'I'm a bulimic boy'
What's your relationship with food like? You can look good and still be struggling.
I’m in my mid-30s, male and bulimic. It’s hard to know how common a combination this is. Reliable, up-to-date information is scarce. In 2005 the Eating Disorders Association estimated that 10-20% of eating disorder sufferers in the UK were male. It may be a higher proportion if men are less willing than women to seek help.
Bulimia nervosa is characterised by a cycle of binge and purge: overeating, then getting rid of calories so as not to put on weight. That’s in contrast to anorexia nervosa, which involves restricting eating in order to control weight and shape. But this can be a blurry distinction and in fact, I started by dieting and the bingeing came later.
I was 22 and had just left university. I’d never had much of a relationship with food at all. It was fuel. I ate when hungry. I liked some things and not others. But I paid it little attention.
Then one day I looked down while showering and thought I looked a bit fat. So the next day I took one sandwich to work instead of two. I made my breakfasts a little smaller. And my dinners. I started cycling a couple of extra miles each way on my commute (already a 17-mile round trip). I went running almost every lunchtime instead of twice a week.
At first I thought I was healthy
That happened over perhaps two or three months. Not long, but long enough for the slide into disordered eating to be imperceptible on a day-to-day basis. I remember thinking at first that I was being healthy: keeping active and watching what I ate.
Then I started bingeing and any illusions that this was ‘normal’ were shattered. While my housemates went out on a Saturday night, I’d stay in, bake a cake and eat the lot before they got home. I had an overwhelming urge to eat and I had to satisfy it. I still get that urge almost every day. It’s like a trance. Thoughts of consequences are banished (although I know very well what those consequences are) and if I give in I eat until I’m so full that I have to stop.
Eating food out of bins
So what are the consequences? For me they’ve been much more damaging mentally than physically. Bulimia’s often associated with bingeing followed by self-induced vomiting. Vomiting can cause severe tooth decay; you can go short of essential nutrients; and you can do all sorts of harm to the lining of your oesophagus.
But some bulimics - 6-8% according to David Barlow in his book Abnormal psychology: an integrative approach - over-exercise as a means of weight control. I’m one. The physical effects may be less pronounced but the psychological effects no less debilitating. It’s a mental illness. I feel fit from cycling around 35 miles a day (and fitness is good cover for hiding my condition from almost everyone), but my head’s a mess. I’m ashamed at my lack of self-control, and at the things I’ve done (eating food out of bins is nothing to be proud of no matter how much you hate waste).
I feel guilty because I’m withdrawn and I don’t always show my wife the love that she deserves, even though she couldn’t be more supportive and understanding. My self-esteem is rock-bottom and that affects all sorts of things, not least my work, where I lack confidence and take criticism too much to heart.
Nothing left for anything
I’ve spent twelve years suffering on and off with depression because of my bulimia and that’s very, very tiring. I devote so much emotional energy to trying to control my eating, or to dealing with its consequences, that I often have nothing left for anything or anyone else. That’s no way to live. That’s why finally, after more false dawns than I care to remember, I think I’m ready to get better.
Saying that scares me because is it’s easy to prophesise recovery but much harder to achieve it. Setting myself up for failure risks giving my self-esteem a further kicking. But I’ve been given a chance and I have to grab it.
That chance came unexpectedly, when I was knocked off my bike and broke a collar bone. No cycling for two months. I’d always dreaded this, but in fact it was a golden opportunity. If I carried on binging as usual (let’s say two or three binges of 5,000 kcal each week) without cycling I was going to put on some serious weight. And that’s the last thing a bulimic wants.
I’m back on the bike now, and while the collar bone has healed I can’t claim to have recovered so fully from my eating disorder. But I’m heading the right way. After 12 years I was never going to be able to turn it off with the flick of some psychic switch, but the penny seems to have dropped and I realise now that it has to come from within. I have to want – and I mean really want, so much so that I’m willing to suffer – to get better. That means climbing the walls when the urge to binge strikes, while clinging to the knowledge that if I resist I’ll feel immeasurably better the next day than if I give in.
Doing everything to get support
Ultimately, for me at least, it comes down to finding self-control somewhere inside me. But I’m doing everything I can to get support. I’ve been to my GP and I’m hoping to get a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (the treatment recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence).
And I’ve started blogging about my experience. Getting my thoughts and feelings out helps me to make sense of them. And the idea that maybe someone in a similar position will read about my experience and find something helpful in it really gives me strength. If something positive can come out of all this, it would make me feel a little less as though the last 12 years have been wasted.
If you’re suffering from an eating disorder or think you might be, tell someone. Get help. Don’t wait until it becomes so embedded in your life that it’s just ‘normal’. It isn’t. It’s harmful. There are plenty of good web resources (start with Beat or Men Get Eating Disorders Too) and see your GP. Don’t be ashamed. Facing it now will be much less shameful than the feeling of living with it for years.
- The author of this article blogs as Bulimic Boy about his experience of being a male with an eating disorder.
Page created on April 4th, 2012
Page updated on April 4th, 2012