To Hell and Back: The Untold Story of Male Eating Disorders
Patrick Devenny was a football kid. He didn’t just love the game. He was built for it, with the 6’3” frame and all the muscle it could hold. He blossomed his senior year at Granite Bay High School in northern California as a quarterback and all-area MVP, which brought out the recruiters. After graduating in 2005, he took his game – and big frame – to the University of Colorado where they converted him to tight end. Five years later, in the spring of 2010, he got a shot with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent.
And the more he progressed, the better he got, the higher he climbed, the more he destroyed himself each and every day.
That’s not a euphemism for “playing hard” or “putting his body on the line.” Patrick Devenny was sick, and getting sicker – especially after his NFL dreams flamed out before ever playing a game with the Seahawks — and no one around him had any idea anything was wrong. Patrick Devenny, big, fast, strong, had a disease a lot of guys get but don’t talk about.
Patrick Devenny was bulimic.
The Picture of Perfection or the Edge of Disaster?
“People ask me when the food issues started,” the now-29 year old says. “I don’t want to say it happened in college or high school. I know I’ve always had this ability to eat a tremendous amount, but I was also working out so much. So I don’t know if it was disguised by lifting, running, practice, all of that, so it just seemed normal.”
“Normal” during his playing days was around 5000 calories daily, not an outlandish amount for an elite athlete of his size. Normal also meant that even through high school, his schedule gave him structure, kept him driven and accountable, and in general helped him become a fine student-athlete. Football, and all that came with it, was life.
In hindsight, however, Devenny believes that his ordered life helped plant the seeds of disordered eating – and thinking. All of that structure, including monitoring the macros (protein, carbs, and fat) he consumed and working out a certain way at the gym, wasn’t just geared for results on the field. It was designed to achieve continual improvement with one endgame: perfection.
The problem was, no one ever talks about male eating disorders. Or acts like it’s something that’s even a possibility for a masculine, muscular man, especially any athlete.
Each year of school, each new level reached, meant he had to work harder to raise his game and physicality. And once he hit that truly elite level – a chance to be signed by an NFL team – all those seeds from all those years sprouted.
“I became obsessed about my body,” he says. “By the time I had my Pro Day, I had to be perfect. You walk into a room full of scouts and you’re shirtless and they’re grabbing every inch of your body, measuring body fat, measuring your hands, doing all this stuff, so in the months leading up to that I knew I had to present this image that would blow them away.”
It worked … briefly. He was indeed signed by the Seahawks, but before he could suit up he was released. And just like that, his football career – something he’d based his entire life on – ended. “Every day there was always a next step,” he says. “School, then football until 5, then homework, always on a schedule, always planning something. But once I was released, it was like, ‘Now what?’ In one day I had lost my identity. Suddenly it’s Monday and I’m like, ‘What do I do?’”
The Fine Line: Muscle Gain, Fat Loss, and Psychological Health
A man who had been trained to catch passes and throw blocks in front of 100,000 people was now untethered and unemployed. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to – or could – do. This wasn’t just a case of a guy having difficulty accepting a new reality, or making a rough transition. He truly felt worthless. And the only thing he could cling to were the habits that he knew: The structure of regimented diet and training.
“That was where I started to become obsessed,” he says. “The only thing that ever provided comfort has been the gym. All I knew that day was that I could go work out like crazy. I became obsessed with trying to achieve some sort of body perfection so I could justify my life. I can impress the women, impress the guys, do whatever I could to achieve that because I lacked so much confidence in myself. I overcompensated, thinking that the perfect body would solve all my issues. I was trying to find my identity through some kind of physical perfection – and it spun out of control.”
And would become more and more out of control for six years. Following his release from the Seahawks in May 2010, Devenny manipulated his diet to disguise his eating disorders, while also using the gym to present the façade of a healthy, go-getter lifestyle.
“I became fascinated with intermittent fasting,” he says. “I’d set a clock for 16 hours every day. If it was 15 hours and 55 minutes, I would wait those last five minutes. I was obsessed. That allowed me to completely overeat and binge at night. I would feast. I weighed everything, had everything tracked down to the exact macro.”
Here’s the crazy thing: That doesn’t sound crazy. A lot of people follow similar eating plans. But Devenny was taking it to another level. “I was in this bro-science world of ‘carbs and fats are bad, eat vegetables and protein.’ So when I got into intermittent fasting, I started to eliminate a lot of food from my diet. Looking back, it was primarily food that I considered healthy but also forbidden myself to eat. Then I would get stressed out and crave an entire jar of peanut butter, or granola, or cereal.”
Every night, the feeding frenzy would begin. Some nights, Devenny would pound down as much as 12,000 calories. At one point, for a three-month stretch, he ate 4 boxes of cereal and a gallon of almond milk every night. Another night, he ate 16 Quest protein bars (“They tasted fantastic and I could’ve had more.”). This is also when his behavior began to mirror classic addiction: “Afterward, I’d be like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to do it again, I’m fine, it’s no big deal.’ But during, it was like an out of body experience. All of a sudden I’d get done, it’s midnight, and my stomach hurts beyond belief, and then I go into self-beat-up mode.”
In the morning, his fast would begin again and he’d head to the gym for a three-hour workout. But if you ask Devenny today, it was punishment, and very much a part of his condition. “I needed to do the gym work as much as I needed to eat,” he says. “Definitely hand-in-hand. It would suck, too. I was lifting like a madman, sweating everywhere, and then do an extra hour of cardio and never once did I see any gains. I just maintained. Every time I squatted I tried to go as heavy as I could, or I’d go light and do 100 reps. And every rep was me pissed off at myself for what I did the night before. My body was wrecked.”
An interesting thing: When Devenny abused himself, it was always with exercise or “healthy” foods. Protein bars. Organic cereals from Whole Foods. That was part of the charade.
“If you had looked at me, especially during that time, and I told you I had an eating disorder, you wouldn’t have believed me in a million years,” he says. “I still looked physical great, and look in the pantry — it’s all healthy food. But what I was doing behind closed doors – because I wouldn’t do this in front of anybody –was so secretive. But everything that you can’t judge with your eyes was horrible. My stomach was destroyed. My hormones, too. No matter how much I ate or exercised, I was running on fumes at all times.”
The exercise-eating cycle went on for months. In 2014, Devenny’s mother passed away and he began bottoming out. He knew he had a problem but maintained enough denial so he didn’t have to do anything about it. But one random event helped crystalize things in his own mind.
“I was listening to a podcast with Layne Norton and Sohee Lee [Physique Science Radio]. They had a therapist on who started describing a lot of food issues and how she didn’t believe in counting macros because it can lead to a lot of disordered eating. And I just froze. Just her describing those symptoms really hit home for me. I did not expect to listen to that podcast and find that out.”
A second event: Devenny had a frank and “vulnerable” conversation with Adam Bornstein, Born Fitness founder, a friend who had been providing him with diet and workout programs for years (which Devenny followed only in spirit, naturally). He refers to the phone call as “a left-handed Hail Mary. But for me just calling the play was the biggest thing I could’ve done.”
Bornstein was up-front: Man, you need help. Devenny knew it, and in the meantime had already reached out via email to the therapist he heard on the podcast. It was the beginning of his recovery.
Why No One Talks About Male Eating Disorders (And Why It’s More Prevalent Than You Think)
His first therapy session was both unsurprising – “In like 2 minutes she asked me a couple of questions and it became so obvious how much I needed help.” – and terrifying.
“She told me, one, I had to get back to a normal eating schedule with healthy meals, and two, really cut back in the gym,” he says. “She told me a lot of things that I was deathly afraid of. I’m like, what? That’s my life.” The first day he tried his new program was the first breakfast he’d eaten in months. “It took 13 weeks just to regulate my eating.”
He learned many other things as he progressed. First and foremost, he was officially a bulimic, which he found difficult to wrap his head around – at first. After all, since when are male eating disorders a thing? Especially, not for a guy that looked like Devenny. But the more he learned, the more he found that he fit a profile, especially for men with eating disorders.
“I mean, guys don’t have eating disorders, right?” he says. “So I had to allow myself to admit that. It’s a complicated subject, but there are three ways people get diagnosed with bulimia. One is the traditional concept: You eat and then throw up. I definitely struggled with throwing up. Two is using laxatives, which I didn’t even know was thing. But the third one? You over-exercise.”
Therapy brought another revelation: “At one point we started talking about my mom, who had passed away,” he says. “All of a sudden it hit me. I remember times as a child hearing my mom throw up and thinking maybe she has a weak stomach. I never put 2 and 2 together. I was predisposed. She didn’t like how much she ate so she was gonna throw it up.”
Devenny’s initial therapy program was 20 weeks long, and when he finished, he was eating 3 normal meals each day along with one snack. “It’s funny,” he says. “People would ask me what I was up to, and I wanted to say, ‘Well, I’m finally eating breakfast.’ A huge accomplishment for me, but nobody gets that, nobody understands the hell you go through when you have an eating disorder. I was afraid to share it because people wouldn’t understand it.”
That feeling has passed, for now, and Devenny wants to get the word out to people who might be going through what he did. He doesn’t believe they should suffer for one more minute. He hopes that talking about his own experience will help shine a useful light on the problem, which can be both underdiagnosed and misunderstood.
“My goal now is to hopefully change the image behind what eating disorders are, and that guys and women get them for every reason possible,” he says.
“I also talk about the downfall from such rigid eating. There’s now a big push in the fitness community that’s more about moderation than eliminating foods, and I’m all for it. About 10 percent of diagnosed bulimics are men, and the majority of them are athletes. I would like to be a voice of reason for male athletes who have gone through this.”
Today, Devenny is able to have cereal for breakfast (and stop at one bowl) and spends about a quarter of the time he used to in the gym. Meanwhile, the proper fuel and sensible workouts have changed his body in surprising ways. “I’m physically stronger than I’ve ever been – without being in the gym all day, every day.”
If Devenny has any regrets, it’s that he didn’t seek help faster. Still, he’s on the sunny side of 30 and has the life perspective and mission of a guy twice that age. And that’s okay, because now he can do some good with it.
“I missed out on a lot of things in life,” he says. “If you had asked me on a Saturday to go on some adventure, I’d be like, ‘Well, if you’re willing to wait ‘til after I’m done at the gym.’ And I wouldn’t go out to dinner with friends because I couldn’t control what was on the menu. That would scare me to death. I just didn’t know any better. For years. I wouldn’t have ever known the difference except now that I’m on the other side of it and have received help. All I had to do was ask.”