As a personal trainer dedicated to helping people to stay fit and healthy, it is hard to imagine that, just a few years ago, Alan Waterman was living through the nightmare of anorexia.

Alan has never talked about his illness before, which he says destroyed the quality of his life between the ages of 17 and 21 - to the extent that he began to lose the will to live.

Despite this, though, his story now is an inspirational one for anyone coping with this horrific eating disorder. And he shares this painful part of his past in the hope of helping people to better understand the illness - after comments by broadcaster Joan Bakewell caused outrage last week.

Alan was one of many people who was horrified when the Labour peer suggested that the rise in eating disorders among teenagers was a sign of "narcissism" in society.

The 82-year-old broadcaster issued a public apology after her comments caused widespread distress and campaigners hit back, saying anorexia had complex causes.

Bakewell had told The Sunday Times that anorexia was a sign of "the overindulgence of our society", and "no one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food".

She later tweeted that she was deeply sorry and full of regret for the comments.

Alan (27), from Belfast, who battled the illness for four years, says: "I was disgusted by her comments. They are words that can only have been made by somebody who doesn't have any understanding of it.

"She can't know how it affects people, or why they might come to have the illness. I actually thought it was a very callous way of describing it."

A personal trainer with Better Gym Connswater, in Belfast, Alan can't pinpoint exactly how his illness developed. He was never overweight, but became more conscious of his body and how he looked when he went to Methodist College as a teenager.

He says: "It really came out of nowhere. Methody is a big rugby school and everyone is very athletic. When I went there, I began to feel self-conscious about how I looked in comparison to the sporty kids.

"Initially, it seemed like a good thing to start thinking about what I was eating. And I think that is common with anorexics, but before you realise it, it gets out of hand.

"It wasn't really until I did my A-levels and went to Queen's University, staying in the halls of residence, that it spiralled. I wasn't at home and didn't have my mum there to notice what I was or wasn't eating, that my weight started to fall off."

Alan began to exercise excessively and became obsessed with calories. He exercised relentlessly for at least four hours every day and walked for miles in between visits to the gym.

He often went for an entire day without eating at all, and on other days, ate very little as he restricted his calorie intake. Before he became ill he weighed around 11 stones, which was below average for a man of 5ft 10inches tall.

He was only 20 when he reached his lowest point and his weight had plummeted to just under eight stone.

Concerned family members and friends did urge him to get help, but no one realised the full extent of his illness as he managed to hide his skeletal frame under baggy clothes.

He recalls: "I refused to go to the doctor. I did hide it very well and I stopped going out and lost friends. I became a bit of a recluse and hid myself away.

"My whole life was dictated by it. Many days I didn't eat at all - I would have skipped breakfast then, because I made it to lunch without eating, I would have skipped lunch, too, and the same at dinner. Sometimes I didn't have the energy to get out of bed, or get into the shower.

"You don't think about the health side of it. All you see are the fats, calories, proteins and carbs. You become obsessed with counting calories and reading food labels. I had numbers constantly going through my head.

"If I had decided to allow myself 1,200 calories on a given day, I would not have gone even one calorie over that.

"If my only option was to eat a meal in which I wasn't sure of the calories, then I would have gone without.

"You don't think about the damage you are doing to yourself and, even now, I have side effects which I am still dealing with.

"I would exercise for hours every day and, if I wasn't at the gym, I would have been walking and always chose the longest route to get somewhere. You never let yourself sit down."

Then Alan's weight hit an all-time low of under eight stones and he had no energy. Depression was setting in and only then did he realise he needed to do something to change his life. He still refused to seek medical help and instead has educated himself on nutrition and fitness, gradually getting back to good health.

Today, Alan says maintaining good health is his priority above all else, although he admits he stills struggles from time to time with body image.

He says: "It was just like a switch flicking for me, and one day I decided that I just didn't want to live like that any more. It was exhausting and I had no life and I had lost friends.

"I started to turn things around - gradually I started to socialise again, eat more and I started to put a bit of weight on. I realised there had to be a better way, as I had got to the point where I felt so low that I did think there was no point to life."

Today, Alan is the picture of health and grateful that as a personal trainer he has been given the chance to help others battling illness, including one client who has anorexia.

He says that only someone going through the illness can fully understand it - which is why Joan Bakewell's comments hurt so much. He hopes that by sharing his experience, others struggling with this illness will have the confidence to seek out help.

Alan points out: "It is about changing your mindset - a mentality that makes you put yourself through it day after day. It is a very regimented way of living.

"You find yourself doing things that are nonsensical and which you can't find a reason for - like doing so much exercise and feeling that it has to be done.

"Depression does creep in and I would say I was borderline suicidal. I think once you start to recover and see the benefits, though, it encourages you.

"I knew that when I started to train and eat property it was helping me. And it is great now to be able to help people.

"People train for a whole range of reasons - to lose weight, to manage depression and I have one girl who is anorexic.

"I understand what she is going through and I think unless you have this illness you can't fully understand it. Everything she says, I know exactly what she is going through.

"There are about four or five pictures of me when I was at my lowest weight and it scares me to look at them. I don't recognise myself and it feels like it was a lifetime ago. If I passed a person like that in the street now I would know exactly what they are going through. When I look at the pictures I don't see myself as underweight, I see myself as ill.

"At the time I didn't see a problem. In fact, I would have noticed places where there were still bits of body fat and vowed to get it off.

"My weight now is between 13 and 13-and-a-half-stone, which is fairly normal for my height and I am healthy. But even now if I get a bad picture taken or catch myself in a mirror in a bad light, there can be an element of me not feeling happy with what I look like."

Alan is happy to encourage or speak to anyone who is struggling with anorexia.

He adds: "If I can help even one person to change things or make a difference in any way, then it will be worth it."

For more information about anorexia and other eating disorders, contact Eating Disorder Association NI by phoning 028 9023 5959, emailing edani@btconnect.com or logging on to www.eatingdisordersni.co.uk

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