Vanity X Insanity; Male Body Dysmorphic Disorder

by Jamie Williams
Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Last year I was diagnosed with severe OCD/anxiety/depression. It’s something I’ve battled with for as long as I can remember, but 2016 proved to be the year I realised I can’t deal with this alone anymore. I needed help, and quickly. 

 Fast forward to now, I’ve had therapy (CBT). I’m on strong medication. I meditate. I practice mindfulness. I read lots on spirituality and Buddhist wisdom (it really helps change my mindset). And of course I write, which helps me to process how I feel when my mind gets particularly ‘noisy’.

OCD, despite all of the above, and being the happiest I’ve ever been, is the one thing that still plagues me; I understand I’ll never be cured, and that my life will largely be a journey of getting stronger and not letting these things control me too much. And I’m accepting that daily.

Those closest to me know about most of my personal struggles, but I haven’t felt ready to talk about one particularly challenging disorder I also suffer from: BDD, or Body Dysmorphic Disorder. As the cousin of OCD, in my mind I just grouped the symptoms together to avoid having to specifically talk about it. Until now. 

(Urgh another thing to add to the list I suppose. I mean at least it keeps life, erm, interesting?)

So why share this now? I. need. to. accept. this. piece. of. me. I’m a deeeeeep thinker and the last week made me put pen to paper; not only did I meet a beautiful soul of a human who told me she’d seen my piece about heartbreak on my Instagram and was inspired by how raw it was, but I was also reminded of how important it is to talk and be open (a friend of mine lost their dear friend due to suicide recently and only learnt of their mental health problems afterwards). I sat and imagined her final hours and it broke my heart. I wish she could’ve lived in a world where she didn’t feel scared to talk about her mental health, which made me deeply uncomfortable realising that’s hypocritical of me when I too still can’t talk about some elements of my past and present. So I thought screw it – life’s too short!

I do believe it’s especially important to talk about BDD because it’s still so unknown, and it was only on discovering it existed and that I suffered with it which allowed me to jump on the path to recovery. It made me realise that the specific symptoms of BDD aren’t just my OCD – and that no I’m not self-obsessed, narcissistic or vain, as it might have you believe. Before, I would hate my reflection in the mirror. Now, I know it’s BDD that still hates the reflection, and I can learn to love it again. Awareness is key.

So in honour of why I think it’s so important to talk, here’s some insight into the brutal reality of what it’s like to grow up and live with BDD (and mine isn’t even an extreme case!)

As with my other mental illnesses, I developed BDD during my childhood. If you read other personal accounts of the disorder, most say they find it harder to deal with than a serious depressive episode. I agree, particularly because I find it the most manipulating. It has this evil way of convincing you to believe something in such a compelling way that it’s usually only months, or even years, later that you realise that the particular behaviour or thought is actually completely dysfunctional and comes with all of the not-so-warm regards from your BDD imposter.

Over a decade later, I have the hindsight and knowledge to look back and make some sense of some really painful elements of my childhood that went completely unnoticed, and thankfully some wisdom, awareness and acceptance to try and prevent BDD behaviours that still develop today – so that I don’t have to keep looking back in hindsight years later before I can make a change.

My earliest memories of BDD symptoms were of being deeply unhappy in my body. I can’t remember what age it all started, but I remember being a small boy when I used to wake up and sit at the end of my bed before school and wish I wasn’t me, with such deep self-hatred.

Things progressed when somebody told me my ears stuck out. Little did they know, highlighting a ‘flaw’ to someone with BDD was never going to be helpful. I became completely obsessed with my ears; I can remember how young and naive I was because I had a theory that if I spent months forcing my upper ear back with my fingernails/rulers/anything with a sharp edge, just where they connect to your head, then they’ll heal stronger in that new position and, just like magic, my ears would be perfect. I would sit there for hours at a time until they bled, looking in a mirror imagining what I’d look like with ‘normal’ ears. I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn it didn’t work.

With BDD, perceived ‘flaws’ are either exaggerated to the extreme (apparently due to brains with hyper visual analytical skills) or they don’t even exist in the first place (in some extreme cases, sufferers imagine blemishes on their skin and pick at them, causing scarring and a vicious circle of more damage). My ears don’t stick out so much now – and it’s not a perceived flaw that bothers me anymore anyway – but they did stick out more when I was younger and obviously BDD caused me to exaggerate just how much to the point where I was effectively self-harming.

It only got worse as I got older, and I was always so secretive about my struggles because I was convinced I would be labelled as crazy. I didn’t even know what schizophrenia really was back then but I imagined having something similarly seriously wrong with me and then I’d be carted off to a psychiatric prison for the rest of my life. As a little boy I was completely run by fear as a result, so I kept it my secret. I can’t help but think hiding my mental illnesses for 23 years has probably done more damage to me than the illnesses themselves. 

With the added pressure of growing up led to social anxiety and avoiding drawing attention to myself in any way. I would have panic attacks at the mere thought of public speaking or even putting my hand up in class, and things like sport were a no go. I would dread having to get changed to the point I’d rather just make myself sick. I was running out of excuses one night so I rubbed my eyes for hours until they were red raw just to be able to claim I must have an eye infection so I couldn’t possibly go to school on PE day, avoiding the changing rooms yet again. Weird, I know.

They say your childhood has a huge impact on you. They’re right. It breaks my heart to think of a young boy or girl going through exactly what I went through, right now. I wish I could give them a cuddle and tell them everything will be ok and that it’s ok to talk, just like I wish I’d received had I been brave enough to open up back then.

Then came my early 20s and I started to develop acne. I mean, talk about adding fuel to the fire! That is the LAST thing you need with BDD. At this point I was really struggling with depression/anxiety anyway, so problematic skin was not welcomed right now, thank you very much. It wasn’t the worst case of acne but, with BDD, a single blemish is a struggle, let alone a forehead full of them. Urgh. 

It actually reminds me – when I was in primary school I had a big red angry spot on my chin on the day I had school photos. Imagine. I can’t help but laugh now at the fact I was so upset over it that my mum suggested she put some of her ‘special powder’ (concealer) on it just so I would leave the door. It didn’t help – it was very much the only thing I noticed for years after the picture was proudly put on the mantelpiece. I’d completely forgotten about that! Ha.

Back to my early 20s – I was now even more convinced I was completely disgusting to look at and I would obsess over getting my skin clear. It’s all I ever thought about. Every conversation, every stare, every moment. I spent thousands on expensive skincare products to only stop using them a few weeks later because they just ‘weren’t working’ (impatient) – now I know they were completely the wrong products for my skin anyway, so probably made it worse. I had all sorts of crazy cosmetic procedures done (think acids to peel off your skin for example) – that’s the length I would go to when in reality it wasn’t that bad. I still do get some breakouts/scarring but I’m super sensitive about that so let’s not go there…

I’m now 24 and thankfully recovering on the road to a happier and healthier future – so I promise you, there is hope. Of course there’s ups and downs, for example I still will avoid a mirror at all costs and can get so caught up in comparing what I look like to others, pixel by pixel, to the point I’ve pretty much unfollowed every guy on Instagram because it gets too exhausting. Thankfully I deleted Facebook a long time ago, because tagged pictures are the worst. (Could I sound anymore complex?! I think I hide it well in reality…)

Where BDD becomes really tricky, alongside depression/anxiety, is the obsession with exercise (or controlling your body more generally). It’s so conflicting – exercise is great for your mood, until it gets to the point where your BDD/OCD takes over and you end up lifting so many weights you can’t sleep and are even more depressed. You get completely ripped in the process but it so isn’t worth it, trust me on that. I’m still trying to find that balance! 

Then there’s love. What does that feel like when you have BDD? Erm, chaos? A daily fear of losing someone because you’re so ‘unworthy’ of their love until the day they do leave you (for whatever reason) and it ‘validates’ your fears?

I particularly find it difficult to deal with because of my sexuality. It gives me yet another element of BDD to obsess about. Unless you’re 100% comfortable with yourself, intimacy is always going to make you feel a bit vulnerable. The difficulty with this and being in a same-sex couple is simple: it’s just another opportunity to compare each square inch of you vs them. I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more vulnerable than that. Consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen me naked ha!

‘Oh but what about the selfies and the modelling pictures I’ve seen on your Instagram’, you might ask. I mean, we could go into my vetting process before things are posted online, but that’s a whole other article. Just to clarify, I don’t think I’m ugly anymore. A bit of a goof-ball, perhaps. I don’t even think I have low self-esteem. I just obsess over my ‘flaws’. I see things that perhaps you would never even consider. What you see of me online will never tell the whole story.

BDD is especially draining because you’re constantly living in disguise. We go to extreme lengths to hide our insecurities, even to those closest to us, and not because we want to either. Each and every act to conceal our perceived flaws is out of fear, not choice. And with each and every day, that puts you at a chaotic conflict with who you really are. Someone once described it to me as being at daily war with every fibre of your being – dramatic perhaps, and sad, but there are certainly days that’s true.

The disguise makes it extremely difficult to detect – most people are unaware it exists, let alone the fact they may have it. So many (like me) fear talking about it even to their therapist because they think it sounds so self-obsessed to say how you can’t leave the house because you don’t look ‘good enough’ on a particular day. If I could give you one piece of advice: don’t be ashamed. As if your therapist is going to judge you! 

Oh wow. I was beyond scared to write this, but now I feel so free. It’s resurfaced some pretty painful memories for me (which I’m glad about – let it all go!) so I hope in some way it was worth it by giving you some insight into BDD, perhaps prompted you to be more open about your mental health, or even made you realise you too are a BDD sufferer and that there are options out there to get help (therapy/medication). You’re not alone!

I’m so grateful and proud to be able to write for Mental Movement because it’s real. It’s raw. As scary, lonely and painful symptoms of mental illness can feel, it’s sharing stories that makes us remember that we’re in this together. For now, I can only dream of the day that mirrors become an opportunity to smile and remember how far we’ve come, for you and for me. Stay strong x

If you or someone you know is struggling with symptoms of BDD then you can find more information from The Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation here.

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