I don’t remember the first time I made myself sick. But what I do remember was the buildup to it. From the age of 11, I was relentlessly bullied. It was obvious to my fellow pupils that I was “different” for a variety of reasons. I was bright and studious, and it was apparent that I could be gay, although I had no idea of my sexuliaty until I was a bit older.
Midway through high school, the bullying was beginning to take a toll on 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. Feeling disgusted with myself, my instinct was to get the food out of me by sticking my fingers down my throat and vomiting. The buildup of tension and anxiety was flushed down the toilet, giving me an immense sense of relief.
This cycle of binging and purging became my coping mechanism for several years. As the bullying got worse, my episodes became more regular and frantic.
One day, I was bored at home and looking through one of my mother’s magazines when I began reading an advice column. I read a letter from a newly single mother saying she would binge and purge after putting her kids to bed. 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. But because of the way the bullies had made me feel, I believed I deserved to die from this illness.
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. The only time I ever heard about eating disorders in the media was in relation 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.
Instead of speaking to someone about it, I kept it quiet. 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.
Two days after the last day of school, I eventually plucked up the courage to speak to someone. I was now 16, desperately worried about the future and feeling suicidal.
Sitting in my doctor’s office, I told him about my bulimia and burst into tears. I can’t remember what I said exactly. However, I do remember he was extremely concerned.
He referred me for an emergency counseling assessment with the local mental health service for children and adolescents, which he arranged for the following day. I attended both appointments without my mother’s knowledge, although she found out soon after. Unfortunately, due to conflicts at home, I was unable to get the support I desperately needed at that time.
When I turned 18 and was old enough to seek help without parental consent, I tried to get support a second time with a different doctor. To my surprise, instead of asking questions about my bulimia, she focused on my depression and anxiety. She put me on antidepressants and referred me for counseling, which had a two-year waiting list.
Looking back, I believe if I were a woman with the same severe symptoms, she would have responded differently. In those days, it was virtually unheard of for men to have eating disorders ― especially bulimia, which is often less visible than anorexia.
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. Having campaigned tirelessly with my charity, Men Get Eating Disorders Too, for more than 10 years, it’s my view that there’s still a distinct lack of support specifically for men.
I know this from the scores of men who contact me via social media, who tell me they feel like a minority when they try to access 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. In other words, you will switch from one unhealthful coping mechanism to another.
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. Nobody, male or female, should slip through the cracks like I once did.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.