I don’t remember the first time I made myself sick. What I remember is the process leading up to it. Since the age 11 I was bullied relentlessly. It was obvious to my fellow pupils that I was “different” for a variety of reasons. My bright, studious personality made it obvious that I could be homosexual, even though I didn’t realize this until I was older.
I was halfway through high school when the bullying started to get to me. I’d walk out of class or avoid going completely and hide in the boys’ bathroom, the only safe space where I knew I wouldn’t be found.
Out of sight, I’d lock myself into a toilet cubicle where I’d comfort-eat the contents of my lunchbox ― usually biscuits and chips. My instinct, feeling disgusted with my self, was to eat the contents of my lunchbox and vomit. I felt a great deal of relief after the buildup of anxiety and tension was flushed down my toilet.
For many years, this cycle of purging and binging was my way to cope. I became more frequent and frenetic as my bullying got worse.
One day, I was bored at home and looking through one of my mother’s magazines when I began reading an advice column. One mother, a new single mom, wrote to me saying that she would purge herself after her children went to sleep. She’d recently split up from her partner and found this transition challenging.
Being only 15, I couldn’t relate to her situation, but I certainly identified with her behaviors. In the reply, the advice columnist described her condition as “bulimia.” She warned about the potential dangers, such as a stomach rupture or cardiac arrest, if she didn’t seek Urgent Help.
Up until then, I didn’t know anything about eating disorders. I thought what I was doing was personal to me ― something I’d invented even. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was causing myself serious physical harm, potentially life threatening. The way I was made to feel by the bullies, however, convinced me that I should die.
Back in the early 2000s, we barely spoke about anorexia at school ― let alone bulimia. We didn’t have any lessons on eating disorders that I remember. My only experience with eating disorders was when it came to Princess Diana. Being a man with bulimia further added to my isolation, reinforcing my ill-informed belief that men didn’t have eating disorders.
It was not something I wanted to talk about with anyone. My mother would notice food going missing, but I guess she thought I was just a “hungry teenager.” Those with bulimia are notoriously secretive and will go out of their way to cover their tracks.
Just two days later, my last day at school was over. I finally got up enough courage to talk to somebody. Now I was 16, and felt suicidal, as well as anxious about my future.
Sitting in my doctor’s office, I told him about my bulimia and burst into tears. I can’t remember what I said exactly. But I can recall that he seemed extremely worried.
I was referred by him to the emergency counselling assessment at the local mental healthcare service for children, adolescents. He made arrangements for me the next day. I attended both appointments without my mother’s knowledge, although she found out soon after. Due to conflict at home, it was not possible to receive the help I needed.
As soon as I was 18 and allowed to seek support without parental consent I sought help from another doctor. My surprise was that she didn’t ask me about my bulimia but focused instead on my anxiety, depression, and other issues. I was prescribed antidepressants by her and she referred me to counseling. There was a waiting list of two years.
If I had the same serious symptoms, I would respond differently to them. In those days, it was virtually unheard of for men to have eating disorders ― especially bulimia, which is often less visible than anorexiaThank you.
Nowadays, it’s widely speculated that the number of men with eating disorders is massively underestimated, with 1 out of 4 people affected being male. My charity has been a constant source of inspiration and support. Women can also suffer from eating disorders. for more than 10 years, it’s my view that there’s still a distinct lack of support specifically for men.
It is obvious to me from all the men who reach out via social media. Many of them feel marginalized when they attempt to gain mainstream support.
Though my last binge and purge was at age 21 after establishing alternative coping strategies and supportive networks, like writing and volunteering, I did go on to “swap” addictions by developing a problem with alcohol.
I’ve often wondered if I’d gotten help earlier for my bulimia if it would have averted this problem. What I’ve learned, having recently completed a course of trauma therapy, is that if you pick a weed only by the leaves and not by its root, it will simply grow back. This means that you can switch between unhealthy coping mechanisms.
After many years of hard work, I’m now free from both my bulimia and alcoholism, which were different manifestations of the same issues.
One of the biggest sacrifices I had to make was to leave my charity to focus on my recovery 3½ years ago. Thankfully, this turned out to be one of the most positive moves I’d ever made.
Even though awareness of eating disorders in men as increased from when I first tried to get help nearly 20 years ago, I’m all too aware that men may feel just as isolated as I was back then. What I believe male sufferers need today isn’t any more awareness campaigns, they need meaningful targeted support that recognizes and addresses their specific needs. No one, female or male, should be allowed to slip by the cracks as I did.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotlineContact us at 1-888-931-2237