Mantality writer Claudia Parrinello discloses the hardest time of her life and hopes to make people think before it’s too late. Bigorexia is a killer and Claudia’s drive to uncover this is after experiencing a loss herself.

A few years ago, I was forced to deal with the hardest circumstances I have faced in my life so far, hands down. Two nights before my nineteenth birthday, I lost my best friend, Natasha, to anorexia. Losing such a close life partner was extremely tough to deal with, but surprisingly it wasn’t her departure from my life that was the hardest part of the situation. What I found most difficult was coming to terms with the realities of the disturbing illness that had taken her from family and friends alike. Anorexia is a disease, that people arguably do not understand unless faced with it themselves personally or through the suffering of someone close. It is so much more than not being able to eat; it is a twisted combination of lies, denial and deception that even to this day, I still do not understand fully.

What frustrates me the most about society today is that people constantly judge others on their face value appearance and actions. One of the most famous sayings you’ll hear is to “never judge a book by a cover”, and yet, we are all guilty of it, of making these snap assumptions. I have often heard friends label a skinny girl anorexic because she happens to be picking at her food or eating salad in a pizza restaurant.  They don’t understand that the illness is not about food alone but a myriad of factors, including body image and obsession. Someone with anorexia will not look at a healthy size ten girl and think that she looks like a whale; they will most likely admire her physique and her confidence. But yet, when they stare into the mirror at their fragile size four figure, they can only ever see the image of their body before the illness, not the unhealthy bundle of skin and bones that lies before them.

You may be wondering what this discussion has to do with the title of this piece, which focuses on another illness entirely. Just wait, I’m getting there. When you live with someone who has a mental disease, trying to understand what drives their thought process and decision-making will drive you to insanity.

Despite everyone telling me not to, I will always partially blame myself for the death of my best friend. I should have listened to my suspicions – despite Natasha telling me she was getting better, I could see she was getting worse. In hindsight, she displayed so many signs of anorexia. If I had only made the effort to do a little bit of research into the illness, I would have had the confidence and courage to pick up the phone and ask her parents for help. Yet I had stalled twice, with the phone in my hand, due to a fear that she would resent me for interfering in her life.

When I saw headlines pop-up all over the internet about this new phenomena called bigorexia, I was at first sceptical. But, after reading past the superficial headline of “One in Ten Men in Gyms Have Bigorexia”, all the haunting thoughts about Natasha came flooding back to me. Once more, I had taken something at face value and made simplistic, naive assumptions – that every guy pumping iron had bigorexia. The realisation that I had fallen for the headline inspired me to write this article. I want to give an insight into bigorexia that goes beyond the muscles, because I wish I had read a similar article about anorexia three years ago. Something similar that studied and into the psychology of the illness might have been enough to save my friend. Effectively I wanted something that was basically “Bigorexia for Dummies”.

So, I decided to delve a bit deeper than the tabloid newspapers that ran this story. I have spoken to people who have experienced bigorexia first-hand, second-hand and also scientifically. Here, in this article, I hope to provide enough information that you will have the confidence to recognise this illness in a friend or even in yourself and seek help. What I dealt with at nineteen is a feeling of intense regret that I would not wish to inflict on my worst enemy.

So what even is bigorexia?

  • Bigorexia is the ‘street name’ of a condition called muscle dysmorphia. It is an anxiety disorder where the person holds disillusions that they are too small or not muscular enough.
  • Bigorexia is a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BBD), which alters the image a man sees in the mirror.
  • Russell Delderfield, a professor in male eating disorders explains that “muscle dysmorphia is where a man doesn’t believe the muscle bulk that he actually possesses. Somebody could be quite muscular or they could be really muscular, it doesn’t matter, it is about how much you think you have.”

Signs of bigorexia

Typical signs of bigorexia may include: extreme workout routines, regimented dieting and supplement intake, training through injury, anxiety when you miss workouts, using steroids and prioritising the gym over your career, friends and family.

  1. Extreme exercise and attention to diet.
  2. Constant mirror-checking.
  3. Training through injury.
  4. Anxiety when missing a workout.
  5. Neglecting family, friends, and career in order to exercise.
  6. Use of anabolic steroids to enhance muscle mass.

What causes the disorder?

The NHS believes Body Dysmorphic Disorder is genetic and caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Psychiatrists also believe the disorder can be linked back to past life experiences like childhood bulling and unstable home and family life.

Delderfield believes the problem can also be rooted back to the media’s portrayal of perfection.

One of the main drivers of bigorexia is perfectionism and pictures never tell you the full story, they never tell you sheer number of hours someone has invested or how long in their lives they have been working out that has led to them having the particular physic they are advertising, all you see is this instant image. – Russell Delderfield, Professor at Bradford University

What treatments are available?

Muscle dysmorphia is a mental health disease and often the biggest hurdle for sufferers is admitting they have a problem. It is important to seek help from your GP, because if the disorder is left untreated symptoms are likely to get worse, leading to further consequences.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is offered as a solution to bigorexia. It is a type of therapy, which attempts to re-programme the way you think about yourself. More severe conditions maybe treated with a medication called SSRI, which is prescribed as an anti-depressant.

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What are the consequences of prolonged bigorexia?

Bigorexia can take over people’s lives and lead them to lose friends and family because of their constant need to work out. People with the condition tend to stop socialising because they do not like to drink alcohol or eat meals that they haven’t prepared themselves, in the fear that it could be damaging to their physic.

It is also common for people to let bigorexia impact their career, as they simply cannot fit a career into their training schedule. Bigorexia can also lead to severe depression, which can result in suicide. Steroid use is a sign of bigorexia, which can be most dangerous to your physical health. These drugs are used to build up muscle bulk but they have some very serious side affects. These include: increased cholesterol, high blood pressure, testicle shrinkage and liver problems.

Dr. Crosthwaite explains that a major concern with steroids is that they not only build up muscle bulk “they also increase the bulk of the heart muscle and so the size of the heart out grows its blood supply” which can lead to heart attack and heart failure.

He used to say he was invincible…

Oli Cooney was sixteen when he began working out and eighteen when he decided to start taking steroids, to the devastation of his mum Sarah, who described herself as “absolutely mortified”, and believed that his need to bulk up stemmed from insecurities surrounding his height.

“We didn’t speak for two weeks,” Sarah says when I met with her. “To me, it seemed to be a case of him wanting to make up for what he lacked in height with his size. He was smaller than me, less than five foot four.”

Oli’s obsessive training regime and steroid use caused him to have his first heart attack at just nineteen years old. Despite being told to quit and rest his body, he ignored medical advice to take it easy and returned to the gym almost straight away. Unknown to doctors, his first heart attack had damaged his heart and he shortly suffered another major heart attack and a series of three strokes. This left him paralysed and unable to talk and walk properly. He made a miraculous full recovery in speedy time, relearning his motor skills from scratch. Yet, against advice and only a month later, he returned to the gym for a final time, before he suffered a third major heart attack and died, aged twenty.

Sarah and her family were not aware of bigorexia. At the end of the day, going to the gym is perceived to be a healthy habit and if executed properly, a habit which can bring a great sense of satisfaction, confidence and stress relief. For Sarah, her son wasn’t going to the pub, getting smashed with his friends and stumbling home at half four in the morning. He was obtaining a structured and thorough routine, which to any parent of a teenager is impressive. If Sarah had even heard of bigorexia was, let alone understand it, she would have been in with a greater chance of saving her son. Her story is tragic but sadly, she is not alone in losing a son to bigorexia.

This issue is very new and still not fully understood, but education is essential. The next generation needs to be informed and trained to use gyms sensibly and understand the dangers associated with supplements, if not used responsibly.

It was no coincidence that when I read about bigorexia, I instantly thought of Natasha. The illnesses are almost precisely the reserve of one another, but yet the consequences are all the same. Both bigorexia and anorexia can lead to alienation of friends and family, lying, obsessiveness and in the worst-case scenario death. My appeal to the readers of this article would be to digest this information and store it carefully. Use it to assess the health of your friends and yourself. But most importantly, do not casually label others with bigorexia just because they eat high protein meals and loves the gym. Bigorexia is not a label but a serious and deadly illness, and it should be treated accordingly.