Men with Bulimia
I met Phil on my first day of travelling the world, starting in Colombia.
I was struck immediately by his warm persona, his sense of humour greater than mine (I know right? As if) and his impeccably white teeth which suspiciously made him look like an ex Colgate actor. He was on the Bogotá Graffiti tour I joined and I spent a happy day laughing until I cried at his stories and conversation, just a mere 24 hours after I had a panic attack in Bogotá Airport’s toilet, thinking I would be murdered and meet no friends.
I was therefore ecstatic that 5 months later, I receive a message from him asking if I was still in Huaraz, Northern Peru. He’d seen pictures of the hike I’d trekked and wondered if I was still around. I’d responded saying I was getting a night bus to Lima and coincidentally we were on the same one – although clearly the money he made from being a possible toothpaste actor meant he could afford 1st class. We spent the following morning trying in vain to find a coffee shop after arriving exhausted at 6am, and realised that a) Peru clearly doesn’t understand that there are humans that need caffeine before 10am and b) never trust the only Starbucks that’s open before 10am appearing randomly on Google maps, because you will get a taxi that tries to find it, points you in the direction of some dodgy estate and drops you in the middle of the highway leaving you struggling with all your backpacks to try and find ANY form of anything that serves coffee – until after 45 minutes of walking aimlessly, you find an alleyway with a roof which is apparantely a café and can give you a drink.
After chatting for a couple of hours, in this cafe/alleyway with a roof joint, I started to feel a familiar pang of unease – something that still tries to take over my mind viciously- in fact I even had it a couple of hours ago. I’ve always battled with food anxieties – and by that I mean constantly seeing myself as fat in the mirror and panicking about what I’m eating and how disgusting and vile I’m going to look. When I was 15 years old, I started running around the garden and trying to lose weight by not eating. As I got older, I realised I could make my cheekbones become more prominent, hiding the features I hated on my face, whilst trying to slim down everywhere else by joining a gym and going 3-4 times a week, eating a Weight Watchers soup with 2 Ryvitas for lunch and 7 pieces of sushi BEFORE my gym session and BEFORE 6pm – because I’d read that eating after 6pm slowed digestion and therefore you wouldn’t burn as much fat. I once threw an absolute fit because my mum had given me dinner at 6.15pm and I had refused to eat, so desperate was I to get down to a certain weight. When I was with a partner, I realised I was happier about my body and wanted to be kinder to it, and therefore only stopped eating when I felt anxious – which in panicked driven relationships became quite often. And then I realised actually why shouldn’t I eat cake? Life’s too short to not eat cake! And then I’d eat cake, feel downright guilty and run to the toilet to throw up. And that was okay to me, because I’d at least it was out of my system.
At the age of 25, I now look back on how I perceived food and my actions as inconceivable, shocking and disbelieving -yet, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to still having some of these thoughts and being extremely wistful and angry at myself for losing my lack of control over food. My first thoughts now aren’t about calories but about how great something tastes and that’s such progress I cannot tell you. My brain is no longer caught in between a war of desperately wanting to enjoy myself yet punishing myself for doing so – but that PISSES me off as well. I can now eat biscuits without even thinking of saying no – doesn’t even come into my head but sometimes? I really want to, I just forget. I forget to have the thought of running to the toilet to throw up the chocolate I really enjoyed. I forget that if I have rice everyday, the weight I used to try to desperately burn off will hang off my legs and stomach – and because I’ve forgotten, it clearly no longer bothers me 100% – which is good. But then something happens – I look in the mirror and realise my stomach isn’t a pancake anymore; I step onto the scales and I’m 1.5 stone more than I was when I was at a lower weight and then start to get miserable – which is bad – and THEN think of all the ways I can be a skeleton in a day, or all the diets and quick fixes I could follow – which is super bad. I’m BORED of feeling that miserable, I don’t have it in me to bother getting obsessed again .. I just miss when it came easily and so the mental games continue – only on certain days like these – not to even try and break me, but to weigh me down, one enjoyable pound more at a time.
Anyway, the point to this story is that my body might be curvier and the irrational chatter might be a lot more eased, but the eating disorder thoughts remain, constantly – just now more of a “you used to be skinny and now you’re fat, fuck your life” rather than “you’re fat, get skinny now”. Or I’ll get anxious or jealous over something, and then stop eating and feel like shit, and it is really, really difficult to find someone to relate on this extreme level – without just talking about diet, but how it’s trying to make me destroy myself. I thought only women understood, and men’s worst problem was trying to look as strong as possible, never would I ever had thought I’d have the following conversation with a man let alone someone as happy and confident seeming as Phil.
Sitting in this alleyway cafe with Phil, I started to get the familiar feelings of feeling fat. I was on my third coffee which I thought would be an adequate breakfast seeing as I’d eaten an entire XL bag of crisps on the bus, and I started overthinking about the amount of fried empanadas I’d eaten over the course of five months. To be honest, I’m not sure how the conversation came about, perhaps I mentioned I was feeling anxious about food, but Phil calmed me down and told me he could understand – REALLY understand. I questioned this, because I thought how can I guy know what I’m talking about? How does he have ANY idea how these obsessional thoughts about food try and ruin people. And then he told me.
He told me about how insecurities about being fat when he was at school and a slightly unhealthy relationship with food had turned into a full blown Bulimia eating disorder, exacerbated by anxiety in a failed, toxic relationship. He told me about his obsessional gymming, his diets that tried and failed, and finally about the constant throwing up. How his friends and family had noticed something was wrong but he couldn’t, wouldn’t see it – even now he struggles to accept he HAD an eating disorder – which I still, even writing this claim to not have – and that the constant thoughts he has about calories aren’t healthy, but he is finally on the difficult but incredible road to recovery.
The entire time he was speaking to me, I was digging my finger nails into my hand – because I was shocked and sickened. Not sickened by his stories, but sickened by the fact that I couldn’t believe I was stupid enough to think only women suffered. Sure, I’d heard that a small percentage of men had eating disorders but sitting in front of me, my beautiful friend having been in the same place as me once before was heartbreaking. I can not describe the internal emotional rollercoaster that his conversation brought me – for I still struggle to say the words eating disorder. Everyone has problems and worries about eating right? I’m just one of them – I think. But during that honest conversation, I realised that actually, stuffing your fingers down your throat or desperately still wanting the urge to is abnormal. It’s not just worrying about calories, or weight, or body image but it’s an illness and it can affect ANYONE. I couldn’t get my head around how it was possible that someone so confident, chatty and kind like Phil could have been in such a depressive place where he had to admit to his mother what he’d been hiding, and hearing him admit to his lowest points with it was starting to make me really aware about how serious Bulimia and Anorexia really are. They’re not just fad diets, they can ruin your body and your mind and perhaps it’s impossible to really get over them.
The other thing I was acknowledging was that if I can be so shocked by a man telling me about his eating disorders, then so can many – and we NEED to make this known. Close male family members have spoken to me about their weight worries but it’s always been brushed aside – Phil’s honesty reminded me that distorted body image and eating disorders can happen to ANYONE regardless of gender and we must strive to look out of the signs of struggle where we can. Looking at Phil, I asked one more thing, now feeling more connected to him then ever, the first person who had really understood.
“How did you get to recover?”
“…Lots and lots and lots of relapses, anxiety attacks, and freak outs. But with the help of friends and family, especially my best friend, to whom I owe the majority of the help with my recovery honestly, I developed a much healthier relationship with food, a healthy exercise routine, and a more realistic and positive body image perception. I wouldn’t say it’s 100% cured or gone. I still have my moments. The bulimia has passed thank god. My absolute love for cooking has been good because I can make all my own meals and I eat extremely well. I’ve learned not to obsess over the mirror or scale, and to avoid them entirely if I’m not feeling particularly confident. I doubt it will ever go away 100%, at least the mental aspect of it. But I’ve learned to manage and control it to the point where it doesn’t have any physical rammifications”
We need these honest stories. We need real, clean cut, grip throat reality thrust into our faces amongst the bullshit, fake photos and stories we see so often online so we can recognise the symptoms before it’s too late. If mental health issues can happen to and in turn positively connect two people that randomly met in a hostel, it can happen to anyone and through our stories we must build a bridge of support and come through it together.