Richie Cartwright, Co-Founder of Fella on Opening Up To Family About Binge Eating, Men’s Mental Health, and Stigmas Keeping Us from Seeking Treatment

“I need to keep being the voice that I needed to hear when I was struggling the most”

Richie Cartwright
Name: Richie Cartwright
Role: Co-Founder of Fella
Based in: London

I run a YC company which helps other guys tackle binge eating. Before Fella, I founded an AI company working with the UK government which was acquired. Before that I was a self-taught data scientist. Before that I dropped out of a Masters at Peking Uni, having studied my undergrad in economics at Cambridge Uni.

Richie’s impressive background pales in comparison to the redemptive work he and his co-founders, Sjoerd de Jong and Luke Harries are doing at Fella, a startup that was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2020 cohort. Fella helps men tackle binge eating disorder, combining online-community and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps retrain destructive patterns of thinking and behaviors, and one of the most established treatments for eating disorders.

What follows is a conversation with Richie on binge eating and his own journey to recovery. We discuss everything from false mental narratives that men struggle with, taking talk about mental health online, to just how pervasive the stigma is against men seeking help for mental illness and disorders. By the way: Around 80% of the 30 million people with eating disorders live life without treatment.

You’re working at an early stage startup and that’s pretty consuming. How many hours a week are you spending on your startup right now?

I guess I get into the office at half 7 and leave at 10– it’s my “main thing” that I do. I eat all my meals here, so it’s more…

What does wellness mean to you?

Having the consistent energy to do the things I want to do and live the life I  want to lead.

How old were you when you started to binge eat?

The emotional eating started when I was 19, and I realized there was a thing called binge eating when I was 24.

Have you ever binged and purged?

I’ve never used vomiting or laxatives to purge. I did compensate a lot for my binge eating with exercise.

There was however this one time when I was 19 and part of a university kind of “hazing”; People there knew that I had an aversion to white bread, so I was forced to eat it. I tried to make myself sick after and I couldn’t (We’ve been taught to vomit when we drink a lot of alcohol, and after the hazing I thought I’d make myself sick in order to get the alcohol out of me) Looking back, it wasn’t at all about the alcohol at the time. It was that “I do not want this white bread in me.” If we were women, we’d obviously know what that was when I was trying to purge white bread. We were a group of guys and none of us knew. 

Everyone knew about my white bread obsession. Only years later did someone bring it up in relation to binge eating. It’s funny.

How long did it take for you to open up to your family about your binge eating? Did you take the initiative to talk to them about it? Did they confront you first?

I was 24 when I told them.

My binge eating had been worse the 6 months after my birthday, and I was at a point where I knew I had a binge eating problem, but was still pretty strongly in denial and feeling I could deal with it myself.

I was home for the weekend and I got up during the middle of the night and ate around 3000 calories of chocolate in 25 minutes. I was monitoring my eating at the time, taking photos, and using my fitness app so I knew exactly what I was doing. I opened up to my parents the morning after. It was completely hidden so they had no idea. 

Did you feel like you were out of control at this point or did you have strong communication with your parents that gave you the courage to tell them?

Great question; honestly, I don’t know why I told them, and I still don’t know, but I did for whatever reason.

The next morning, my parents were like, “do you want to do anything, go swimming” and I said no; I was feeling absolutely awful physically and mentally. I’m normally high energy, so my parents thought that was weird, but that I was just being moody. They persuaded me to go on a walk with them. The binge eating thing was burning in my mind then and walks are a long time (laughs). It probably took me half the walk to pluck up the courage to tell them, and it played out quite matter of fact.  My dad said “I guess I’ve somewhat heard of it, I’m sure we can direct you to the right places.” They’re great parents, they’re both very understanding, and they’re both primary care practitioners. Interestingly, they knew little about binge eating.

Did you look to Cognitive Behavior Therapy to treat your eating disorder?

I actually didn’t have CBT the first time around of trying to get better. I remember my frustration over the difficulty of accessing something so simple and helpful when I finally did.

Are the men on Fella sufficiently supported by their families with their binge eating disorder?

At Fella, there’s definitely a mix. Some are really scared to tell their partners and don’t feel they can. Others have and have not had good reactions, and then there’s others who’ve told their partners who have been very supportive.

Most of our Fellas are either overweight, or very overweight. There’s a case of when both partners are bigger, and one partner struggles with binge eating and one won’t, and the partner doesn’t acknowledge the partner’s struggles. The interaction is very much like, “well, we just eat CRISPS every day” and the partner with binge eating is like, “well, no. I actually do all this hidden stuff as well”.

It’s interesting to reflect how the interaction would have played out differently based off of appearance: it’s different for me as the young, fit guy saying “no, I’m struggling, this is a real thing” and getting a reaction like “oh, there’s something weird going on” vs an overweight guy with so much stigma around his weight getting a response more in line with “classic person just trying to find excuses”.

Your Linkedin posts have been amazing with opening up conversations around mental health and specifically men’s mental health. You’re been really transparent about your personal mental health too. Why do you think CEOs, entrepreneurs, founders, aren’t talking more about mental health on their platforms, when frankly, many entrepreneurs have struggled with one mental health problem or another? (Entrepreneurs are at a 56% higher risk of experiencing mental health obstacles than the general population.) For example, on Linkedin, bringing that kind of personal into it– I’ve heard some people say that’s inappropriate to do..

Not shooting anyone down for not talking about mental health, but that’s awful.

I spoke to another YC founder the other day and he was like “mate, I’m fucking burned out” And it’s cool that he felt comfortable enough to share that with me.

“I’m burned out, but I can never post about this”.

He’s seen my mental health content and he’d love to do the same– in fact, he’s written things like it, wants to put it out, but said he can’t because they’ll never get invested in again.

Notice too that I never speak about anything in real-time. So I’m not that vulnerable. I’m not “real-time” vulnerable. I don’t go, “I’ve had this shit day today” and… (laughs) I don’t think society’s ready for that yet.

The most real-time I’ve been was 3 weeks ago, I posted something like a life log up, talking about body image and feeling bloated

A lot of “struggled with this before, and now I’m great” content out there.

On investing in founders that talk about their mental health..

As mental health struggles are so prevalent amongst the entrepreneur community, it’s very unlikely they haven’t struggled with their mental health, they just don’t talk about it.

If I were looking to invest in a founder, I would see forthrightness as a desirable and trust-building quality and positive trait when it comes to evaluating a founder’s potential.

Does the Fella App only offer CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)?

We’re building the most effective, science based tool for binge eating. There are elements of compassion focused therapy and ACT (acceptance based therapy), but Fella’s focus at this time is using CBT to help our Fellas. 

What are prevalent issues coming up in conversations by men on Fella?

“It’s not that big a problem, I can tackle it myself.” Said by every Fella ever.

“I don’t want to be a burden”. 

Dichotomous, all-or-nothing thinking. Example: “I was not meant to be having candy, I now had one candy, I fucked it!! …and I can now have all the candy”.

Struggles with body image. My around 7 weeks of being together as a cohort, you start seeing a real flood of emotion and moving comments from a whole range of guys and body types demonstrating that their struggles with body image is real.

Dichotomous, all-or-nothing thinking. Example: “I was not meant to be having candy, I now had one candy, I fucked it!! …and I can now have all the candy”.

You can see a mixture of cognitive distortion and the duplicitous elements of masculinity.

 Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give or wish you could have said to your younger self, what would it be?

“Isn’t it weird that this eating stuff seems to be a huge part of your life and you’ve never once mentioned it to anyone?”

“Are you sure you’re tackling the eating struggles in the right way by just focusing on the diet side, not the psychological side?”

“I know you say that you don’t have emotions, but are you sure? Is every way you behave explained by purely rational thought?”

“Are you sure it’s weak to get external help for something? Maybe instead that’s actually incredibly strong because that’s how you improve.”

Interview and edited by Susan Yoomin Im

For more on Fella or to sign-up to join, click here.

Follow Richie Cartwright on Linkedin or Instagram

For additional wellness resources, check out this resource page or get help through mental health advocacy and education non-profit Made of Millions’s resources directory here.

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