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Dave Chawner Dave Chawner

Anorexia Fueled My Stand-Up Comedy Career

I've made it my mission to break the silence and stigma surrounding anorexia—by telling my own story. And making people laugh.

10 Substance

Dave Chawner takes the stage.

Dave Chawner takes the stage.

People often get uncomfortable when I tell them I’m anorexic. Last year I was performing at the Edinburgh Festival—the largest arts festival in the world, which takes place every August in Scotland’s capital. It’s like a cross between a farmer’s market and a carnival, with the streets full of such “oddities” as transvestites, fire eaters and myself: a young man with an eating disorder. I was talking with a group of teenagers I’d just met as they shared a platter of nachos.

“You’re a performer?” one asked me.

I nodded, already anticipating how the conversation would go.

“Are you doing a show up here?”

I nodded again.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s stand-up show…about how I used to be anorexic.”

There was a pause, and one of them looked down.

“Do you want a nacho?” he asked.

When I turned 17 I made a run-of-the-mill new year’s resolution: to lose weight. I was never huge—more like “fun-sized.” But I’d just landed the lead role in a play where I had to appear topless. The thought of 200 people ogling my doughy torso made me hyper-aware of my body for the first time.

At first I just watched my portion size, cut out idle snacking and swapped my mid-afternoon chocolate bar for an apple. I lost a few pounds and it felt good, so I decided to see if I could lose just a little more. I started skipping breakfast, then cut it out entirely, and eventually did the same with dinner. Then I became obsessed with counting calories, reducing my daily intake from 2,000, to 1,500, to 700…

“I’ve been treated for anorexia,” she said. “I know what it’s like. Have you ever thought that you may be anorexic too?”

I walked everywhere, and took up running, then swimming—whatever would burn off the most. I became fixated with exercise, and the obsession escalated. At the time, I felt no control in other areas of my life, like school, exam grades and University applications. I was swamped with major life decisions. Anorexia was something I could cling to: control amid the chaos.

At 19, I moved away to attend university. Without family around to monitor what I ate, restricting my food intake became a breeze. My body had begun to feel the impact: I experienced heart palpitations, constant stomach cramps and creaking joints. But even worse than the physical effects were the intense mood swings. I was anxious one moment, irritable the next, and constantly tired. Even just walking felt like weightlifting. But I was in denial.

During that summer I got a job teaching English at a boarding school in a remote part of England. I loved the job, save for the food. Pizza, pasta and chips were my only options. I was trapped in a carbohydrate nightmare.

The nearest shop was four miles away but one evening I made the trip on foot to buy my own food—a box of dry Bran Flakes. I lived off it for a week, eating alone in my room. Other tutors noticed my absence at dinner, and eventually one pulled me aside. “I’ve been treated for anorexia,” she said. “I know what it’s like. Have you ever thought that you may be anorexic too?”

That was the first time anyone had ever addressed the topic openly with me, and she really got through.

Back at Uni, I admitted to my flatmates that I’d been struggling; they said they already knew. Just talking about it was liberating. As I opened up, others opened up to me. I was startled by how many people I knew had also suffered from eating disorders, even close friends of mine. I’d never realized: I wasn’t alone.

Today, I would like to think that I have made progress, though recovery from an eating disorder is lifelong, and I still struggle—especially around the holidays and during visits to my family.

People often ask me about how bad it got. I know they want gory details, to hear about my most down-and-out-moment. But my story—like most people’s—didn’t reach a cinematic peak. I never threatened suicide, was never hospitalized or force-fed with an IV drip. I wasn’t clinging by a thread.

Eating disorders are often sensationalized by the media—and this can prevent people like me from asking for help. I worried that things hadn’t got bad enough, that I didn’t “qualify.” My fear was that someone would tell me I wasn’t really anorexic—just seeking attention. But I was also scared of admitting to anorexia, because that made me a “freak.”

It’s a bizarre line to walk: worried you’re anorexic but concerned you’re not anorexic enough. But I now know you don’t have to be an inch away from death to have a problem.

I felt relaxed, excited and scared all at once. Comedy got me buzzed, just like controlling my food intake once had. I was hooked.

I’ve never been to group therapy or had counselling. But I found my own form of talk therapy: stand-up comedy. My first time on stage was the same year I first acknowledged my anorexia. I’d always loved making people laugh. So when I saw an advertisement for a “try-out spot” at a comedy club near my Uni, that planted a seed. It took me six months to pluck up the courage, but I finally realized I had nothing to lose.

One Thursday in April 2008 I did stand-up for the first time. To my surprise, no one pelted me off the stage with rotten fruit and empty beer bottles. I don’t remember what I talked about—only that I felt relaxed, excited and scared all at once. Comedy got me buzzed, just like controlling my food intake once had. I was hooked.

One of the things I love about stand-up is the chance to reach people. In the early days I mostly talked about embarrassing things I did while drunk, silly place names and other anecdotes. But I soon realized that speaking openly about my relationships, fears and vulnerability could be funny. I opened up more on stage—but still kept silent about my anorexia.

I had never heard any other comic talk about anorexia before, and there was probably good reason for that. It’s hardly the stuff of chuckles. But I began to realize that by talking about it on stage, I might be able to chip away at the stigma.

Five years into my comedy career, I was finally ready. I decided to construct a set about my anorexic past to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. I quit my day job to put 100% of my time and energy into working on it.

For seven months I focused purely on Edinburgh, with no idea what would happen after that. At first, during the first couple of London previews, the show bombed. People seemed awkward and uncomfortable; without laughter, it was less of a “show” and more like a cry for help. But instead of quitting, I furiously wrote, rewrote, honed and rehearsed. I didn’t give up. It just felt like something I had to do.

A turning point came after my second show in Edinburgh. A friend told me he loved the show, but found the message confusing. He asked me if I was “over” my anorexia and instinctively I said “yes.” Then I realized I will never be, completely, “over it.” After that, I got more honest and vulnerable on stage. It wasn’t a laugh-a-second, but it was real. And people loved it. The first review called it “a show that makes you laugh as well as think,” and then more glowing reviews flooded in. Soon every night was sold out.

When Edinburgh was over, I decided to take the show on the road. I’m currently on tour of the UK, with 37 dates confirmed and more still to be added. My aim is to get people around the country talking about anorexia and eating disorders. I always hang around after the show in case anyone wants to chat or ask questions. I’ve spoken with hundreds of people and heard many stories. But one stands out.

About a week into the run in Edinburgh, I noticed a young woman in the front row laughing, clapping, and cheering enthusiastically throughout the show. She approached me afterwards and told me that she had been struggling with anorexia for two years. Three weeks earlier she’d actually tried to kill herself. As she told her story, she was sobbing. Then I gave her a hug and she laughed.

“These are happy tears,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

She said I was the first person she’d ever told.


Dave Chawner is a full-time comic of six years and a regular compere/MC, opener and warm-up act. He is currently on a tour of the UK. Find out tour dates and more info about him here.