When thirteen year old Harry Averill started high school, a decade ago, he decided it was time to put away childish things. Desperate to impress, the new border at Napier Boys became finely focused on success — academically and athletically. A ‘no pain no gain’ attitude drove him to train with a zeal most parents and teachers would find commendable. 

Averill was no bedroom dwelling gremlin many of us would recognise with despair of our teenage boys. 

But behind the eyes of this motivated, in many ways exceptional, young man, a darkness was growing in the mind. A long distance runner, member of an elite team, Averill became obsessed with pushing his body to its limits, cutting weight and exercising to excess. He had been infected by the bully within, anorexia athletica, driven, not by appearance, as is traditionally associated with the disease, but performance.

Trapped in a vicious cycle, the less he ate the less he could eat. No amount of physical exertion could satisfy the insidious voice within telling him he was never good enough. Outwardly, he presented a veneer of perfection, deflecting caregivers’ concerns until he deteriorated to a point of dangerous unwell. A stint in Hastings Hospital addressed his significant physical condition, followed by psychiatric treatment in Wellington. A mindset change flipped the switch in his head prioritising happiness over success.

Returning to school, he told friends he had a heart defect, the stigma of mental illness compounded by the perception of anorexia as a female disease. He continued to excel, and was appointed Head Boy. Though he had recovered, he was still hiding, afraid and ashamed of the judgement of others. Through his continued process of self-awareness he realised one of the reasons the disease had been allowed to progress was precisely this silence, this lack of understanding of what was happening to him.

Once again, Averill decided to fight back, addressing his peers at assembly in what he describes as the scariest thing he has ever done. Many of his closest friends discovered the truth of what he had been through at the same time as his entire school. He recognised the therapeutic release of finally speaking up, and took the opportunity of lockdown to write a book, documenting his experience so that others might learn from his journey. Averill’s mother and then ten year old brother provide asides, highlighting the rippling impact of the disease.

Men’s mental health is a deservedly hot topic, considering our woeful suicide statistics and bottom-of-the-cliff health practices, as a result of underfunding. Causes are complex but experts agree our ‘she’ll be right’ culture of gruff male stoicism prevents men from opening up and seeking help, ultimately costing lives. 

Anorexia is a disease of power and control, driving sufferers to hide symptoms in a misguided bid for perfection. By daring to share his story, Averill takes back his power with a bravery he hopes will lead others to do the same.

Hungry to be Happy: How I Lost and Found my Mind by Harry Averill is released on February 3. It is available for preorder from his website and will be on shelves at Wardini Books.

If you or someone you know are concerned by issues raised in this article please seek help.

Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand          0800 2 EDANZ (0800 2 33269)

Hawke’s Bay Hospital Mental Health Services         06 878 8109

Emergency Mental Health Services                           0800 112 334


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1 Comment

  1. Good on you Harry for telling how it was for you. That bravery alone , outweighs any success or achievements you strived for. I Worked with youth at the psych unit for many years as they were torn by their own perceptions and trauma.

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