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'I had gotten to the stage where I was starting to think about making myself sick'

Former Dublin minor hurler Cormac Ryan will appear in a gripping documentary about eating disorders among men this week.

THERE’S A MOMENT around the 22-minute mark of a documentary about eating disorders among males that captures the lowest point that one of the speakers has reached with his illness.

cormac-ryan Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I’m just tormented by it,” he begins with an exhausted tone. “If you put a gun to my head today and asked me, ‘Do you think it can get better?’ I don’t think it can. It’s fucking horrifying. I’m struggling to see a way out.”

The man speaking to the camera is Cormac Ryan. He’s a talented hurler who played in goals for the Dublin minors when they reached the 2011 All-Ireland final. He’s a cycling enthusiast too, who has just returned home from an incredible 6,000km charity cycle to Athens.

There’s been plenty of sorrow in his life as well. At 18, he was fitted with a pacemaker after an unknown heart condition was detected. That in turn, forced him to take a break from college and temporarily withdraw from playing hurling. His grandfather also passed away during that time.

Ryan spoke to The42 about that difficult chapter of his life during his cycle to Athens.

The traumas that were coming in quick succession soon gave way to an eating disorder which he has only just recovered from recently.

The documentary, which is entitled ‘Unspoken’, tracks Ryan’s journey from those lowest moments of despair to conquering the condition at the Lois Bridges treatment centre in Dublin.

He checked in on 28 June before commencing the cycle to Athens which finished on 28 October. A nice way to round off what has been a challenging period for him.

“I only realised it about a week before we finished,” he explains to The42 about that ’28′ connection.

“I went back and checked what date I started in Lois Bridges and was like, ‘wow, this is mad, four months to the day.’ Such a quick turnaround.

“The consultant told me that they probably caught me in the nick of time. Things were spiralling from the turn of the new year and it was probably a good thing that I stopped functioning at the time I did, in terms of not being able to go into work and having panic attacks.

So I couldn’t hide it then and I had to get help because I had gotten to the stage where I was starting to think about making myself sick. I would be going into the bathroom and walking back out thinking, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ So, if it had gone on any longer, the consultant said I would have been a harder nut to crack to get me back on track.

“So that’s probably why I had such a quick turnaround, and that’s why it was able to be four months [in treatment] and amazingly managed to turn it around.”

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Aside from a few clips, Ryan hasn’t seen ‘Unspoken’ all the way through yet before it goes to air on RTÉ on Thursday night. Two other men, named Eoin Kernan and Daniel O’Boyle, feature in the programme too to discuss their own experiences with eating disorders.

Dr Kielty Oberlin, an eating disorder specialist, and Dr Michelle Clifford, who is the HSE National Clinical Lead for Eating Diorders, provide the expert views as ‘Unspoken’ progresses. 

Startling statistics about eating disorders and their prevalence among males flash up on screen at times too. Here’s just some of the information that viewers will see:

  • Eating disorders cause more deaths than any other mental illness.
  • Experts estimate that at least 80 people die every year in the Republic of Ireland as a direct consequence of eating disorders

In a nod to the brilliant filming technique used in the documentary, there’s also some striking clips of the three men talking about the relentless torture of an eating disorder. With pictures of their faces zooming across the screen, their words cross over each other to illustrate the rapid pace that thoughts and half-thoughts travel within the minds of an eating disorder sufferer. 

In short, ‘Unspoken’ is quite a raw watch.

“It’s the fact of knowing that there was a camera there when I was pretty much at my lowest ebb,” says Ryan.

“That’s a very unusual experience and a lot of people don’t ever have and I think that’s what the daunting part is. Everyone goes through dark periods in their life and I generally have quite a positive outlook on the world but the gift of life is a bit of a bargain. If you’re given the gift of life, the bargain is that bad stuff will happen. We all have traumas and lose loved ones.

“But 99% of the time, you get to deal with that stuff privately and when you’re at your lowest ebb or inconsolable, most people never see that. It’s a bit scary and daunting to think that a lot of people are going to see me at rock bottom, and just how dark and irrational my thoughts were. That’s the hard part, it’s quite exposing.

“I’m not fearful of negative comments, it’s just the feeling of exposure when I was that broken and that low.

“I don’t want to be defined by a documentary on RTÉ. I don’t want to be defined by the fact that I struggled with an eating disorder. I’m still Cormac. It’s just one part of me.”

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Ryan was living and working in Cork when his eating disorder struggles started to deteriorate. His anxiety around food was all-consuming and began to darken his every thought.

He called in sick a few times to work as he struggled to cope. Panic attacks followed while some of his colleagues would sometimes inquire about his odd eating habits.

My head was so far gone that I wasn’t doing my job the way I should have been. I used to be there on my own on a Friday and I was just staring into space. No-one would know any different if you were seeing patients or not. It’s one thing that I feel exceptionally guilty about, that I didn’t do my job to the best of my ability for those couple of months.

“They probably noticed it because by the time I got down to Cork, I wasn’t eating breakfast.”

Ryan took his first step towards recovery when he contacted his GP. He was advised to go private in order to get adequate treatment. As a result, Ryan spent an estimated €9,000 to get the help he needed with his eating disorder.

He linked in with Lois Bridges and the documentary shows him driving over to the facility for his first session. After an previous assessment, they had told him that he needed to come in as a resident patient.

Ryan wasn’t happy to follow that advice, but after some negotiating, they said they could put him on the day programme if he agreed to move back up home from Cork.

He was late on day one of his treatment and looks flushed on camera as he approaches the door. But the person who welcomes him is just happy to see him and pays no regard to the late arrival.

“It is the most welcoming place in the world,” Ryan says.

“I genuinely thought I was walking into a house full of crazy people because I thought I was crazy. But no, the second they open the door, Lindsay is there to meet you and she’s so welcoming. Her only concern was me, that I was ok. Even with the cameras, she was like, ‘Tell me if they’re too much for you and I’ll get them to go away.’

“The rest of the staff could not do enough for you, they were just so welcoming and chill. You walk in the door and they just get it. No matter what you say, they understand. So much of the pain is around the isolation that no-one could relate. You walk in the door and everyone in there gets it.

“I hated leaving every evening and on the Friday evenings because I was away from this safe bubble where nothing could go wrong.”

Ryan’s consultant said that joining Lois Bridges on the day programme worked out for the best, as it allowed him to keep one foot in the outside world while also getting intensive treatment. This made the transition easier when he was discharged, and the control over his eating was handed back to him.

He’s blessed to be able to afford medical help privately. Others are not so lucky due to a serious lack of funding for eating disorder resources in the public health service.

eric-lowdes-cormac-ryan-and-sean-mcclelland-celebrate Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This problem is also explored in ‘Unspoken’ through an attempt to arrange a meeting between Daniel with Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly and Minister for Mental Health, Mary Butler.

Neither were available to participate, according to the documentary. 

“I knew they were asked and said, ‘No,’” says Ryan.

“In fairness to Mary Butler, judging from what I see online and in newspapers, she does seem very tuned in to eating disorders and I imagine she is trying to fix the system that was so broken far before her time.

“She seems to be genuine in her want to fix things. But I do think there’s an onus on them as ministers that they should have gone on something that was going to be on national television.

Maybe they thought they were walking into an ambush but I think it’s a little bit of a kick in the teeth to the three of us when we’re willing to expose ourselves on this level in an attempt to try and change the situation out there, and yet neither of the ministers were willing to even go on it.

“Maybe that’s unfair, but it comes with the job. Having that line on screen, even if it’s only there for 10 seconds, comes across so much worse than if they came on.”

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‘Unspoken’ addresses some important misconceptions around eating disorders. The fact that the documentary centres on the lives of three males disproves the assumption that the condition is exclusive to teenage girls.

People often fixate on appearance and weight as the sole way to determine whether or not they have an eating disorder; that it’s only when people are emaciated that there is a problem.

In fact, Dr Clifford explains that 85% of people with eating disorders are not underweight.

Ryan hopes that viewers will come away with a better understanding of this mental health condition.

“That stereotype is still there, that eating disorders is purely a female problem. I think inevitably after looking at the three of us for an hour, they’ll realise that this can happen to lads.

“I would like to think that someone who is watching it and struggling, will actually understand that they’re not as isolated as they think. The reason I let it go seven or eight years was because I was so isolated and I was convinced that I was going crazy and that this isn’t supposed to happen to lads.

“I would also be hopeful that it [the documentary] will show how little resources are there. I hope people will come away knowing that something needs to change. And I’d love if some people watched it and came away thinking, ‘positively or negatively, I’m just not going to comment on what someone looks like.’

“If someone comes up and says, ‘You’re looking well,’ All that does in my head is confirm that people do look at what I look like. I don’t take that as a compliment, I just take that as confirmation that people do judge you on looks. You’re better off just not commenting because you never know where someone’s head is at.”

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Ryan still marvels at his quick recovery. Within just four months, his head space has improved to a point which reminds of him what life was like before he was fitted with his pacemaker. That’s around the same time when the disordered eating began.

He’s understandably nervous at the documentary going to air, and the exposing nature of it at such a vulnerable time in his life. He hasn’t met Eoin or Daniel yet but it’s hoped that they might get a chance to connect down the line.

Ryan was struggling to see a way forward at one point in his life, but now he’s certain that he’ll never look back. 

“If I had seen something like this two years ago, it probably would have encouraged me to do something about it quicker, or at the very least, it would have taken away some of the pain. If it does that for a few people, it’s worth it.

“I can’t figure out how I’ve done such a 180. The food thing aside, I’m actually more content. I like myself and I’m not hard on myself. I hated myself, I genuinely didn’t think I deserved to eat or was worthy of food, love or acceptance.

“It probably all stems from the pacemaker, and not dealing with things the way they needed to be dealt with.”

‘Unspoken’ will be aired on RTÉ 1 on Thursday at 22.15

For more information on eating disorders or if you need to talk about possibly seeking treatment, contact:

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