“Jury’s out, but I don’t think anorexia is a great way to live,” laughs Dave Chawner, placing his sense of humour firmly before any eating disorder in his credentials.
The award-winning, London based comedian is using his anorexia as the punchline with which to beat the stigma until it’s dazed and confused, stupid and giggling all the way home.
Backed by BEAT UK, the UK’s largest eating disorders charity, Dave Chawner previously toured a comedically-driven eating disorders awareness campaign. ‘Normally Abnormal’ aimed to raise awareness by lowering the tone, eloquently.
Dave Chawner, now 28, started suffering with anorexia at around the age of 17.
“Suffering. I really hate that word,” he playfully chimes, “It’s so pathetic. It sounds so weak and needy, and I just think that’s really shit.”
Dave began losing weight for a school play and found that people reacted to his sudden weight loss with compliments. He says his stressors were no different to that of the average teen – exams, coursework, UCAS deadlines – and that his eating disorder, he’s now sure, was really triggered by “an amalgam of things”.
He says, “The anorexia became a subliminal response to my situation.
“It kind of sounds a bit weird, but things started to become absolutely beautiful, and I really started to kind of flourish once I’d began to lose weight.
“It seemed to me subliminally that if I lost more weight things would continue to get better.”
Commonly, eating disorders are said to stem from an unmet need for control. When asked how he feels about this, Dave admits, “If I’m totally honest, people like my mum would say ‘oh it’s just a control thing,’ and so, you box it up and ship it off.
“I absolutely agree it is about control, but I think just a one word answer is a bit too pissy and simple and I think it’s terrible that we live in a society where this is what we want.
“For me, it was more of an addiction – if we’re going to go with one word answers. It was more of an obsession and it was more about focus when everything else felt a little bit out of focus.”
He goes on to strike a particularly grounded comparison between eating disorders and the average human experience: “I think there’s a very good paradigm between booze and food.
“I live in London and, Jesus Christ, my first job I remember one of the teams used to take the ‘newbies’ to the pub and they’d have to knock back either 4 pints or 6 shots.
“It’s just so institutionalised that it’s kind of hard to tell when a social drinker turns into an alcoholic, and I think it’s very hard to determine when somebody has a disordered eating and when that turns into an eating disorder.”
Statistically, around 10% of those receiving inpatient treatment for eating disorders are male, but that’s only a record of those who have been referred to mental health services.
Although, men who suffer from eating disorders often speak out about the poor availability of treatment specific to them, Dave has a different view: “When people are always asking me ‘what’s it like to be a man with an eating disorder?’ I’m always like, well I’ve never been a woman with an eating disorder, so…
“But, personally, I think I was taken a hell of a lot more seriously because I was a man.
“It was almost like a little kind of project. Like, we’ve got a man, they’re very rare, we’ve got to make him well and the service that I’ve had has been awesome, incredible and amazing.”
Dave is quick to add, “I’m just very lucky in the postcode lottery to live in London which has Maudsley, the best eating disorders unit in the world. They took me incredibly seriously.”
He is also well aware that the male experience very much transcends the boundaries of his own, “I’ve spoken to blokes who have had very different experiences. One guy who had incredibly, incredibly low BMI was told by a doctor that he couldn’t be anorexic because men don’t get anorexia, and this guy was minutes away from death.
“It’s not a ‘silly girl’s disease’. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder and as such we need to treat it with the rhetoric and the time it deserves.
“And, there are problems. In the NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) guidelines, one of the key signs of having anorexia is a thing called amenorrhea, which is the lack of periods. You stop menstruating… well, I’ve never had a period in my life, you know, but it’s like ‘Oh my God!’” Dave laughs, sounding surprised by the lack of menstrual blood in his womb, “So, that’s very gendered in the dialogue as well.”
Dave Chawner’s awareness campaign, not only aims to speak openly and honestly about the grim details, but also to shed a surreal light on a very real problem by using comedy to both blur and clarify the lines: “Nobody says I don’t like to laugh. Nobody ever says I don’t like to have some fun and have an amazing time.
“I looked at that and thought, you know what, I could actually use comedy as a way to talk about this stuff, take it off the shelf, break it down, and make it engaging.
“I think that comedy has a wonderful way of reaching people because people are laughing and in order to be laughing they have to be listening and if they’re listening they can learn.
“I want to kind of use that in order to help the people that might be struggling, but also to kind of get to a wider audience of people that are lucky enough to have no experience whatsoever.
“And, I personally don’t think it’s that mental.”
The comedian cracks up a bit, “But, there are bits where I’m like, is that funny or is it just fucking tragic?”
Dave says he began to consider himself unqualified to joke about eating disorders after his first comedy tour because he didn’t experience his anorexia as dramatically as those who began reaching out to him did. The “overwhelming” response quickly caused him to relapse.
“I started to hear all these stories about anorexia and it was incredible, but equally it was a double-edged sword.
“The problem was, the more grim stories I heard, the more I kind of felt like a bit of a fraud because I’d never entered therapy at that point. I’d never gotten down to a tiny BMI. I’d never fainted, and that caused me to relapse quite severely and quite consciously.
“I did it almost to actually prove to myself that I can be the best anorexic ever, and there was a sort of competitive element.
“But what I’ve now realised is that you can just as much drown in a puddle as you can in a lake. It’s not about the severity, it’s about the illness. I think there is this kind of false dialogue that we set up.
“That’s the biggest reason that I find media quite damaging. It is those extreme stories that get the column inches. They’re what are going to draw people in.
“The problem is, for every one extreme story there are hundreds of people who are subclinical that are certainly struggling just as much but don’t get the air time.”
Dave expands on his mixed feeling about the media coverage of eating disorders: “It’s really frustrating, but I don’t believe that the media created eating disorders, so I don’t think they should be blamed for them. That said, I do think they have a huge responsibility to report them sensitively.
“Journalists and journalism, especially in the print media, especially the news media, have such an agenda to get people on that page and shocking images are going to do that and they probably don’t realise that is quite harmful.
“It’s very fashion, it’s very vogue to talk about size 0 and, again, that is an unnecessarily gendered thing.
“I always try and detach the debate about seeing images of slim people from eating disorders because once those two debates get too closely tied, it implies that anorexia is about vanity.
“It implies that it’s about trying to be skinny, about trying to be good looking, and unfortunately it isn’t. If it were that simple that would be amazing, but it’s not.”
How we should approach someone who is struggling with an eating disorder is always something we’re apprehensive about. It’s difficult to know whether your concern might force you to say something unhelpful or damaging.
However, Dave assures that it’s better to say something than nothing at all: “My dad was the first person to turn around to me and say, ‘Look, don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t get it. I’ve never had anorexia. I’ve never really met anyone with anorexia. I don’t understand it.’
“And, that was such a huge weight off for me because I don’t get it either, I don’t completely understand it.
“It was a huge catharsis for me. To be able to admit there are certain aspects to this where I know I’m being ridiculous, but I can’t stop.
“It’s okay to not understand. It’s okay to not know and it’s okay to worry about saying the wrong thing.
“As long as that is done in a comforting way, in a proper way, then I think a lot of people would actually respect that and like that a hell of a lot more.”
With regards to saying the wrong thing, Dave reaffirms, “I do realise there are things out there that people say that are not ideal and that can be triggering, but when you start mocking people for ignorance, people aren’t going to want to learn and I think the whole thing at the moment is about learning together.”
When asked if it’s possible there are positive aspects to his anorexia and his 4 years of campaigning, Dave lights up, “Oh shit loads of positives!”
“This is the thing, I try to shy away from being negative about it. I mean there are obviously a lot of negatives. I’m never going say ‘oh it’s great, do it!’” He buckles, “But, I do think with a lot of mental illnesses, there are certain things that it gives you as well, and too much of that just comes at a price.”
He elaborates: “Speaking about my experiences has been amazing in so many ways.
“First, I’ve been given the space and time and the opportunity to actually think about how my mind works and my body works in a way that nobody else would. I think that’s just absolutely beautiful.
“The second is just the encouragement, the things that people have said to me. I’ve never been trolled or anything like that.
“And, that kind of breathes into the third of this idea of it being a community as there really are people out there that do help you, who do lift you up.
“It’s really amazing how when you start being vulnerable with people, they start being vulnerable with you.
“It’s been genuinely beautiful and genuinely so multi-faceted that I don’t ever want to focus on all of the negatives that I think it has.”
With regards to confronting mental illness and pursuing recovery Dave says, “We’re talking in absolute generalisations, but the people I’ve met with restrictive ED specifically, very perfectionist, always want to be the best, so compassionate, so understanding, so caring of other people, and I think those are all amazing aspects, why would you not want that?
“You can channel all of those things into something positive.”
Then Dave adds, “And, I say mental health not mental illness.
“You know, everybody has shit in life. It could be anything and it can kind of make you feel abnormal, but the fact that everyone feels like that shows that everyone’s got an Achilles heel.
“So, don’t be ashamed of it. Just kind of accept it, acknowledge it, and use it.”
And, Dave Chawner leads by example. He’ll be back in Scotland for the Edinburgh fringe from August 3rd, with his brand-new comedy show ‘C’est la Vegan’ where he’ll explore society’s relationship with food and self-identity.