There isn’t a particular single moment that I remember deciding to make myself sick for the first time.
In fact, I can’t even remember my first bulimia episode. But what I do recall is the events building up to it – a horrible feeling of immense anxiety that grew throughout the school day, and an urgency to get it out of me by making myself sick.
Around 20 years ago, when I was suffering from bulimia at the age of 13, it wasn’t something we spoke about with men in mind – eating disorders were considered by many to only affect women.
That’s why I’m so glad to see Josh’s storyline on Holby City this week, as he battles with bulimia. If I had seen this episode at the time I was ill, it may have helped me and many other men to realise we’re not alone. It could have prompted us to get help.
My story began from day one in secondary school, when I became a target of bullying. Worried about where I’d be attacked next, I was constantly on edge at break times and between lessons.
Even during classes, I was verbally and physically attacked and my teachers were unable to get a grip on it.
One of the reasons I was bullied was because I was studious and often got top grades. But the main reason I was bullied was because I was ‘different’. I had mullet-like hair, I was effeminate and my voice broke before all the other boys’.
There were so many things that meant I drew attention, so my instinct was to want to hide away and try to become invisible.
At the start of year nine, the bullying had become too much after it transitioned from name calling into violent attacks. That’s when I started walking out of lessons or avoiding attending them completely.
Instead of putting up with the abuse I received in the classroom, I’d hide in the toilets and lock myself into a cubicle, as it was the only safe place.
It was there that my bulimia began – albeit in its infancy. The toilet cubicle was my sanctuary where nobody could get me and, at the same time, I could soothe myself with food.
Out of sight, I would comfort eat on the contents of my lunch box – usually biscuits and crisps. Feeling full took the edge off the sickly, empty feeling of being alone. It helped me feel calmer, more in control.
Over the space of a few months, my bingeing was automatically followed by purging. As I felt like I was going to vomit from the binges, I made myself sick to get it out of the way.
Weirdly, I hated the action of forcing myself to bring up the food, but did it to myself without really thinking about it. In those early binges, I felt great relief when the build-up of tension was flushed down the toilet.
This cycle of bingeing and purging became a form of escapism and ultimately my main coping mechanism for several years. As the bullying got worse, my episodes became more regular and frantic. I’d often binge and purge when my family were out of the house and insist on staying at home so I could carry out these sessions in private.
My mother would have a go at me when she noticed food going down quickly, but I guess she just thought I was a ‘hungry teenager’.
One day, feeling bored, I was looking through one of my mum’s magazines when an Agony Aunt letter from a single mother caught my attention.
In her letter, she said she would binge and purge after putting her kids to bed. She’d recently split up from her partner and becoming a single parent had been challenging for her.
In the reply the Aunt described her behaviour as ‘bulimia’. She warned about the dangers, if she didn’t get help soon – it included stomach rupturing and cardiac arrest, which made scary reading – I was only 15.
This was the first time I’d heard the word. Up until then, I didn’t know anything about eating disorders. People barely spoke about anorexia back in 2001, let alone bulimia.
The only time I remember eating disorders being mentioned in the media was when Princess Diana famously spoke about it. Any celebrities that did speak out around that time were all women – there were no men at all.
Although feeling even more isolated and confused, at least I now knew what I was doing had a name. I thought it was personal to me – something I’d invented even. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was causing myself serious physical harm. But I continued to do it even with this knowledge.
Instead of speaking to someone about it, I kept it quiet. At this point, I was feeling so low and helpless that I believed I deserved to die from this illness.
The frequency of binges and purges had increased to the extent I was doing it at every opportunity I could.
After leaving school at 16, I plucked up the courage to speak to someone. I desperately worried about the future and was feeling suicidal, so, on a whim, I phoned my GP to book an appointment without explaining what it was for.
When I told my GP about my bulimia, I burst into tears. The next day I was referred to the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).
I remember being asked a lot of questions about how I was feeling and felt this huge sense of relief about being able to talk about what was going on for the first time ever, with someone who understood and wanted to help me get better.
I didn’t get a diagnosis then, nor did they say anything about what would happen next – only that they’d be in touch.
This was the only appointment I had with no further follow-ups and, unfortunately, I didn’t get the help I needed at that time. Whether this was because they weren’t so used to seeing male patients, I couldn’t be sure.
All I remember was social services getting involved but it all went over my head. I moved from my childhood home to a foster home for older teenagers.
At age 17, my first boyfriend caught me in the act making myself sick and dragged me to the out of hours doctors one weekend. However, even with my ex’s best efforts, I was still unable to get help. Because I played it down, I think the doctor thought my ex was over-reacting.
When I was 18, I tried seeking help from a new doctor but I was suffering with depression and anxiety and they focused on this, rather than my bulimia.
In those days, it was unheard of for men to come forward for help with eating disorders. Fortunately, after I’d come out as gay at 16, I began to develop healthier coping strategies – these included writing and exercising, as well as making friends for the first time.
Looking back, I believe if I was a woman presenting with the same severe symptoms I’d have been diagnosed sooner. And hopefully, I would have accessed the vital specialist support I needed. Perhaps the doctors I saw weren’t used to seeing patients like me with this illness – even though up to a quarter of eating disorder sufferers are thought to be male.
A few years later, when I was undertaking research for the charity I was setting up, I requested my medical records. It showed I was diagnosed with bulimia at 16, but this was never communicated to me at the time.
What’s even more surprising to me is that even with an official diagnosis, I was still unable to get treatment.
From the age of 21, I got involved in LGBT and mental health volunteering projects. Through gaining confidence, a sense of worth and purpose, my bulimia was made redundant from the age of 21.
Although, it was by no means an easy journey: I swapped bulimia for alcohol from the age of 24, so I guess I was never truly ‘recovered.’
I developed a sense of purpose by volunteering and setting up my own eating disorder charity called ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’. For the 10 years that I was involved before leaving to focus on my sobriety, I spoke at many major national conferences, delivered training for professionals and set up support groups.
Now, I’m over 14 years in recovery from bulimia and recently completed trauma therapy. At 35, I’m finally beginning to address those demons.
What I learned was, until you treat the underlying trauma from the bullying endured at school, it will only manifest in some other way.
For anyone who watches the Holby City storyline and sees themselves, I truly hope it inspires them to get help – and push to be listened to, and not ignored like I did.
Life is worth living, and you are enough – without the purges. Eating disorders can be beaten.
If you suspect you, a family member or friend has an eating disorder, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677 or at [email protected], for information and advice on the best way to get appropriate treatment
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