The Appetite Episode #33: Men and Eating Disorders: Patrick Devenny’s Recovery Story
An Opal: Food+Body Wisdom Podcast
Former professional football player Patrick Devenny joins Opal Co-Founder Kara Bazzi, LMFT to share his eating disorder recovery story. He offers his perspective on the unique challenges that men–particularly male athletes–face in seeking and receiving care for food and body-related issues. In this first of two episodes, Patrick–an advocate for eating disorder awareness–talks gym culture, why he used to think therapy was “woo woo,” and how he moved from keto diets and counting macros to full recovery.
Listen on Mobile
Hello, and welcome to the appetite a podcast brought to you by opal food and body wisdom, an eating disorder center in Seattle. The appetite is all about issues of food, body, sport and mental health. I’m your host Carter, I’m how a therapist and opal an artist and a writer. Today opal co founder and head of our sport and exercise program at kara bazi is speaking to former pro football player Patrick divini. Patrick struggled with an eating disorder before and during his professional career, but finally began to seek help when he stepped away from football. Patrick is actually going to be joining us for the next two episodes of appetite. And today he’s going to be focusing on sharing a little bit of his story. His story, of course, highlights particularity of what it’s like to struggle with food and body issues as a man and as an athlete.
We are really excited to have you as a guest today on our podcast, maybe you could give us a brief introduction of who you are. Hi, I’m Patrick Devenny.
Yeah, absolutely. First and foremost, thank you very much for the opportunity and huge fan of everything you guys are up to. And I guess to kind of dive in, I played football at the University of Colorado had a brief cup of coffee with the Seattle Seahawks and about around 2010 have sense kind of transitioned into the now what phase of life post athletic career and have found myself in a passion project as far as advocacy work for raising awareness for males with eating disorders primarily speak about athletes, kind of the journey of how that naturally leads to disordered eating the unfair kind of consequences, post athletic career have a day job in commercial real estate, but this has definitely been a huge priority of mine.
Very cool. I’m very excited about your passion project and what you’re doing in the world. Really, why don’t you start by sharing and giving some context about your story and how you got to where you are today with this passion project.
A lot of people asked me when I developed an eating disorder, and I would say for most athletes is pretty difficult to pinpoint that time in a play. And with sports such a great job of disguising eating disorders. I think it’s very commonplace for disordered eating. There’s so much activity involved that it’s hard to really diagnose basically, what happened was around the sophomore junior year of my college experience, I really started to kind of demonize foods, categorize them as good versus bad. And that ultimately kind of became the beginning of the end seeing things and try to punish myself for eating certain foods or not eating certain foods. Over exercising. When I had an opportunity to go to the CX that ultimately led to a tryout and pro day for the NFL scouts, you really push your body to the extreme. And I mean that from the standpoint of dietary wise and also working out, you really need to show up, there’s a pressure to show up looking like Thor, or some action hero. Because you really do have millions of dollars on the line. If you can impress somebody and get an opportunity on a team. When the plane crew was done actually ruptured a tendon in my wrist, got sent home and woke up on a Monday with nowhere to be no one to report to. No mandatory lifts, no team meetings, I kind of found myself in a position of the only thing that I could control was my physique, how much I worked out. That was pretty much my identity. I thought that transition, post athletics would be very, very easy. I had great grades in college, I knew a lot of people, the alumni network was fantastic. But at the end of the day, trying to find something that I was as passionate about football ultimately became very, very difficult. Simultaneously I was living in Southern California and my best friends are still playing in the NFL and had tremendous opportunities. So I really found myself in a kind of comparison mode.
When I was in transitioning with a lot of kids that were graduating from school who were facing the entry level job positions and those demands, I was surrounded by a bunch of guys that were making millions of dollars had the same had the glory granted, they run a tremendous amount of stress. But day in and day out. I was studying for the SATs and working at a restaurant while they were working out and doing everything that I wanted to be doing. That was really really difficult. So the only way I could find value myself was trying to compete and show up with a better body. That image of myself became a very very high pressure game ultimately led to I’ve pretty much gone to every single diet trap that you can imagine. I know more about the diet that’s just based on personal experience or what I call kind of bro science. I think there’s very little science involved in these. You get caught up in them. I found myself with the whole paleo meets intermittent fasting meets keto meets every
going across the side really began to run my life. So over about a two or three year period, I was achieving a great physique. However, I started to lose all energy, all libido, testosterone, anything that you would never want started to really feel the effects. However, I had a great looking body guide, the only thing that mattered to me. So then when I really started to kind of find myself in a position of bringing, I was very much on a macro base plan. So I would find myself at dinners bringing chicken breasts that I had weighed out. And being at a restaurant and just ordering a salad because I couldn’t really control was on the menu, but then pulling out my own chicken breast and I knew I was getting my proteins and really started to dictate my life. pretty embarrassing. A lot of people would call me out for it. But that’s all I knew. And at the end of the day, if I was under over a certain calorie amount, it was really detrimental to my mental health. I had what I kind of saw myself as extreme willpower for about five years until about 2015.
Seeing it as a problem, you were seeing yourself as successful with your willpower
100% there was I that was not achieving success, financially or career wise, or any of that kind of stuff. I the only thing I’ve been, I was at the gym at 4am with the whole hashtag sweat equity wearing 27 layers, intense workouts, and everybody saw me as this so structured, quote, unquote, they looked up to me from my work ethic and the gym, although looking back, it was terrible. In 2015, my mom passed away unexpectedly. And that’s when things really kind of took a turn for a worse and I really started to engage in binge eating and bulimia exercise induced and really started to miss out on life, I did not leave my house because I was so afraid. The environment that I couldn’t control, I would be in conversation, the entire time I was thinking about food. So we could be talking about life, goals and vision and blah, blah, blah. But the whole time I’m thinking about what I’m going to eat later on that day or any other topic revolved around food a really controlled my life. At the same time, I still did not know it was an issue. I just knew I started to kind of feel like I was just going crazy in my head and never even considered eating disorders. An actual thing I know is very depressed, isolated, anxiety, you name it, suicidal thoughts, all the above. But I didn’t know there was something that I was actually triggering this or an underlying effect, I randomly came across a podcast that was regarding eating disorders in the physique world, really just sat there nodding my head and thinking everything they’re discussing right now is truly my life. And it’s interesting, because I feel like had I’ve heard that maybe three, four or five months earlier, I don’t know if I would have been in a place to be so receptive. But I had truly hit rock bottom that I reached out to the therapist that was on the podcast, she couldn’t really help me because I wasn’t even the state, let alone in the country. She sent me a bunch of information on eating disorders started to realize that most of the marketing and information regarding eating disorders revolved around 60 pound white female with a amenorrhea. And I didn’t have any of those, it was really hard to be like, Wait a second, I feel like I can relate to this diagnosis. I’m not any of this. So that’s ultimately what leads to kind of the latter part of this story of my advocacy work started to dive in and I ended up doing 24 weeks of outpatient therapy, trying to establish normalize eating patterns and really kind of redefine my relationship with food dress some of the underlying mental health issues that was driving the eating disorder, that whole experience has led to opportunities to speak out and really letting other males and males know that they’re not alone. When I could finally hang my hat on a diagnosis, it was extremely relieving. However, it was the start of a very intense journey. But I think there’s a huge awareness factor that needs to be raised what eating disorders are and not to make it feel like such a giant elephant in the room when you have these conversations. One of the things that stands out to me in your story is how long it took to see this as a see this as an issue. How eating disorders get disguised in sport, how you were actually revered for post football career in the way that you were working out. And like you said, the the willpower and not recognizing that as an issue for many years. I don’t know if you’d want to speak more about about that about how things get disguised in the athletic context or maybe possibly with males, males in athletics. I think I would start to define that I would start at a very basic level to this day. I still find working out extremely beneficial for my own overall well being and I’m very passionate about it and love it. I think there’s a fine line as to what can be triggering and what cannot even just in the gym today and people still come up to
And it’s natural. I’m still there in the mornings before work and whatnot, everyone will come up and be like, what’s your program? What do you want? What’s your diet?
I tend to be very outgoing, hopefully a joyful person. But I come across in the gym a lot of times hat on headphones on picking and choosing conversations because they can be very willpower driven. And it’s a focus and kind of a success that Dwayne Johnson get in the gym and grind 24 hours a day. And if you’re not that you’re weak, and all this stuff, as opposed to finding balance. I think it’s very uncommon in the world today, especially for males that if you’re like, Oh, I missed the gym today, it’s not a big deal. Get it tomorrow, as opposed to like, no, it doesn’t matter what it takes to get to the gym or eat a certain way. And I always say, people ask me the prevalence of eating disorders, and they are at least disordered eating. And I think there’s a huge differentiator there goes down by the dumbbell rack at a 24 Hour Fitness for five minutes, and you’ll hear somebody talk about, they’re eliminating some sort of foods, some sort of exercise, some sort of something truly is the beginning of the end. And it’s a very slippery slope at that point. So you take that at the basic level males in general, if you’re standing at the grocery store line, you look up and at checkout, and there’s the men’s health fitness, the articles on the front page is lose seven pounds in three days and get a six pack by eating pizza, it creates a very false mentality of what’s realistic, and what should be a healthy journey, all of a sudden, will get pushed to the extremes. And I think, to answer your question, at an elite level, you have money on the line, you have personas that people need to live up to, and people are trying to prove their worth. And they will go to extremes to be the hardest worker in the room and go to rigid diets and all those kinds of stuff to achieve success, kind of the nature that beats for elite athletics. However, it is a very, very slippery slope, especially when players are done playing, not to mention during, and I say this all the time, I truly believe at the elite level, I’m sure somebody someday will call me out on this endpoint to an outlier, I would say 100% of elite athletes have some form of disordered eating, from the standpoint of how they classify foods is just at a very basic level, and very, very hard to raise the awareness around that because everybody’s doing it. So what would you I’m thinking of what would you want to say to either somebody who’s in kind of elite athletics or even at your gym? Is there? Do you find yourself in advocacy work? Kind of on the day to day basis while you’re at the gym? Or is that too much for you? To do it when you’re on your personal? I don’t know, what’s that? Like, I guess, in all fairness, I always get that if I’m at the gym, and I will try to pull somebody aside, like after my workout, my message is always about trying to find the balance, allowing yourself any sort of food like food is absolutely delicious and demonizing it for an extra percent of body fat is not worth it. And there’s so much science out there now showing, you know, most body fat doesn’t always achieve the best performance going to those extremes is so detrimental when I lived that I lived that lifestyle where I had zero energy yet. I found myself in a position of everyday somebody telling me how amazing I look. But on the inside is not about how you can’t judge a book by its cover. I was suffering, mentally and physically, despite how I looked, and that was probably my hardest part of recovery. During those 24 weeks, I would go to my therapist, I was in no position to have a job. I didn’t have the mental bandwidth. And everybody would ask me, you know, what are you up to? And I would spend 99% of my time trying to convince people that I had an issue that I did have a eating disorder, and no one believed it because they just saw me as I mean, you look at me on paper, and at the time, I think I was a lien 240 pounds. But it was a very vicious cycle that needed a lot of work. I think that’s the hardest part is you’re consistently in an uphill battle of trying to change an image and change stereotypes around eating disorders.
Well, yeah, all the assumptions people would make just by looking at somebody is appearance, no question. And I deal with that a lot in the sports world now talking to Team physicians and doctors that eating disorders. I think that I feel like they’re looked over at the elite levels and less somebody is at the extremes and they’re extremely overweight or extremely underweight. They just kind of brush it off, like oh, no, they’re fine. Look at them. They’re good when instead is less about how they look. It’s their mental state. Also, internally, physically what’s happening, but I think a lot of those markers are hard to test unless you go out and appropriately. I’m curious if you’ve gotten any traction by sharing your story in the athletic department, for sure I’ve had after I’ve done speaking engagements I’ve had a lot of teams reach out to me to address especially how to raise awareness through assessments or males. I
Think males are at a disadvantage just upfront from the standpoint of don’t suffer from a amenorrhea. And for those who don’t know, us, you know, clinical case, I’m sure you could dive into it more than I can. I’m not, I’m not a physician or a doctor or clinician. At the end of the day, I don’t lose it, period, because I’m too low on body fat, all of the telesign I joke, I mean, remember, they cliche kind of testing when I played was like, do you feel like you’re suffering from an eating disorder? And of course, I would say no, there was no way I’m going to dive into that. And then to you ask a 20 year old now, you know, how is your testosterone? I’d come in saying I’m on top of the world type of scenario, although and maybe absolutely terrible and have zero energy and all the effects teams and physicians have started reaching out and trying to
change the message, and change how it’s being perceived, delivered to males, I think, you look at it. In general, if you type in males with EDI on Google, you will get five to six pages of males with erectile dysfunction. That’s a huge hurdle. It’s a real thing that if I’m a male, and luckily, I was able to look past that because I hit rock bottom. But if I’m just curious, if I’m suffering from something, and I typed that in, I’m out.
representation, yeah, nothing. I’m like, Okay, so I’m good. Like, I’m not even going to click on this, I’m afraid someone’s gonna look at my history on Google search, and be like, Whoa, what’s this guy up to teams have reached out. But I still think fundamentally, when I go in and speak to a lot of teams, and start to try to raise awareness about what their as their current athletes may be going through this whole diagnosis of eating disorders. I think it needs to be noted that most of these coaches, doctors and physicians, however you look at it, basically, the coaches were all ex athletes, there’s very little coaches out there, that didn’t play at some level. And what that means is when I come in there, and I kind of start talking about their players, I’m also taking a shot at that indirectly. So I’m not meeting teams at zero, I’m meeting them at negative 500. Because now a coach has to look at himself and be like, well, am I actually suffering from an eating disorder, in most cases, they are they some form of disordered eating. It’s a very uphill battle, but one that I actually don’t mind being in because I don’t have skin in the game. I don’t, I’m not afraid of losing playing time anymore, that’s gone in pass. I like being involved in that world. But it is a very uphill battle. Because until people can understand the effects, a lot of people aren’t open to really looking into it. I’m just sitting here, I’m just so grateful for you, I’m so grateful that you’re doing this work, I’m connecting to it myself is my area of passion for me as well. And so, and knowing how hard it is to change the systems to change to make some lasting and sustainable change within the sport world. I think one thing that when we talked earlier, that stood out to me too, is the language barriers is another hurdle between the sport world and the treatment world of eating disorder treatment. And I’m curious if you want to speak about that of the language, the language piece and the mismatch. So I’ve referenced a memory. And this is actually a funny story from the standpoint of, I’ve been involved in this one, I’ve gone to a tremendous amount of conferences at this point, most of these conferences I go to are very, very science driven. Luckily, I have a background in what I refer to as bro science. So
I understand some of the language, although my actual science can be flawed, I can kind of dissect it. And I was sitting at a conference with one of my like peers and mentors and was listening to a very highly acclaimed doctor talk about eating disorders and athlete for the first 30 minutes, they kept referring to a amenorrhea. This was in the last six months, and I literally after about 30 minutes turned to my mentor next to me, it was like, What is a amenorrhea?
I’m trying to type it in online, I’m spelling it wrong. It’s sending me Bible verses, I don’t know what’s happening.
And he turned to me. She goes, Oh, it’s when you lose your period. And I was like, why didn’t you say so? Like, why hasn’t anybody said that for the first 30 minutes because I have no idea what happened. But it’s it’s very much the medical field that in and of itself relies on that type of language, when as an athlete that has no idea that they even have an issue. I think a lot of the language can be lost and the impact behind it will be lost just out of the gate science behind it and the actual terminology being used.
So true. I also remember you saying to about the athlete, talk versus therapist, talk of therapists using more woo language, not really speaking quite to the athletes way of understanding the world through goals and drive and direct language.
Again, I think the nature that these athletes are, especially once you hit the call eight even in high school, but especially in college and professional levels, you’re used to beingtold where to be what to do, if you’re told to jump and how high to jump and when to jump and everything is laid out for you, because at the end of the day, they just want you there to perform. What that also means, though, is still to this day, if there’s any sort of gray area in my life, if it’s not clearly defined as black and white, good versus bad, any of that kind of stuff, I don’t do well, I am totally a fish out of water when it comes to gray area. So a lot of what I see in the material, and especially recovering material, conceptual ideas, addressing eating disorders are very much with checking in with yourself. Where do you Where are you currently at, and all this stuff that is truly great and tremendous. And now that I’m seeing the benefits of it, especially out of the gates, if an athlete is not told, like, Look, we need to address and getting a structured, balanced diet. And this is how we’re going to do it not eat when you’re hungry. It’s like what does that mean? I’ve always hungry science behind that. But there’s also athletes are praised for how much they can eat pleat doesn’t have the guidelines and the recovery side of things, especially males, in general, it’s a very challenging recovery process, because you just get lost in the weeds, I need to be told where to go and what to do. And if I’m not, then good luck. I’ll be stranded here forever. Right? I think that’s a that’s an important point to address of just even the cultural. It’s a cultural competency of a sub population of athletes and males, I think for the treatment world to be kind of considering that of how do we serve that population, particularly in a particular way that is going to be translated? more appropriately? Absolutely. I mean, and even to that point, I think, for anybody listening to him, and it took me I was fortunate from the standpoint of when I met with the therapists that I did the initial 24 weeks with, we hit it off out the gates, and it was fantastic. Finding a practitioner could very much be like dating, I mean, and that’s okay. I, when I came to Denver, I had to search around and it took me a few times I did not relate to some of the concepts and the when it’s not like it was right or wrong. It’s just I needed to find somebody that could speak my language, it took a little bit. And that’s and again, that’s fine. That should be part of the process, you really should find somebody that you can sit down and open up to and have great conversations with and be led. And if you’re not getting that then to keep searching, because I think that was probably my biggest challenge out of the gates when I got to Denver where I was like, hey, well, I didn’t relate to her. I’m out. I don’t want to do this, this type of mentality. But once I did find it, it was totally worth it. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely achievable.
So Patrick, what what would you say were stereotypes you had to overcome as a male in seeking eating disorder treatment, there was no other male was talking about it.
For right wrong or a different I wanted a hero to look up to I wanted to find somebody that is said, I’ve been through it, you know, recovery is possible. And this is what it looked like. And this is how it’s affecting me. And this is why I’m at now. And at the same time, there was only one male, speaking about it. And that was Brian Cuban, who has and is doing such amazing work in this field, especially with addictions. But I wasn’t at the end today, I wasn’t 50 years old, and I wasn’t established an attorney, his brothers Mark Cuban. So there was a lot of it was a great message I just had the other day, I still couldn’t relate, I just want that in the category of that’s not me. And when I go to these conferences as well, or anytime I speak majority of it, and the people in attendance are females. It’s not something males talk about or resonate with, because society has put this kind of flag and what’s willpower, and what’s being tough, and what is socially acceptable to talk about that it makes it really really difficult to find help seek help, this whole concept of intuitive eating, it took me so long to dive into. And I know there’s 10 steps and I was reading the 10 steps recently, and it’s all checking in with yourself. I felt like I was reading like be one with the universe and all this like random things that just don’t relate to me where I’m like, No, this basically just means like, if you’re hungry, eat if not, do don’t eat. Okay, cool. move on with it. Like, what again, you read these things, and they’reall very different for years they’ve been, they’ve been written by women dressed to women. So as a male, I’m looking for something that’s homeys eat this don’t eat. Instead, I’m reading like that. So I might as well pull out my journal and check my chakras, and I just can’t get behind it. So I think there is a huge uphill battle but a huge opportunity to kind of redirect the message to males in order to get people to realize it. And also, possibly more the more males that can answer talking about the more studies we can get. I think there’s a lack of science behind males in either stories on what the effects are and not say there is an issueIt’s not a material out there anyways, but it’s hard to get the actual science behind in a controlled studies to get proper data.
Well, now I’m glad to have Mike marjana will to be another male athlete voice.
So Mike Yeah, we’ve become absolute tremendous friends his story if nobody knows about it, it’s different than mine. I suffered from my eating disorder, which was the Lamia and binge eating in college and post college and he suffered from more than anorexia in high school and the pressures involved in high school. So he has a tremendous story. For those that don’t know is he just retired for major league baseball. Well, we actually went to the same high school Wow. Yeah. Didn’t know each other. no idea who Mike was. His story’s a little different. He was two years younger than me. So he says he knew who I was. We had a giant high school and I just didn’t know very many sophomores when I was a senior that call it eight months ago, one of my mentors reached out to me was like, have you heard of Mike? And I was like, No, I have no idea who this my kid is. And long story short, yeah. My school had a smell note that says about, it says about our hometown, but his story, his personality and everything about him, I would highly encourage people to go check him out because he is a power, powerful, powerful man. very authentic. This story is one that I think a lot of people can relate to.
Patrick, can you share a bit more about your relationship with food and your body Now?
there’s there’s been a lot of strides made in regards to that, I think on both aspects. It’s important in my message, when I know when I was trying to find somebody to relate to and kind of somebody to look up to to know that I wasn’t the only male in the world suffering from this, I really struggled finding that it’s especially because I was at such extremes. I mean, I’ve had cases of when my mom had passed away at about for about four to five months of literally every single night four to five boxes of cereal. So that included the milk that included these binges that were so gigantic, I think a lot of times you just kind of hear people say like, Oh, yeah, the tremendous amount of food when really, it was a lot. And it was purely emotionally driven. Ultimately, a very, very difficult thing for me, because when I was trying to achieve high levels of physique, that was probably the worst thing I could do to my body, and mentally. And now it’s taken a lot of work. But being able to one redefine my relationships with food, I don’t really try to make a focus and conscious effort to not demonize foods and not see things as good versus bad. Again, now realizing that cake is absolutely delicious, and it’s okay to have some and celebrate people’s birthdays and, and not be the odd man out standing there saying, you know, I can’t have this because it’s bad for you in some way the body is going to metabolize it no matter what it is being able to kind of find myself in positions now where there’s balance, that also means if there’s days that I don’t make it to the gym, that’s okay, and get back on track whenever you can, and not beat yourself up for it. Post football, I found myself like I really wanted this soccer, dizzy, tall, lean, broad shoulders, and I’m a bigger guy. And so in order to achieve that physique, and not understand my true setpoint, I lived for about seven years in a deficit. And that was pure hell, that was literally the worst thing of all time, were always grumpy lack of energy, not eating enough, chewing gum, literally like a pack a day to avoid eating. I’ve had every flavored gum possible, trying to do all these hacks to not eat throughout the day. So to find myself in a relationship now where I can accept my body. And even that that took during recovery. I really not trying to I definitely don’t step on scales anymore. I didn’t look at a mirror, because that could be really triggering. I couldn’t like examine my body because that’s all I had ever known. I would take the progress photos and all the above. So really trying to just know that it’s more than just the image and then finding a healthy balance between working out and food. It’s definitely it takes work, but it is achievable.
That’s awesome. Yeah, it sounds like you’ve shifted from a major preoccupation where that was kind of all like was in your mind to having it have more of a rightful place in your life.
Yeah, it’s definitely a very relieving point in life as opposed to what it used to be where was always making up for something.
Thanks again to Patrick for joining us today. Make sure that you check in next week where Patrick will join us again to talk about identity issues within the athletic world. Thanks also to jack straw Cultural Center for sound engineering to Aaron Davidson, for the appetite to original music and to large media. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the appetite on your favorite podcast app so you’re up to date on any new episodes that we release. We also would so love it if you would review the podcast if you’d like to stay in touch with opal. You can find us on Instagram.
I’m at Opal food and body on Twitter and on Facebook if you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can also check out our website at Opalfoodandbody.com for resources. Thanks and talk to you next time.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai